Pep Talk from Gene Luen Yang

photo of Gene Luen Yang

Happy NaNoWriMo, Writers!

Writing stories is hard work. Don’t let your friends or family tell you any different. From the outside, it looks like sporadic tapping on the keyboard, distracted sips of coffee, and long stares out the window. But inside, you’re wrestling demons.

You’re about to bring a new story into the world, which is both incredible and incredibly important.

Why are stories important? Writing coach Brian McDonald says that stories are our most efficient carriers of survival information. (If you’re not familiar with Brian McDonald, you need to get familiar. Pick up his book Invisible Ink at your local independent bookstore!) A good story can mean the difference between life and death for a reader—usually the death is spiritual rather than literal, but spiritual deaths can be just as painful and just as consuming. Storytelling is a part of every human culture because every human needs survival information.

As you set out to do this incredible, important thing, I’m going to share a few lessons I’ve learned on my journey, lessons you might find useful for yours.

Work on your factory.

When the folks at Toyota design a new car, they don’t just design the car itself. They also design the factory that builds the car.

You need to think the same way. When you write a novel, you’re not just working on the novel itself. You’re also working on the novel-building factory: your life. You have to create a life that is conducive to writing. That means scheduling regular time to write. Weekly is okay, daily is better. Writing must become a habit. If something gets in the way of your writing habit, seriously consider cutting it out of your life. You have to write even when you don’t feel like it simply because it’s what the factory does.

By being a part of NaNoWriMo, you’re setting aside a month to make a state-of-the-art, novel-building factory. Get to it.

Fight writer’s block with research.

Writer’s block can kick the wind right out of you. When I was just starting out, a serious bout of writer’s block would make me question my worth as a writer. Maybe the ideas weren’t coming because I wasn’t creative enough, or clever enough. Maybe I wasn’t meant to be a writer.

Now I realize that I just didn’t have enough input. Your brain doesn’t generate ideas out of thin air. It generates ideas by taking what it’s already experienced and reshaping it in new and interesting ways. If you’re not getting good output, maybe it’s because you haven’t taken in enough input.

When writer’s block hits, do research. Flip through old photographs. Watch a documentary. Read a nonfiction book, preferably one that’s been out of print for years. Visit a place you’ve never been and talk to people you don’t know. Gather input.

Embrace your day job.

Most writers have day jobs because most writers need day jobs to pay their bills. There’s no shame in that.

Some writers even like their day jobs. I certainly did. I left my day job this past June. I’d been a high school computer science teacher for seventeen years and honestly, I miss it. I miss my students and my co-workers. I miss having to put on pants to go to work.

And I miss the inspiration I got from being on campus. My day job was research—story ideas were in the halls, in my conversations with the other teachers, in the morning announcements over the intercom.

I’m guessing ideas are all over the place at your day job, too.

Tell Fear to shut up, at least in the beginning.

Fear is my main demon, my big boss at the end of the last level. When I’m writing, Fear tells me I’m getting things wrong. And sometimes Fear is right.

I’ve learned to power through it. Fear will always be there, a constant companion, a backseat driver who won’t get out of the car. I have to turn up the radio and go.

After I get to the end of my first draft, I let Fear have its say. Like I said before, sometimes it’s right. I try to get a friend I trust to corroborate Fear’s concerns, so I can figure out how to approach my revision. But before then, Fear needs to shut the eff up.

Find a community.

When I first started writing and drawing comics in the mid-90’s, I found a small community of cartoonists who all lived near me. We used to get together once a week to write, draw, critique, and talk shop.

Today, almost all of us have been published. I count some of them among my closest friends. I learned both the art and the business of story through that community. Writing can be lonely and individualistic. Narcissistic, even. All the more reason to seek out a community.

The best part of National Novel Writing Month is that my last bit of advice is built right in. Even when you’re alone, tapping away at your keyboard in the dead of night while the rest of your family sleeps off their turkey coma, you know for a fact that there are hundreds of thousands of writers out there doing the exact same thing you’re doing: wrestling demons.

So let’s get ready to rumble!

Gene Luen Yang

P.S. Just so you know, when it’s you versus demons, I put my money on you every time.

Loved Garth’s pep talk? Let him know!

Gene Luen Yang began making comics and graphic novels in the fifth grade. In 2006, his book American Born Chinese was published by First Second Books. It became the first graphic novel to be nominated for a National Book Award and the first to win the American Library Association’s Printz Award. It also won an Eisner Award for Best Graphic Album – New.

In 2013, First Second Books released Boxers & Saints, his two-volume graphic novel about the Boxer Rebellion. Boxers & Saints was nominated for a National Book Award and won the L.A. Times Book Prize. Gene has done a number of other comics, including Dark Horse Comics’ continuation of the popular Nickelodeon cartoon Avatar: The Last Airbender and DC Comics’ Superman!

In addition cartooning, Gene teaches creative writing through Hamline University’s MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults. In January 2016, the Library of Congress, Every Child A Reader, and the Children’s Book Council appointed Gene the National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature.