Pep Talk from Robin McKinley
As I write this less than twenty-four hours before NaNoWriMo’s deadline for this pep talk, I also have a book due in eight days. Not just due. Absolute, final, already overdue, my-editor-is-a-patient-woman-but-publishing-schedules-are-publishing-schedules, due.
When NaNoWriMo contacted me last April about writing a pep talk for this year’s masochi— er, enthusiastic writers, I had just decided to whack PEGASUS in half and make two books out of it. I have always been a write-each-draft-straight-through-and-don’t-look-back storyteller; it’s the way I develop a feel for the pacing, for where the high and low, careening and meditative, places of each story are—and how I discover where and how it’s going to end. Consistency and clarity (and spelling) begin to emerge in the second draft; there are a lot of complete re-rewrites and outtakes during the second draft, and probably the most-per-page screams of frustration: the first draft has told me that the story is there but now I have to make it work on the page. The third draft should mainly be giving the story a really good brushing and plaiting its mane and tail—but there are hazards even here (ask anyone who has ever plaited a mane or a tail), nor is it likely to stand quietly for this operation.
Some time last winter, still on the first draft and beginning to panic, I… stopped. I did not write straight through to the end. I went back to the beginning and started on the second draft as if I knew what I was doing—as if I knew how it ended. I seriously don’t know how PEGASUS ends. I won’t know till I get there. And I didn’t finish the first draft, so I didn’t get there. I’ve never started a second draft without having finished a first draft—without knowing how it’s going to end. I’ve never split a book into two books…
Writing is like this.
Oh, not exactly like this; every writer is different as every human being is different, one from another. (Some writers make their deadlines. Some writers know where they’re going. Some writers don’t mind not knowing where they’re going.) But the chief thing I would like to get over to you, as you look to me to say something inspiring about this maniac—I mean, this energizing and felicitious project to write a first draft of a novel in a month, is the liveness of Story, and therefore the unpredictability inherent in writing any story down.
You need that live, tensile, surprising strength between you and the story you’re trying to write, or it’ll die on the page. But this doesn’t make it easier. It makes it harder. It’s more exciting—more thrilling, more appalling: on good days you’ll fly higher than a peregrine cruising for dinner, on bad days someone will have to scrape you off the floor with a spatula. This is what writing is like. You have to write on through the highs and lows, the careens and the meditations of your stories. And that’s what you’re here for now: to write. Go for it. Good luck.
So last April, when NaNoWriMo contacted me, I had decided that PEGASUS was two books, and had cheered up a lot. My due date was the end of August—and for once in my life I was going to meet a deadline with no problem. NaNoWriMo suggested I send my encouraging words to them by the beginning of August. Fine. Happy to. Thanks for asking.
I got to the end of the third draft of the first volume of PEGASUS on 13 September. But PEGASUS has not been one of the easy brush-and-plait ones. I’m still combing the burrs out. I am going to make it. I am going to turn PEGASUS in on the 8th of October. I’m even going to get my pep talk in to NaNoWriMo by tomorrow.
If I can do these impossible things, you can do the impossible thing of writing the first draft of your novel in a month. It’s a first draft! It does not have to be a thing of beauty! Don’t worry about the spelling (or the consistency)! Just write it. I bet you can even get to the end, and find out what it is.
And may you have an absolutely brilliant time doing it. Writing can be the worst, and often is—but it can also be the best. May you come out of that month knowing what you want to do next, and eager to keep going. Try to remember the peregrine days on the days that your husband/wife/roommate/dog needs steel wool to get you off the floor. And keep writing: the only way you can learn how your stories work is by letting them tell you. By putting live words together.