Here it is, the last week of NaNoWriMo. That went by fast didn’t it? If you’ve been keeping pace—or at least continuing to write, even if you’ve fallen behind—you probably have a lovely pile of pages of by now, and are perhaps barreling towards a completed first draft of your novel. The daily task of writing seems more daunting in the abstract than it does once you’ve made a habit of it, doesn’t it? Once it’s in your daily routine, it seems as though the words accumulate like so much snow falling outside your window.
I’m not going to sugarcoat it, Nano-ers, if your goal is to get your book published someday, the road ahead of you is long. You likely have years—perhaps many—ahead of you before you’re going to see your book in print (by traditional means anyway). I know this journey, and so I hope to end my little NaNoWrite series with some words of wisdom to keep you company on the difficult, but ever so worthwhile, road ahead.
Understand What You’re Up Against
I’ve written numerous times about a conversation I had with the writer Polly Devlin when I was twenty-five. She and I had become friendly through my work at Random House, and after at last confessing my writerly ambitions to her and noting that I was have trouble making progress on my novel, she enumerated the many challenges my life posed to accomplishing this goal. “You live in one of the busiest, most distracting cities in the world, you’re working full time in a stressful job, and you are absolutely terrified, I can see it. Well, let me tell you my dear,” she continued, “that fear isn’t going anywhere, so make peace with it. And of course you need the job. What time do you go to bed at night?” Around midnight, I told her. And what time did I wake up? Eight or so, just enough time to dress and get to work on time. Well, could I go to bed an hour earlier, get up in the morning to write? Somehow, this had never occurred to me, I’d always been an avowed night owl. “Let me tell you what will happen if you don’t. You will sitting here in ten years, wondering where the time went, novel still unfinished.” She said this with kindness but also with the certainty of an accomplished older woman who had no time for any excuse I might offer her. Reader, I got up at 6:30 the very next morning. We may all dream of some isolated garret in which we can write in peace, but this is not the world we live in. You probably have a day job, friends, perhaps children, a life full of obligations. Find a way to carve out some time in your real life rather than fantasizing about more time magically appearing. It may not be as much time as you’d wish to spend on your writing, perhaps it’s only a half an hour a day, but if it’s regular, it’s enough.
Enjoy Your Apprenticeship
Gifted writer and wise advice-giver Cheryl Strayed said something I loved during the most recent Dear Sugar podcast. She was asked what advice she’d give to her twenty-eight year old self. She recalled being obsessed with the idea of getting published while she was still in her twenties. She now knows, of course, that she had a ways to go; her first novel Torch would not be published until 2007, making Strayed nearly forty when it came out. She told the audience that she would tell her twenty-eight year old self to chill out, that had many years of being an apprentice to the craft left. In many ways, we writers stay apprentices of the craft all our lives: and this is a beautiful thing. Something my mentor, Pat Geary, told my senior seminar class (a group of bright eyed twenty-one year olds) has always stuck with me. She told us we should feel lucky to be writers, because it was something—barring loss of mental faculties—that we could do forever. Reading and writing are truly lifelong passions: unlike athletes or dancers, you don’t age out of your chance to make it as a writer. And perhaps the view from the road is a bit better after you have some success, but make no mistake, it is the same road.
Find Your People
You may have noticed that in my both of my above points I reference conversations with mentors—a crucial element of you writing team, especially when you’re young and all this writing business feels so life and death. Writing can be lonely, and though you must indeed learn to enjoy your own company as a writer, the group of people you surround yourself with is crucial. Finding a mentor, fellow writers to share work with, the right agent, the right editor—these are the people who will bring your best work to fruition. Just as importantly, you have to know how to separate yourself from the people who are not helpful to you. Not every friend who is also a writer, for instance, will make the ideal reader for you. Not every professor is made to be a mentor, and not every agent is the right one to represent you. Be choosy with this group, because much depends on them. Finding people you can share your unfinished work with, and trust that they’ll help you improve upon it, is as rare as finding true love.