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Pep Talk from Emily X.R. Pan

photo of Emily X.R. Pan

Dear Writer,

I have a confession to make: I’ve been procrastinating from drafting this pep talk. You know. The kind of procrastination where you wash all your dishes, vacuum every room, look around for something else to do… and end up reorganizing your already-immaculate bookshelves.

I was so excited to share some of the ways that I’ve propelled myself through NaNoWriMo events over the last decade…and then it hit me: Impostor Syndrome.

Here was the sharp and scratchy thought: Who am I to write a pep talk when I’m feeling so stuck and unable to move forward in my own novel right this very moment? Who am I to offer any tidbits of inspiration when I’ve just spent the last four hours asking, “What is book? How do words?”

Then I laughed at myself, because the whole point of NaNoWriMo is to raise our swords and charge forward and cut aside that impostor syndrome. The whole point is just to get new sentences down on the page.

I always think of the first draft as the process of digging up the clay. Everything else—kneading, sculpting, glazing, baking the clay into its final form—that’s all revision. I dread the digging, but I also know that if I don’t make myself do it, I’ll have no raw material to work with.

It doesn’t matter that the clay is ugly. That’s just what clay is. Everyone secretly hopes to be a creative genius whose first drafts are golden perfection…but the reality is that’s never going to be the case. So the question of, “Will this piece of writing be worth reading?” is actually totally irrelevant in the digging stage. I’ve got all the revision rounds to worry about actually making it good. That’s a problem for Future Emily.

Right now, it’s just about getting the clay. And for that I have two key strategies that help me keep up the motivation and momentum.

  1. First, I break my goals down into bite-sized pieces. I can’t try to hold the entire book in my head at once—then my whole system is certain to crash and get stuck on the spinning wheel of death. Instead, I have to zoom in on the steps immediately in front of me. I might tell myself: Write just this one scene. Or if even that’s too overwhelming, then perhaps simpler: Just introduce this new character. Bite-sized pieces make everything feel so much more doable.

  2. Second, I take every little sliver of time to contribute words to the project. That means the ten minutes spent waiting at the doctor’s office. Or the five minutes I’m killing before a meeting begins. It’s so easy—especially as a full-time author—to coddle my writing brain, to say that I need longer periods to do any useful work. But the reality is that when I’m chasing after these little snatches—a few minutes here, a few minutes there—I stop being so precious about the sentences. That in turn makes me write faster—it becomes easier and more habitual to stop obsessing over the quality. (Remember: dig now, sculpt later!) The other glorious thing is that this way of working organically results in me thinking about my novel all the time. My brain gets better at remembering where I left off, at processing questions that need answers while I go about doing non-writing things.

The book becomes part of the air that I breathe, the impostor syndrome diminishes, and I can focus on the fun. The fun is the important part. That’s why we do this, right?

So, enough procrastinating. Let’s go dig up some words.

Emily X.R. Pan

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Emily X.R. Pan is the New York Times bestselling author of The Astonishing Color of After, which was a finalist for the LA Times Book Prize, longlisted for the Carnegie Medal, and the recipient of the APALA Honor Award and the Walter Honor Award. She was the founding editor-in-chief of Bodega Magazine, and is co-creator of FORESHADOW: A Serial YA Anthology. Find her on Twitter and Instagram: @exrpan. 

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