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We’ll Fix That in Post

Hey everybody! I’m not dead!

Sorry I haven’t posted here in two weeks or so, but I’ve been finishing the rough draft of Book #4 in The Saga of the Redeemed. And guess what? I finished! The currently-titled THE FAR FAR BETTER THING is weighing in at about 123,000 words and does, in fact, tell a mostly coherent story. I wrote it in just under 3 months, start to finish. Go me.

But it is by no means really good, yet. I can’t be – it’s a rough draft.

When you start writing and reading writing guides and hearing writers talk, most of them (possibly all of them) say some variation of the same thing:

The real work – the real writing – happens in revision.

When you’re just starting out, this sounds…unlikely. I mean, do you have any idea how much work goes into writing that rough draft? These writers – these so-called professionals – they must just use a different method, right? They must be writing slapdash crappy drafts. My draft will be perfect. My draft will only need a few minor buffs here, a couple little tweaks here. Like Michelangelo, I am merely revealing the work, fully realized, from the block of uncut marble.

To which I say bullshit.

Look, there are always exceptions, I guess. Sometimes a writer does get that hole-in-one, needs very little revision, and it goes off to be an overnight hit. Most of the time? Like, as in 98-99% of the time? Nope. Not how it works.

The fact that many newer writers have a hard time accepting this is, I feel, one of the various pitfalls that can quickly make completing that draft nearly impossible, or at least vastly more difficult. This is because, if you’re expecting your draft to be perfection in one swing, then every time you make a mistake or see an error or realize that you need to go back and change things, you are suddenly paralyzed.

There are not enough wastebaskets in the universe to hold a writer’s insecurities.

Sayeth the writer: “What? Go back and change it? Well, I have to do that now, otherwise the rest of the draft will make no sense! Egads, I have to start all over!”

This is how many writers end up writing and re-writing and re-re-writing the first chapter of their novel umpteen billion times and never actually finish the damned book. They’re trapped by a never ending cycle of sanding away at what they think will become the statue’s perfect toe. At that rate, Michelangeo wouldn’t have managed to carve squat, let alone David.

To this conundrum, let me give you a mantra – a mantra that I used as recently as yesterday that allowed me to go from zero to complete 123k word draft in about 80 days:

I CAN FIX THAT IN POST!

Say it with me, now:

I CAN FIX THAT IN POST!

As in post-production, as in revision, as in draft number two. Because, if you’re actually going for your best work and/or you actually want to publish this thing, one draft is not gonna cut it. My last book took seven – seven whole drafts. It happens.

Now, yeah, you ought to proceed with some kind of plan and hopefully you don’t need more than two or three drafts of the book before it is in working shape, but you can’t go through that rough draft rewriting every damned chapter and expect to finish it in any kind of timely fashion (not that it’s a race, but still). Mistakes happen, things you overlooked come up, and, yeah, a lot of times you get a better idea halfway through and wish you had incorporated that earlier. When such problems arise, laugh, repeat your mantra, and keep writing.

The wonderful thing about drafts is that nobody else has to read them. They don’t actually need to make sense to anybody other than yourself! Make notes in the margin! Insert little brackets with things like [rename this character later] or [insert flashy chase scene here]. Forgive yourself for writing crappy passages and move on.

Don’t worry – you are going to go back and fix it all, I promise – but for now, the most important thing you need to remember is that you can’t actually fix the book until you have a book. One chapter? Six? 35K of a Nanowrimo entry? Not a book. You need a complete story (or nearly so), no matter how flawed, before you can fashion a good story.

Finish the book first. Make it a good book later.

 

Cutting to the Chase

Writing a novel is a balancing act. You’ve got to balance exposition with action, description with dialogue, you’ve got to balance multiple character arcs and the needs of the external conflicts and the internal conflicts and lots of other stuff, too. Go too far in one direction and you wind up with a book that is either boring or one that is too frenetic to follow. It will come as no surprise then if I tell you that doing this well is hard, hard work.

