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Pep Talk from Rita Williams-Garcia

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 Rita Wiliams-Garcia

First, let me salute you, as you embark on your NaNoWriMo journey. The very idea of sitting down and jackhammering away, nail by nail until the house is built, absolutely slays me. There was once a time when I could do what you’re about to do. For my first novels, I’d anchor myself and write a down-and-dirty draft of my novel in a few days. But now? Not so much. In the month that you’ll commit to grinding it out, I’ll be staring off into nothingness to visualize images, tune my ear to voice, see and hear a character emerge.

When I’m done staring off into nothingness, I'll research, strictly for my own self-protection. There's no heartbreak like falling in love with an idea, image, or writing, only to later rip it out because the stars don't align factually or chronologically. Who has time for that kind of heartbreak?

Research gives me concreteness. I wake up each morning and tell myself the story before I get out of bed. I handwrite the basic story on no more than two pages. Every morning, something different occurs to me. I understand fears and motivations. My characters’ responses make sense. The story begins to flourish and I Scheherazade myself into a frenzy of “…and then, and then, and then...” I am ready to do what you are about to do: Focus. Write.

Just because I'm ready to write, it doesn't mean I completely know my story and the prose will be good. Those first and second drafts tell the story but are unreadable. I don't mean this in a false modesty way. I mean it’s written in place-holder-ese. For self-protection, I keep two mantras near as I work:

"Mother, forgive. Please forgive."

You might recognize this protagonist’s plea from Sue Monk Kidd's bestseller, The Secret Life of Bees. If I see this first draft as anything other than its higher purpose—proof of story—I will judge it. Crush it. Aim my criticism at myself. Think myself a worthless writer. Think all the mean things we think when we judge a thing that‘s not yet ready for the light of day. Well… I'm going to do that in some form, anyway. The difference is, I know there are drafts yet to come, each with their own higher purpose. I'll get over myself and get to work. Through this early stage, I must forgive.

"Fish Stink."

Did the ancient Egyptians foresee a Black lady holding her nose while she writes? Maybe not, but this is what I glean from Normandi Ellis’s translation in Awakening Osiris: The Egyptian Book of the Dead: A fresh idea is genius when it’s alive, moving, kicking upstream. Without movement, the idea thins to a halt, rots, and stinks up the joint. If I give into depression from false starts or frustration over writer’s blocks, my WIP will lay there and stink. Mother, forgive. Now, write.

Ellis’s text reads, "It is true that fish stink. It is also true that the river is beautiful.”

Forgive. Move forward. Create in peace.

Loved Rita’s pep talk? Let her know!

Rita Williams-Garcia is the New York Times bestselling author of novels for young adults and middle grade readers. Her most recent novel, Gone Crazy in Alabama ends the saga of the Gaither Sisters, who appear in One Crazy Summer and PS Be Eleven. Her novels have been recipients of numerous awards, including the Coretta Scott King Award, National Book Award Finalists, Newbery Honor Book, Junior Library Guild, and the Scott O’Dell Prize for Historical Fiction. She served on faculty at the Vermont College of Fine Arts Writing for Children MFA Program and she resides in Queens, New York.

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