Pep Talk from Piers Anthony

Dear Writer,

You’re a fool. You know that, don’t you? Because only a fool would try a stunt as crazy as this. You want to write a 50,000 word novel in one month?! Do you have sawdust in your skull? When there are so many other more useful things you could be doing, like cleaning up the house and yard, taking a correspondence course in Chinese, or contributing your time and effort to a charitable cause? Whatever is possessing you?

Consider the first card of the Tarot deck, titled The Fool. There’s this young man traipsing along with a small dog at his heel, toting a bag of his worldly goods on the end of his wooden staff, carrying a flower in his other hand, gazing raptly at the sky—and about to step off a cliff, because he isn’t watching his feet. A fool indeed. Does this feel familiar? It should. You’re doing much the same thing. What made you ever think you could bat out a bad book like that, let alone write anything readable?

So are you going to give up this folly and focus on reality before you step off the cliff? No? Are you sure? Even though you know you are about to confirm the suspicion of your dubious relatives, several acquaintances, and fewer friends that you never are going to amount to anything more than a dank hill of beans? That you’re too damned oink-headed to rise to the level of the very lowest rung of common sense?

Sigh. You’re a lost soul. So there’s no help for it but to join the lowly company of the other aspect of The Fool. Because the fact is, that Fool is a Dreamer, and it is Dreamers who ultimately make life worthwhile for the unimaginative rest of us. Dreamers consider the wider universe. Dreamers build cathedrals, shape fine sculptures, and yes, generate literature. Dreamers are the artists who provide our rapacious species with some faint evidence of nobility.

So maybe you won’t be a successful novelist, or even a good one. At least you are trying. That, would you believe, puts you in a rarefied one percent of our kind. Maybe less than that. You aspire to something better than the normal rat race. You may not accomplish much, but it’s the attitude that counts. As with mutations: 99% of them are bad and don’t survive, but the 1% that are better are responsible for the evolution of species to a more fit state. You know the odds are against you, but who knows? If you don’t try, you’ll never be sure whether you might, just maybe, possibly, have done it. So you do have to make the effort, or be forever condemned in your own bleary eyes.

Actually, 50,000 words isn’t hard. You can write “Damn!” 50,000 times. Oh, you want a readable story! That will be more of a challenge. But you know, it can be done. In my heyday, before my wife’s health declined and I took over meals and chores, I routinely wrote 3,000 words a day, taking two days a week off to answer fan mail, and 60,000 words a month was par. Now I try for 1,500 and hope for 2,000. That will do it. If you write that much each day, minimum, and go over some days, you will have your quota in the month. On the 10th of the month of August, 2008, I started writing my Xanth novel Knot Gneiss, about the challenge of a boulder that turns out to be not stone but a huge petrified knot of reverse wood that terrifies anyone who approaches it. Petrified = terrified, get it? And by the 30th I had 35,000 words. That’s the same pace. If I can do it in my doddering old age—I’m 74—you can do it in your relative youth.

Of course you need ideas. You can garner them from anywhere. I noticed that our daily newspaper comes in a plastic bag that is knotted. The knot’s too tight to undo without a lot of effort, so I just rip it open to get at the goodies inside. It’s a nuisance; I wish they’d leave it loose. But I thought, maybe there’s this cute delivery girl who has a crush on me, and she ties a love-knot to let me know. Not that at my age I’d know what to do with a real live girl, but it’s still a fun fantasy. Okay, there’s an idea. I could use it in my fiction. Maybe even in a Pep Talk. The mundane world has provided me with an opening. It will do the same for you, if you’re alert.

Here’s a secret: fictive text doesn’t necessary flow easily. Most of the time it’s more like cutting a highway through a mountain. You just have to keep working with your pick, chipping away at the rock, making slow progress. It may not be pretty at first. Prettiness doesn’t come until later, at the polishing stage, which is outside your month. You just have to get it done by brute force if necessary. So maybe your ongoing story isn’t very original. That’s okay, for this. Just get it done. Originality can be more in the eye of the reader than in any objective assessment.

You can make it from a standing start, even from a foolish daydream when you should have been paying attention to the Pep Talk. You will want to try for a bit more quality, of course, and maybe a spot of realism. Garner an Idea, assemble some Characters, find a suitable place to start, and turn them loose in your imagination. Now go home and start your engines!

Piers

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