Pep Talk from Ransom Riggs

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Hail, NaNoWriMo authors!

I greet you at the beginning of a great journey. It's a journey inward, to the quiet, humid place inside you where words are born. (It's located precisely between your liver and your spleen—the trigeminus verbalis. A doctor told me, I swear.) It'll be an adventure of discovery, not only of the story you're about to write, but of self: you'll discover your own limits, your capacities, and maybe find some things you didn't know were rattling around down there in the dark. Don't be afraid to let them all out onto the page.

Before I dive into any real advice-giving here, there's something I need to get off my chest: I am, generally speaking, a fantastically slow writer—especially in terms of young adult fiction, where books are sometimes drafted and revised in a bare six months. I've been working on my second novel for more than a year now, drafting and re-drafting and tossing out whole reams of pages and starting again from nothing. If I write 1,500 words in a day, that's a victory. Two thousand words is an unparalleled miracle. Any more than that and the results are likely unreadable (but making them worth reading is what revisions are for, I constantly remind myself). I have never written as much in such a short amount of time as you are about to, although I think it would be very good for me to try. (Maybe I'll do NaNoWriMo myself next year!)

The reason I'm so slow is this: I have two editors. One is a human, a very kind and intelligent man who works for my publisher. He provides thoughtful and considered responses to the sometimes messy and disorganized piles of paper I shove toward him. The other editor lives inside my head. He is a mean little imp. He's hopped up on triple lattes and short on patience, and he reads over my shoulder as I'm writing, going hmmmm and making unpleasant little noises of disapproval. He is a relentless critic and a joyless taskmaster, and I try too hard to please him. He fundamentally misunderstands the revision process. He doesn't seem to realize that just getting my ideas down and out of my head is the first step of many, and that a finished, polished novel never, never—well, almost never—pours out of a writer on the first go. The initial effort is always a bit messy, and that's all right.

I think that impish little editor would benefit from NaNoWriMo. It would force me to ignore him. Eventually, I imagine, he'd get the idea and take a hike, and leave me alone for a few blissful days. We all have our inner editors—and if you can turn yours off for November, you'll have a much better month of noveling.

As long as I'm in confessional mode, here's another thing that makes first-drafting difficult for me: knowing where the story is going. This is something a lot of writers struggle with, especially new ones. Here's what I do: I outline as much as I can, with the knowledge that outlines are essentially acts of great and foolish optimism, road maps that will get rewritten along the way. But if I have absolutely no map, I am paralyzed and cannot begin. I'm not one of those writers who gets inspired by the blank page and the blinking cursor. I need to go off on long hikes alone and read books and watch movies and get tons of external input before even a single idea pops into my head—the ratio of input to output is easily 10 to 1—and then I can sit down and type things.

But those things are very amorphous at first. They are notes. Little ideas I chase down and catch like fireflies in a jar, if I'm lucky. I make dozens of pages of notes about scenes, or snippets of scenes, or characters, or how a story might feel, before I start writing the story itself. Then I'll figure out what a general, overarching structure might look like. It's broad stokes only: beginning, part of a middle, one of two pieces of the end. Then I focus in on the first chapter, the first scene, and I write practice versions of that scene without proper punctuation or quotation marks around the dialogue, and little notes to myself peppered throughout, and then, in that already-messy document—that no-longer-intimidating, very-much-not-a-blank-page-anymore page—I'll start to write the real thing. (Or at least, the first draft of the real thing.)

In other words, I have an idea about what I'm going to write before I write it, but it's an inherently changeable thing. I will often have better ideas in the midst of writing. My best ideas tend to arrive at the least opportune times: like when I've already written half of a book, and I suddenly figure out a much better way to attack the opening chapters.

So if new ideas that seem like better ideas come at you like little attack drones while you're writing, take heart: this is normal. Remember those ideas. Write them down somewhere. But for the sake of your first draft, just keep going. Plow on through. Because the idea-grass is always greener, and the idea you're not writing will always seem like a better idea than the one you are writing, at the time. But it isn't necessarily.

I hope some of that is helpful to you, dear 'Mo-er, as you embark on this rather brave adventure. I think the takeaway is that it's all about trusting yourself: turn off that inner editor and don't let other, shinier-seeming ideas distract you partway through. Some days will be easier than others, but in the end you'll be glad you stayed the course.

Ransom Riggs

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Ransom Riggs is the author of Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children, a novel illustrated with found photographs. He's a filmmaker and a photographer, too, though he's convinced he'll never take a picture to rival some of those he's found at flea markets. He lives in Los Angeles, CA.