Pep Talk from Philip Pullman

Dear NaNoWriMo author,

You’ve started a long journey. Congratulations on your resolution and ambition! And the first thing you need to remember is that a long journey can’t be treated like a sprint. Take your time.

The second thing you need to remember is that if you want to finish this journey you’ve begun, you have to keep going. One of the hardest things to do with a novel is to stop writing it for a while, do something else, fulfill this engagement or that commitment or whatever, and pick it up exactly where you left it and carry on as if nothing had happened. You will have changed; the story will have drifted off course, like a ship when the engines stop and there’s no anchor to keep it in place; when you get back on board, you have to warm the engines up, start the great bulk of the ship moving through the water again, work out your position, check the compass bearing, steer carefully to bring it back on track … all that energy wasted on doing something that wouldn’t have been necessary at all if you’d just kept going!

But once you’ve established a daily rhythm of work, you’ll find it energising and sustaining in itself. Even when it’s not going well. This is a strange thing, but I’ve noticed it many times: a bad day’s work is a lot better than no day’s work at all. At least if you’ve written 500 words, or 1000 words, or whatever you discover is your most comfortable daily rate of production, the words are there to work on later. And when you do visit them in a month’s time, or whenever it is, you often find that they’re not so bad after all.

The question authors get asked more than any other is “Where do you get your ideas from?” And we all find a way of answering which we hope isn’t arrogant or discouraging. What I usually say is “I don’t know where they come from, but I know where they come to: they come to my desk, and if I’m not there, they go away again.” That’s just another way of emphasising the importance of regular work.

You know which page of a novel is the most difficult to write? It’s page 70. The first page is easy: it’s exciting, it’s new, a whole world lies in front of you. The last page is easy: you’ve got there at last, you know what’s going to happen, all you have to do is find a resonant closing sentence. But page 70 is where the misery strikes. All the initial excitement has drained away; you’ve begun to see all the hideous problems you’ve set yourself; you are horribly aware of the minute size of your own talent compared to the colossal proportions of the task you’ve undertaken; that’s when you really want to give up. When I hit page 70 with my very first novel, I thought: I’m never going to finish this. I’ll never make it. But then stubbornness set in, and I thought: well, if I reach page 100, that’ll be something. If I get there, I reckon I can make it to the end, wherever that is. And 100 is only 30 pages away, and if I write 3 pages every day, I can get there in ten days … why don’t I just try to do that? So I did. It was a terrible novel, but I finished it.

The last thing I’d say to anyone who wants to write a novel is not actually a piece of advice, but a question. It’s this: are you a reader? Every novelist I know – every novelist I’ve ever heard of – is, or was, a passionate reader. I don’t doubt that someone with determination and energy, but who didn’t read for pleasure, who only read for information, could actually write a whole novel if they set their mind to it and followed a few rules and guidelines; but would it be worth reading? Would it give any pleasure beyond a mechanically calculated sort? I doubt it. Novels that last and please readers are written because the novelist is intoxicated by the delight and the endlessly renewable joy that comes from engaging with imaginary characters – with story; and that engagement always begins with reading; and if it catches you, it never lets go. Write a novel if you want to win a competition, or impress your friends, or possibly make some money – do so by all means. But if you’re not a lover of stories, a passionate and devoted reader, don’t expect your novel to please many readers.

On the other hand, if you do love reading, if you cannot imagine going on a journey without a book in your pocket or your bag, if you fret and fidget and become uncomfortable if you’re kept away from your reading for too long, if your worst nightmare is to be marooned on a desert island without a book – then take heart: there are plenty of us like you. And if you tell a story that really engages you, we are all potential readers.

Good luck!

Philip Pullman

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