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Pep Talk from Maia Kobabe

Every year, we ask authors to write pep talk letters with tips and inspiration for everyone participating in NaNoWriMo. Read this week's, and if you need more motivation, check out our pep talk archive.

photo of Maia Kobabe's headshot

I wanted to be a writer long before I knew I had anything to say.

I had a childhood immersed in stories. My parents took me to the local library every week, where I checked out stacks of fantasy novels. I would pick up any book with a dragon, elf, sword, castle, wizard, or spaceship on the cover and my heroes were the authors and illustrators of these magical worlds.

At some point I started to wonder about these writers. Who were they? What were their lives like? I began to pay more attention to author’s notes and was astonished to discover that many authors I loved mentioned each other in their acknowledgements. In The Ladies of Grace Adieu, Susanna Clarke thanked Neil Gaimen, Terri Windling, Ellen Datlow, and Charles Vess. In Stardust, Gaimen thanked Clarke in return, and also Diana Wynne Jones. Ursula K Le Guin and Robin Hobb wrote blurbs for Patrick Rothfuss’ Name of the Wind. In Finder, Emma Bull thanked Terri Windling, Steven Brust, and her husband, Will Shetterly. Tamora Pierce, George RR Martin, Peter S Beagle and Kelly Link all blurbed books by Ellen Kushner, who thanked more people than I have space to name

Holy crap, I realized. All of these authors know each other! They’re friends! This was followed by a second thought: If I want to meet them, and especially if I want to be friends with them, maybe I should publish a fantasy novel myself.

That realization gave me a new goal, but no specific pointers on how to pursue it. I started out as many young authors do: I began writing long fantasy narratives with orphaned protagonists, extremely derivative of the fantasy I’d read as a teen. During multiple successive NaNoWriMos I chipped away at a YA novel about a boy and a dragon. I started drawing a webcomic about a thief who tried to rob a monastery only to be foiled by a witch with the same plan. These stories had characters, settings, and some plot but what they didn’t have was themes. They didn’t ask any questions about what it means to be human, and they didn’t touch on any of the big concerns I was wrestling with in my personal life.

It took the rather painful experience of a literary agent telling me my fantasy work was unpublishable before I set my early stories aside, stepped back, and changed the direction of my writing towards exploring the big, vulnerable themes I had been shying away from.

What I discovered is that instead of making writing harder, facing these themes head-on made writing easier. In my earlier work I had frequently hit writing blocks, places in my outlining process where I felt like I was wading through mud. When I didn’t know what I was trying to say on a meta level with my story it was often hard to decide what should happen next at the plot level. I would send my characters from location to location, but I’d be unsure of what they should do there, because I was unclear on how their actions added up to a larger picture. That feeling of being stuck and uncertain over what should come next fell away when I started focusing more clearly on expressing my bigger themes. Suddenly the path forward felt smooth. All it took to follow it was bravery and persistence.

I also achieved my initial goal in wanting to be a writer. I have now met and befriended many other authors; not the same set that I idolized as a teen, but different writers who are exploring many of the same themes and questions in their work as I do in mine. I have friends, colleagues, co-authors, and writing partners to thank in my acknowledgements — often more than I have space to name.

During this month, I know many of you are focused solely on pouring out the words. That is very important, but I recommend you take some time to think about the larger themes of your story as well. What message, hope, fear, question, or truth are you trying to communicate to the world through your writing? I promise that clearly articulating your themes will help you tell your story and find the friends and writers who will become your community.

Good luck, and know that I am writing alongside you, and rooting for you!

Maia Kobabe, Fall 2023

Maia Kobabe is a nonbinary, queer author and illustrator from the Bay Area, California. Eir first full length book, GENDER QUEER: A MEMOIR, was published in May 2019. Maia’s short comics have been published online by The Nib and The New Yorker, and in many print anthologies including THE SECRET LOVES OF GEEKS, FASTER THAN LIGHT Y’ALL, GOTHIC TALES OF HAUNTED LOVE, ADVANCED DEATH SAVES and BE GAY, DO COMICS. Before setting out to work freelance full-time, e worked for over ten years in libraries. Eir work is heavily influenced by fairy tales, homesickness, and the search for identity.

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