Pep Talk from Veronica Roth
My Dear NaNo-ers,
I don’t particularly like comparing novel writing to climbing a mountain, because it’s been done, but let’s face it: it works. Look at this fairly standard map of plot structure:
I mean, it looks like a freaking mountain.
If you’re anything like me, you reach that “rising action” stage about halfway through your manuscript, lift your head to the heavens to see how much of the book is left, and consider camping out where you are for a while or even rolling back down to the bottom. This may happen to you on November 15 or somewhere thereabouts. I am here to tell you two things:
- Do not be alarmed. This is normal.
- Do not camp out, and do not climb back down.
There is a lot of writing advice floating around the Internet, and there are also a lot of “don’t bother with writing advice, just put your butt in a chair and work!” manifestos. (Which was my motto for the past year and a half, actually.) Some of this advice includes:
- “Getting to know your character” exercises (questionnaires, quizzes, free-writing, etc.)
- “Mapping out your plot” exercises (break down your plot into the plot structure diagram above, map out each scene and make sure each one shifts the story from a positive place to a negative one, or a negative place to a positive one, etc.)
- “Prose and voice” exercises (read your manuscript out loud, never use adverbs, alternate short and long sentences, etc.)
There are also many discussions about whether you are a “pantser” (writing by the seat of your pants) or a “plotter” (mapping out your stories beforehand), someone who writes from beginning to end, or someone who jumps around in time, and so on.
Some of you might know exactly which one of those things you are—you have a process, you know which pieces of advice work for you, you have a routine—and some of you may feel hopelessly lost. My advice to both camps of people, from my (still admittedly few) climbs up manuscript mountain, is the same:
Let go of your process.
Let go of stressing out about your process.
Let go of finding your process.
Let go of all of it.
When you reach the place on Manuscript Mountain that makes you consider admitting defeat, and the tools you have used to get as far as you have are no longer working for you, consider using someone else’s tools. Pantser? Try plotting. Plotter? Try literally burning your outline (safely! In a trash can or something!). Perfectionist? Try writing the worst scene you can possibly muster. Strict beginning-to-end-er? Write whatever scene is burning a hole in your brain and fill in the gap later. Whatever you do, don’t hold so tightly to whatever writer identity you have formed for yourself that you can’t innovate, change, and grow.
It is not important that you stay the same writer you are now, or that you have a definite routine or pattern. I started my first book in the middle, with no outline, and finished my third book with a detailed one, written from beginning to end. I thought I knew what kind of writer I was, but ultimately I found those definitions limiting rather than freeing. If I can let them go, I can become whatever writer each story requires me to be.
What is important, far more than the definitions we cling to, is that we finish the stories we are burning to tell.
So, fill your writer toolbox with as many tools as you can, even if they seem silly or like they will never work for you. You don’t have to make detailed outlines, or fill out character questionnaires, or do free-writing, or keep a journal, or draw maps if you don’t want to. But it helps to have new tools to pick up if the old ones stop working for you.
And consider getting desperate. Desperate to write, desperate to get that story on the page, desperate to let the characters speak, and desperate to finish. Get so desperate that you will try anything to make it work. You have a deadline. It is November 30. You can do it. But you might have to throw all your preconceptions about yourself and your writing out the window.
No manuscript is perfect the first time through. You don’t need to worry about perfection right now. But you are participating in this magical month of generally antisocial behavior and potential caffeine overdose because you believe that pushing through a manuscript in a month will help you in some way, and that means you need the wild, thirsty freedom of a writer who will get to the end.
Don’t be a plotter or a pantser, a strict butt-in-chair person or an exercise-doer, a beginning-to-end-er or a time jumper—don’t be anything other than whatever you need to be to keep climbing.
And then, for the love of all things writing and book-related, revise the crap out of Manuscript Mountain.