Erin Morgenstern’s Pep Talk
Dear brave, beautiful NaNoWriMo writer,
I feel a bit like I am writing this from the other side of the looking glass. I am more accustomed to being the participant and not the pep talker. Also, “pep” is a strange word. The Online Etymology Dictionary informs me that it dates from 1912 as a shortened form of “pepper” figuratively meaning spirit or energy. (“Pep talk” only dates back to 1926.) It sounds to me more like a soft drink or a nickname for a small dog. Feel free to think of this pep talk as a small dog full of spirit or energy.
I have been where you are. I suspect this might feel like someone yelling encouragement from a far dry shore, sipping a fancy-glassed drink with a little paper umbrella precariously perched atop it, waving with my free hand while you swim through icy, toe-numbing water. But I have been in that water, many times. My toes have been numb during those dismal days when even minimal wordage seems unattainable and that 50K beach is barely visible through the salt-spray surf. There are probably sharks involved in this analogy as well.
(True confession: I love analogies. I also love adverbs. There, I said it. I love adverbs so much I sometimes contemplate getting an –ly tattooed behind my ear to encourage the whispering of sweet, sweet adverbs. But I digress.)
I participated in my first NaNoWriMo in 2003, after years of thinking about writing and not actually putting words down on paper. I managed around 15K before I quit.
I’m not sure why—perhaps I am determined, perhaps I am simply stubborn—but I attempted again the next year and made it to 50k. And again the year after that, and the year after that, and so on and so forth, the most recent being 2009. I have a 6/1 winning record over 7 years. I think my personal best is in the range of 80k in 27 days or something like that. The pride that comes with that winner icon is still a joy. (I particularly liked the Viking-themed year, those were good icons.) And I do so love a progress bar, that gorgeous visual representation of word count progress. I’m a visual person, so that bar helps, it really does.
2010 marked the first NaNoWriMo that I haven’t participated since that first try, and I didn’t have the time mostly because I was in the midst of my final edits for The Night Circus, which began life as a surprise tangent in NaNovel ’05 and was very roughly, sprawlingly drafted during NaNo ’06 & ’07. I am aware that this is cheating. I’m sorry. In my defense, I’m not certain it had enough plot at that point to be considered the same novel.
The circus was my variation on the wise and ancient NaNo wisdom: when in doubt, just add ninjas. I had this plodding, Edward Gorey-esque thing with mysterious figures in fur coats being mysterious and doing very little else. I got tremendously bored with it because nothing was happening so I sent the otherwise boring characters to a circus. And it worked. I ended up tossing that beginning and focusing purely on the circus. An imaginary location I created out of desperation expanded and changed and became its own story over many non-November months of revisions and more revisions and now it is all grown-up and book-shaped and published and bestselling. And it all started with NaNoWriMo.
I like to think of NaNo-ing as excavating. You uncover different things at the 30K mark than you do at 10K. Things that felt like desperate, random nonsense on page 72 (the abandoned broken pocket watch, a partially obscured tattoo, that taxidermied marmot on the mantelpiece) are suddenly important and meaningful on page 187. Everything could hinge on the fate of that marmot. Or the marmot may be a red herring. Or perhaps the marmot is just a marmot. You have to keep writing to find out.
Even if you’re an outliner, leave room for the unexpected things to sneak in. Surprises are half the fun, the spontaneous road trips through tangents and subplots. They might end up being more important than you think. And if they’re not, you can always edit them out after November. No one has to know so for now, for this glorious November, you can do whatever you please. It’s your world to create and explore and even destroy if you want.
I wish I could think of cool, witty things to say. I want to mix you each the beverages of your choice, cocktails or sodas or tea or foam-topped espresso drinks that all magically maintain perfect drinking temperature. Bring you truffles or tira misu or chocolate-covered popcorn and give you wrist massages while whispering these encouraging, fortune-cookie bits of wisdom-esque whatnot garnered in my years of NaNo-ing:
Never delete anything. If you can’t stand to look at it, change the font to white and keep going.
If possible, get a running start. It gives you flexibility for later in the month when you desperately need to do something, anything that doesn’t involve writing once in a while.
Do something, anything that doesn’t involve writing once in a while. Take a walk, go to a museum, do yoga, paint your toenails, spin around in circles. Shake your brain up so the ideas can move around.
Backup. Frequently. Flash drives are your friends. Also, I hear you can store things on clouds now but I’m not sure how that works. It sounds very whimsical, though, and I am a fan of whimsy.
Take risks. (Microsoft Word wanted to autocorrect that to “Take care.” Clearly, Word does not understand NaNoWriMo. Also, this is why I normally write in Scrivener. Scrivener would never suggest such a thing.)
When in doubt, just add ninjas. (Ninjas do not need to be actual ninjas.) (But they can be.)
Let yourself be surprised.
I wish you happy, daring writing laced with surprises. Have fun. Bonne chance.
You can learn more about Erin’s work here.