Pep Talk from Gail Carson Levine

photo of Gail Carson Levine

Dear NaNoWriMo-ers,

I’m not even the tortoise of writing. I’m the slug. And you are more than hares, you’re cheetahs — writing at seventy miles an hour. I have to fictionalize even to talk to you.

So it’s October 31st. I’m back from trick or treating in a robot costume, worn to honor Isaac Asimov, who wrote or edited more than 500 books in his lifetime. After removing my tin head mask and my metallic gloves, I pig out on candy corn and think about today’s accomplishments.

I dug a shallow grave in the backyard and buried my print thesaurus (starting tomorrow, the first word I think of is good enough, even if I use it seven times on every page), dictionary (who cares how ophthalmologist is spelled anyway?), usage books (I can figure out the difference between lie and lay later), encyclopedia, atlas, and my beloved books about writing. I taped blackout curtains over my windows. My techy friend spent hours tinkering with my computer. She’s assured me that it will combust if I try to reestablish connections to the internet and email. The single thing I’m keeping is my cell phone in case I start to go into cardiac arrest, but the keys are smeared with battery acid, except the 9, the 1, and send. My family and friends and Meals-on-Wheels have sworn to deliver food to my door, which will be kept closed to protect the world from my intensifying body odor.

Now I tape my list of rules and advice (culled from friends, my mom, the buried writing books, and, mostly, my own hyped-up imagination) to the wall next to my desk.

  1. Sleep at least once a week.
  2. Eat at least once a day, but not constantly. Don’t forget the essential fatty acids (Mom).
  3. If my fingers freeze from carpal tunnel syndrome, I have ten perfectly good toes, a nose, and quite a few teeth.
  4. When I’m not happy with how things are going, turn off the screen and keep typing. Don’t turn it back on until the crisis is over.
  5. Don’t check my word count more often than every fifteen minutes.
  6. Dream sequences can eat up a lot of pages, and they shouldn’t be logical.
  7. Short words count just as much as long ones.
  8. The perfect is the enemy of the fast. The good is the enemy of the fast. The halfway decent is the enemy of the fast.
  9. When I run out of plot ideas, write about setting and what each character is wearing, in exquisite wordy detail. When I run out of setting and apparel, write about the voice quality of each speaker, speech mannerisms, facial ticks, body language.
  10. Keep my music loud enough to drown out my thoughts. Thinking is the enemy of speed.
  11. Remember the infinite-monkey theory: Endless keystrokes will eventually produce Shakespeare or at least words and maybe a story.
  12. Never edit.
  13. Never ever go back.

It’s time for bed. I must get a good night’s sleep, my last for a month. So of course I toss and turn until 3:00 am, when I realize the month has begun. I get up, stagger to the computer, and type, “It was a dark and stormy night.” I’m on my way!

Now, seriously, not fictionalized, with all the earnestness I can command, here is the only important piece of advice, which is crucial for any speed of writing, any kind of writing: Do not beat up on yourself. Do not criticize your writing as lousy, inadequate, stupid, or any of the evil epithets that you are used to heaping on yourself. Such self-bashing is never useful. If you indulge in it, your writing doesn’t stand a chance. So when your mind turns on you, turn it back, stamp it down, shut it up, and keep writing.

Good luck!

Gail Carson Levine

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Gail Carson Levine grew up in Washington Heights, Manhattan. From third grade through high school she wrote stories and poems, and a few of her poems were published in an anthology of student writing, but she never thought of becoming a writer. In college, first Antioch College in Yellow Springs, Ohio, then City College of New York, she majored in Philosophy and met and married her husband David.

After college she worked for New York State government, mostly in jobs that had to do with welfare. Meanwhile she starting writing for children and wrote the script for a musical called Spacenapped (her husband wrote the music and lyrics) which was performed by The Heights Players, a community theater in Brooklyn – but she still didn’t think of herself as a writer.

She read novels constantly, then, one day while meditating, asked herself why, since she adored stories, she never made up any. That was the beginning of The King’s Cure, an art appreciation book for kids, which she wrote and drew pencil illustrations of birds and used reproductions of famous art for the illustrations. Although no one would publish it, she became hooked on writing, and took writing classes, joined critique groups and The Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators ( She collected rejection letters for nine years until an editor accepted the manuscript for Ella Enchanted, which was a 1998 Newbery Honor Book. Readers around the world fell in love with the cursed Ella and have kept Gail Carson Levine busy writing new books every year since.