It’s November, which means it’s also NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) when writers around the world commit to writing 50k words in 30 days. But they don’t do it alone; NaNos in each region host write-ins to support and cheer each other on. Today I was invited to a write-in hosted by The YA Jungle at Adelaide City Library to give a writer pep talk and get some words down.
I should probably disclose that I’m not officially attempting NaNo this year–I have a thirteen-month-old, and while I’m sure there are those who attempt this with young kids, I ain’t one of them–but I am trying to take big steps towards conquering the current draft I’m working on. And I thought I’d share the text version of my pep talk about my first attempt at NaNo here. You can also find it, along with fab advice from veteran NaNos, in the stream from today’s write-in.
My NaNoWriMo Pep Talk
I know we’re all here to win and I’ve been invited to pump you up and cheer you on, but instead I want to talk about the elephant in the room: failure.
Because here we are on Day 4 of 30, and perhaps you’re going strong, perhaps you’re not, but I’m willing to bet that every single one of you—even if you’ve won before—is afraid that you’re not going to make it. Self-doubt’s a bitch.
If it’s any comfort, you won’t be the first to fail. One does not simply conquer NaNoWriMo. I certainly didn’t. I write at a snail’s pace at the best of times and committing to write fifty thousand words in a month terrifies me. But one brave year I made the pledge. And I failed. Spectacularly. I fell on my sword at 29,892 words.
So great of NaNoWriMo to keep those stats on file.
In my defence, I did zero prep work and I am a plotter. The plot outline for my current manuscript is 5.5k. I also have several earlier drafts of that plot outline, a full notebook of, well, notes, two maps of the story’s world and a mood wall. At the time I attempted NaNo, I was trying to be spontaneous—kid myself that I, too, could be a free-spirited pantser and just let the words flow. Pro tip: if you know deep down in your soul that you are a plotter and you haven’t got a game plan, stop and make one. Even if it costs you a day of words, I promise it will be worth it.
I’d decided to do NaNo in 2015 to beat the worst case of writers’ block I’d ever encountered. I’ve always known I was a writer—I’ve flirted with the idea of other professions, but writing is the only thing I’ve ever been serious about. Prior to what I’ve come to think of as The Big Block, I’d done a creative writing degree, then gone on and completed a PhD, and as part of that I’d spent almost five years on a manuscript that, upon completion, no one wanted to publish. That probably would have been a good time to make a back-up plan. But instead, I doubled down and wrote what would eventually become my debut YA novel, Neverland. The manuscript had been shortlisted for the Text Prize earlier in 2015, but I’d sent it to a few publishers since and, while I got some good feedback and lovely rejections, no one was keen to publish that version. One OS agent went so far as to tell me she found the manuscript both ‘too confusing’ and ‘too disturbing’. Which did wonders for my self-esteem. It would take several more drafts and another very long year and a half before the book found a home with Penguin Random House Australia and, meanwhile, I was starting to believe that the book I’d put my heart and soul into was a confused and disturbing pile of waste, and I was questioning whether I’d thrown all my eggs in the wrong basket by stubbornly insisting that I was a writer when really I was a fraud.
Writing—the thing that had always been my escape and brought me so much joy—had become something I was frightened of. Every time I sat down at my desk, there was this voice in my head saying: ‘you’re not good enough’, ‘this is the thing you love and you’re not worthy of it’. Which sucked. So much.
Then November rolled around. And I had an idea for a story. A story I’d been half-dreaming about for years but never felt ready to write. There had been a few false starts, but I couldn’t seem to make it beyond a few chapters. I decided that NaNoWriMo 2015 was my chance to change that. More importantly, it was a way to start writing for the love of it again—to prove to myself that I could do it, and that I still wanted to.
So I tried. And I failed.
And I beat myself up about it at the time—and for a long time after. And again when I inevitably rewrote every. single. one. of those 29,892 words because, drafting.
I’ve recently gone back to working on that story, and those 29,892 words have become 93,252 words—probably actually more like double that when when I think about the scenes I’ve reworked and replaced. And in hindsight I know that, even though I didn’t win NaNo, each of those words was a victory. Even the adjectives. Because what mattered was that I sat down at my desk and wrote, despite all the rejection letters and the voice in my head telling me I couldn’t.
And that’s what real writers do. They may be published, or not. They may make a living from their writing, or not, and they may be literary geniuses, or not. The only real requirement to call yourself a writer is to show up and do the work. And that’s not as easy as it sounds. There’s this perception that to be worthy of the title of ‘writer’ you have to be gifted with a rare spark of creativity. And before I did NaNo I worried that I lacked that spark. Now I call BS. Dreaming up plots and characters and trawling Pinterest for mood board inspiration is the fun part and most people can manage it. Physically sitting down at the desk and laying down word after word, day after day—creating that bridge that makes it possible for readers to dream with you—long after that initial bust of inspiration has passed is where writing gets hard and most aspiring writers fail.
By signing up for NaNoWriMo, you have declared yourself a writer. You are launching an assault on tedium, procrastination and self-doubt. And you are proclaiming to yourself and your loved ones that your writing is not something to be tucked out of sight between your other commitments. It’s important to you and that burgeoning world inside your laptop requires space and time and to grow. Most importantly, by committing to NaNo you are backing yourself and your story.
I didn’t write fifty thousand words when I attempted NaNo, but at the end of November I kept writing. I brushed off all those rejections and continued sending my work out, and I told the doubting voice in my head to shut it. I’d love to say that writing has been a breeze for for me since then, but that would be a lie. I still have bad days, and if anything, that taunting, self-doubting voice has become louder and more vicious since Neverland launched. But I’m better at ignoring it and pushing through.
So yes, technically I failed NaNoWriMo, and maybe some of you will too. Even if you win there will be moments of doubt and difficulty along the way. But every word you put down is a declaration, a commitment and a victory. So keep going. And know that you have already won because instead of binging Netflix, running errands, taking an extra shift at work or doing any of the myriad other things you might have chosen to give your time to, you’re here. In the library. Writing.
A big thank you to The YA Jungle for inviting me along today. I had such a fun afternoon doing writing sprints with fellow NaNos–and I wrote 1,044 words to boot!
Are you interested in writing YA? I’ve teamed up with Kill Your Darlings to produce ‘Introduction to Writing Young Adult Fiction’, an online writing workshop designed to equip aspiring YA writers with the skills and support to hone their craft and get to work.
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