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Pep Talk from Kacen Callender

photo of Alexis Daria

Dear Writer,

One of the first lessons we all learn as writers is that the best writing usually comes from a place of vulnerability. So, I’m going to get vulnerable with you all: I’ve been struggling to write YA fantasy for a long, long time. There’s one book in particular I’ve written on-and-off for just about ten years, and countless drafts of books that I started and eventually gave up on, thinking that it wasn’t good enough.

What is it exactly about the YA fantasy that’s so different from my middle-grade magical realism, my YA contemporary, my adult fantasy? Why can’t I finish writing a first draft for this specific genre and age range?

When I first imagined myself as an author, it was as a YA fantasy author. The first book I ever attempted to write, after all, was YA fantasy. I’d wanted to see my book among the greats: Holly Black and Kristin Cashore and Melina Marchetta (my favorite authors at the time of attempting to write my book). But as I wrote, and learned to write by attempting my first-ever manuscript, the book never got very far. I didn’t land an agent with it, no matter how many versions I attempted (and believe me, there were literally hundreds of versions that I wrote and several that I queried). I look at the mess of that book, and the fantasy manuscripts I’ve attempted since, and compare it all to the work of authors I admire so much now.

Why haven’t I been able to finish writing the first draft of a single YA fantasy? As I re-read the scenes I’ve written in these unfinished drafts, they’re dull. They’re flat. There’s no emotion, no feeling. It’s nothing like the work by authors I’ve admired for so long. I’ve begun to swallow a fearful thought that’s started to grow in me since the first rejection letter I received from an agent: maybe I’m just not cut out to be a YA fantasy writer.

Forget writer’s block—for the past ten-plus years, the pressure and expectation of perfection has become a mental block: me being afraid that I’m not good enough to be a YA fantasy author and searching for the evidence of this perceived truth in the pages of really bad first drafts which, as we all know, are usually pretty bad.

This is turning out to be a pep talk for both me and all of you lovely NaNoWriMo writers, but what I’m taking away from this realization, and what I hope you are, too, is that my desire to execute perfection has morphed into the wrong belief that I can’t write a YA fantasy unless it is “perfect”, which has turned into me deciding this means that I can’t write a YA fantasy book at all. This has now become a reality because my thought process has gotten in the way before I’ve even really tried.

Quote from pep talk

I wonder what will happen the next time I sit down to attempt to write a YA fantasy, and tell myself that I know I can and will fulfill my dream of writing a YA fantasy novel, from beginning to end. I know that this ability is within me because the simple fact is that I love to write, and that is enough. And I know that—because you love to write, too—the ability to achieve any writing goal is within you, also.

Kick out the little voice in your head that’s trying to make you afraid, that’s trying to convince you that you’re not a writer or that you’re not good enough. The fact that you’re writing (and participating in NaNoWriMo!) means you’ve already succeeded in a major step many people, myself included, usually fail: you’re actually trying. Congratulations on making it this far.

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Graphic designed by Sandra Moore (our 100% amazing Fall 2020 Programs Intern)

Born and raised in St. Thomas of the US Virgin Islands, Kacen Callender is a bestselling and award-winning author of the middle-grade novels Hurricane Child and King and the Dragonflies, the young-adult novels This Is Kind of an Epic Love Story and Felix Ever After, and the adult novel Queen of the Conquered and its forthcoming sequel King of the Rising. They enjoy playing RPG video games in their free time. Kacen currently resides in Philadelphia, PA.

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