Pep Talk from N. K. Jemisin

photo of N.K. Jemisin

So, true story:

One cold winter night, I called up Kate Elliott, who is a friend and mentor. In a babble I confessed that I was desperately afraid I’d written the worst novel that had ever existed. It was too strange, too rambly, a hot-ass mess, and I was pretty sure that I lacked the writerly skill to tell the story as it needed to be told. In fact, I declared, I had decided to call up our mutual editor and ask to be let out of my contract.

Kate listened to all of this patiently, and then she shared something that I’m now going to share with you: every writer goes through this. Every. Writer. It’s just the nature of what we do: in order to create a world and populate it and make it real, we have to believe that we’ve got something amazing on our hands. We have to believe that we’re amazing—at least for a moment. At least enough to attempt this incredibly difficult thing. This is the peak of the creative drive.

But it’s hard to sustain that belief through the grind that is necessary to actually make the idea real. Our spirits fall. And at some point around the midpoint of the novel you’re invariably going to stop, look at what you’ve written—which will be a mess because in-progress novels are always a mess, that’s what creativity looks like and that’s what revision is for—and you’re going to recoil in horror. This is the nadir of the excitement you had felt when you started the novel, the opposite of the moment of amazing that spurred you to begin NaNoWriMo. This is the Chasm of Doubt.

If you’ve reached this point, you now have a choice: you can jump into that chasm, quit your novel, and wallow in how awful you are. Or you can veer away from the cliff. Doing so will be hard, because you’ve already built up the wrong kind of momentum. You’ll have to reverse engines and burn some extra fuel to break the inertia. You’ll have to climb back toward the peak, or at least reach a safe height. You might get back there a little late, but that’s okay. Better late than never.

And if it helps, remember: this is what makes you a writer. Yes, this. The sick feeling in your stomach, the weariness you feel, the utter conviction that you are the Worst and your novel is the Worst and everything is awful. This is how writers feel sometimes. (This is how everyone feels sometimes.) But writers do not let this feeling overwhelm them.

The end of my encounter with the Chasm of Doubt? Kate convinced me to hold off on quitting the novel—seriously, I was talking about deleting it, burning my laptop, and hacking Dropbox to make sure there were no backups—until I could talk to my editor.

Clever Kate: this forced me to take a couple of days to think about it and calm down. When I spilled my tale of woe to my editor, her response was: Oh. Yeah, this happens. Take a break and think about it, then let’s talk again.

I did. I felt better. And then I finished the novel. (The Fifth Season, published just this past August.) These days, I think it’s the best thing I’ve ever written.

So. There’s the chasm, yawning before you. There’s the cliff edge, beneath your feet. To reach this point is to be a true writer, regardless of what you decide; congratulations on that milestone.

But don’t you want to keep being a true writer?

Then turn around, and get back to work.

Loved N.K.’s pep talk? Let her know!

N(ora). K. Jemisin is an author of speculative fiction short stories and novels who lives and writes in Brooklyn, NY. In 2018, she became the first author to win three Hugos in a row for her Broken Earth novels. She has also won a Nebula Award, two Locus Awards, and a number of other honors.

Her short fiction has been published in pro markets such as Clarkesworld,, WIRED, and Popular Science; semipro markets such as Ideomancer and Abyss & Apex; and podcast markets and print anthologies. Her first eight novels, a novella, and a short story collection are out now from Orbit Books.

She is a member of the Altered Fluid writing group. In addition to writing, she has been a counseling psychologist and educator (specializing in career counseling and student development), a hiker and biker, and a political/feminist/anti-racist blogger. Although she no longer pens the New York Times Book Review science fiction column called “Otherworldly” (which she covered for 3 years), she still writes occasional long-form reviews for the NYT.