Pep Talk from Kristin Cashore

Greetings, fellow novelists!

So, now that you’ve been writing for a few weeks, here’s my question. Have you started to realize what you’ve gotten yourself into? Is the realization accompanied by a creeping sense of panic?

If your answer is no, rock on. But if your answer is yes—if your novel has gotten more complicated than you ever thought it would—if you’re not sure you’ve got what it takes to pull this project off—then I’m here for you today with a message, and the message is: don’t panic. Don’t panic! No one would ever do anything great if they knew at the outset what they were getting themselves into. And I happen to know, at the core of my soul, that you can do this. How do I know? Because I’ve been there, many times. Sometimes it feels like my permanent state of being. And you know what? I’ve learned that I’m capable of a lot more than I generally think I am—and you are, too.

A lot of people who don’t write novels don’t really understand what it’s like. They think that something easy to read must have been easy to write. What a lark! How fun to just let your imagination run wild and jot down stories all day!

I suppose there’s nothing wrong with these people. Doubtless, there are thousands of occupations I don’t appreciate the complexity of. For example, doesn’t it seem like it would be fun to be the weatherman? But, then, everybody expects you to predict unpredictable events, and when you get it wrong, everyone thinks you’re a bozo. Plus, you probably have to sit still in a chair for ages every day while people do your makeup and spray smelly things into your hair.

Here’s what it starts to be like for me somewhere in the midsection of a novel:

(1) I’ve written the beginning, but I’m pretty sure it’s a pile of crap.

(2) The end, when I even dare to contemplate it, feels as far away as Uranus.

(3) The prose I’m writing right now, here in the middle, sounds like a stiff little busybody who’s sat down too hard on a nettle.

(4) I’ve discovered that my plot, even if it’s an engaging plot, has sections that are not engaging to write, and I’m bogged down in those doldrums sections, when all I want is to move on to the exciting parts that are just ahead —but I can’t, not until I’ve written the parts that will get me there. Boring!

(5) The house is strewn with post-it notes on which are written about a gazillion important reminders of things I must somehow remember to find a way to weave into the novel at some point, although, where, I can’t imagine. Some of the post-it notes are written hastily in a code I have since forgotten. (“He is temperamentally sweet, but dangerous, like Jake.” That would be very helpful, if I had the slightest idea to whom “he” refers, or if I knew anyone named Jake.)

(6) Worst of all, whenever I take a step back and try to examine objectively this unstructured mess that is half created and half still living in my head and heart and hope (and on a gazillion post-it notes)… I get this horrible, sinking feeling that my novel isn’t actually about anything.

Does any of that sound familiar to you?

Listen. Learning to write 50,000 words means learning a whole pile of skills, but they’re learnable skills, and you learn them by writing. One of those skills is finding your own technique for dealing with all the voices that are constantly telling you, in one way or another, what a bonehead you are and how bad you are at this and how doomed your project is. I’m not saying don’t listen to the voices. Go ahead and listen to them— if you try to ignore them, sometimes they only scream louder. I’m only saying, don’t believe them— and, most importantly, don’t let them decide how you spend your day. Maybe laugh and give them a hug and say to them, “Yes, you’re sad and lonely and desperate for my attention, aren’t you? Well, thank you for visiting; stay as long as you need to; but, by the way, I think we’re going to have to agree to disagree. Because I know I can do this, and, as it happens, you can’t stop me. Want to sit with me at my desk while I show you what I mean?”

Self-doubt and fear are just part of the process. Those voices are never going to go away. Write anyway. Take a breath; go for a walk; look at the stars; listen to OutKast and shake it like a Polaroid picture; and then, sit down and write anyway. Incidentally, I think the fastest I’ve ever written 50,000 words was in about eight months. I don’t actually keep track of word count, I just keep track of whether or not I’m making progress, and I think that’s what NaNoWriMo is about: getting into the habit of making progress. And progress is something every writer needs to define for him- or herself. Throwing out the last twenty pages you just wrote can involve just as much progress as writing three new ones. So try not to beat yourself up if your novel makes it clear to you that you’re going to have to shift your goals.

Breathe. Be kind to yourself. Don’t panic. Take risks. Make messes. Decide every day that in your writing toolbox, next to the fear and self-doubt, you are also going to keep at least one tiny little seed of faith. That’s all you need to keep going—one mustard seed. Keep tight hold on that faith, and keep writing.

Kristin Cashore

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