Pep Talk from Jeff VanderMeer

photo of Jeff Vandermeer

Dear Writer,

Writing a novel in a short period of time requires patience, balance, and tenacity. Examining your work process and maximizing your productivity while also making sure you have time to think about your fiction—the creative daydreaming you need to keep the novel alive in your head—will make success more likely. In keeping with that goal, consider these tips:

Give yourself permission to work on what is most pleasurable in the moment. If you're inspired to write a scene out of order, do it. The scene may change later, but what you lose in rewriting time you gain in positive reinforcement and better energy on the page. This also applies to getting the essence of a scene down. For example, if you're writing a scene that's a conversation and it's just the dialogue that inspires you, write it like a transcript and add description later.

During writing sessions where you are flat-out frozen, pick a different vantage point. Choose a non-viewpoint character and write part of an existing scene from that perspective. Or go back over what you've written already and change a decision; turn a character's yes to no, or vice versa. You might only discover a few details about your characters, but something is better than nothing.

Take a moment when you reach the midway or two-thirds point to list each scene you've written in book order. Then detail, under each scene heading, every major action or moment of emotional resonance in that scene. Make sure what you have seems sound, and try to then either adjust your existing outline for the remaining scenes or, if there is no existing outline, map them out.

Don't Panic. Part of not panicking is to focus on the day's work—and that requires having a sense the night before of what you plan to work on the next day. Priming your subconscious for that task may mean you have more answers when you wake up, too. Early on in the month, get a firm sense of what you can reasonably expect to finish on an average day and don't over-commit—which leads to disappointment and then to panic.

Capture inspiration as it comes to you. Always write down ideas immediately, and allow yourself to run with them, even if you wind up filling lots of pages. You may find that you've already done some of the hard work in the notebook, through the scene fragments, bits of dialogue, and description that you wrote in these short bursts.

Finally, position yourself to succeed by doing the other things in your life that rejuvenate you. Some form of exercise, for example, in combination with eating chocolate, or taking time off to watch part of a TV show. You can create little islands of time away from your novel that will help preserve your balance. Exhaustion will affect both your writing's quality and your productivity toward the end of the month.

NaNoWriMo may seem like a sprint, but four weeks can be an eternity, if you prep properly. Sometimes, the only difference between success and failure is the set-up—and here that means making sure your conscious and subconscious minds have every opportunity to be of use to your writing. Good luck!


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Jeff VanderMeer is a novelist, short-story writer, teacher, editor, and publisher. He is the author of The Steampunk Bible, Wonderbook, and the forthcoming Southern Reach trilogy.