Pep Talk from Katherine Paterson

Dear Friends,

At this point I feel I should just say: “Times a’wasting! Stop reading this note and get back to work.” But I promised to try to cheer you on, so I’ll do my part, if you’ll promise to get right back to your novel after you’ve read it.

Yes, yes, the hardest part of writing a novel is keeping at it. Some years ago when I was totally stuck in the first draft of a novel, I was having lunch with my dear friend, the novelist Mary Lee Settle. “Oh, Mary Lee,” I moaned, “this is my seventh novel and I haven’t learned a thing.”

“Yes, you have,” she said, fixing her eagle gaze upon my whining face, “you’ve learned that a novel can be finished.”

So I went home and finished the first draft. Now you’re determined to write 50,000 words in a month. I just said to myself that I had to write two pages a day before I could do anything else. The margins could be wide and there was no requirement for quality. I just had to finish the two pages. Eventually, the log jam broke and I found myself moving forward without that iron rule.

I aim always to get to the end of the first draft even though all the time I’m telling myself that I’m writing nothing but garbage that no one on earth would ever want to read, especially me. But I tell myself that this poor little attempt, this garbage, deserves a chance. Just as our beautiful dog Annie, who was the runt of her litter, grew into the most beautiful, loving dog anyone would want, so there may be hope, even for this pitiful mess of words I’m accumulating. So I say to myself: Don’t read back too far, don’t try to start rewriting, just get to the end.

I live in Barre, Vermont which calls itself the “Granite Capital of the World.” Outside our town are enormous quarries, so when I speak in local schools every child has a mental picture of a granite quarry. “You know how hard it is to get granite out of the quarry,” I say. “You have to carefully score the rock and put the explosive in to make the great granite block break loose from the face of the stone. Then you have to attach the block to the chains so that the cranes can lift it slowly out of the hole and put it on the waiting truck. That’s the first draft. It’s hard, dangerous work, and when you’ve finished, all you’ve really got is a block of stone. But now you have something now to work on. Now you can take your block down to the shed to carve and polish it and turn it into something of beauty. That’s revision.”

But first you’ve got to get that block of granite out of the earth, friends. You won’t have anything to make beautiful until you do that. Now go back to work. That means you too, Katherine.

Best wishes,

Katherine Paterson

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