When I write a novel (and, I would guess, when a lot of people write novels) there are certain scenes, sequences, or sometimes even specific lines that I know I want to show up in the book. They are the tent-pole scenes – the ones that hold up the rest of the story. The pivot points of tension and reward, of strike and impact (to borrow a phrase from this excellent craft thread from @dongwon) circle around those scenes.

Now, really intense reads – the books that really have you turning pages, that have you staying up late to finish them – have the best tent-pole scenes. They are constantly drawing you from crisis to crisis, giving you a helpless sense of being drawn along through events. A book, though, can’t be nothing but those scenes – it’s impossible. You can’t have nothing but car chase, because very quickly the chase scenes stop mattering (for reference, watch the second Matrix film). You need to build tension and you need to set the stage for the chase. The more understood the stakes are, the more powerful the payoff will be.

The trouble though, is how much buildup do you need? When I’m writing the first draft of a novel (as I am now), I get bogged down sometimes in preparing for the big scene to happen. I know it needs a stable platform to stand, so I just keep shoring up my foundations, over and over and over, until its clear I’m wasting time. In revision, I trim a lot of this buildup out, keeping the bare essentials – balancing set-up and payoff, essentially. This is a challenging process because it is difficult for the author (who has had this pivotal scene in their head for possibly years) to know if the scene is landing for a stranger.

If only we could just keep the car in the air, right? Drag that sense of freefall out for 300 pages. Yes.

Often I feel I’ve missed the mark – I get feedback from readers and editors who say things like “why is this happening” and I’m like “DUH, CAN’T YOU READ MY MIND?” Naturally, I’ve got to go back then and fill in blanks that I didn’t know were there. This sometimes feels frustrating – I feel like I’m back where I started, wasting everyone’s time. Let’s be honest, if it were possible, we’d like to write nothing but chase scenes and pivotal battles and emotionally wrenching death scenes and stuff. “All Killer and No Filler” as they say.

You can point to various thrillers and action-packed reads and say “see! They did it!” What isn’t commonly realized, though, is that the “filler” – the set-up, the build – is still there. It’s just done so elegantly that you don’t notice. They have just enough to make the action land, but not so much that you get bored waiting. In other words, they balance it perfectly.

I can’t say I quite do this to my satisfaction, yet. But I’m working on it.

 

Current Status: AHHHHHHH!!!

Okay, so this is a partial writing update of sorts: I am currently buried in novel projects. On the one hand, Book 4 of the Saga of the Redeemed (which needs to be turned in to my editor by January) is perhaps 1/3 of the way through the first draft. I need to finish this draft by late August or I won’t have time to revise. That’s something of a tight deadline for me at the best of times.

Additionally I just received back Book 3 of the Saga of the Redeemed from my editor and I need to have all the edits done on that by July 12th. I bashed my face against this book so many times I’m still recovering from the scars, and yet there are more substantive edits I need to make and I’m literally driving myself crazy in an attempt to solve them.

This leaves me in the unenviable position of trying to both write a novel and edit a novel at the same time on the same days (since I can’t afford to take a break from writing book 4, but I also have to edit book 3 pretty quickly). I think a fair approximation of this feeling would be if your brain were both on fire and freezing at the same time. Sure, you can cool yourself off, but then the cold gets you OR you can warm yourself up but then the fire becomes unbearable.

The crazy thing is, though, that this is what I signed up for. Many authors, if they’re working at a good pace, have to deal with overlapping projects on short deadlines. It’s part of the deal – it’s another gate to pass through, another notch in your axe. You know, assuming you can do it.

And I can do it. It’s just fiercely difficult and very stressful and I spend a lot of time being short of breath and faintly sick to my stomach as I think about what I have to do and how quickly. I’m sure many of you understand what that’s like.

So, I am leaving you all (and myself) with this for inspiration:

Thank you all for allowing me this brief moment of procrastination. Now, back into the word mines with me.

Outlining: A Pantser’s Lament

When I teach my college freshmen to write academic essays, I always tell them to start with a loose outline of what they’re going to do. Break it down paragraph by paragraph, I say, and make sure it will make sense before you start. This is, I believe, good advice. Too bad I rarely take it myself. Well, to be fair, I also don’t tend to write academic prose; I have an easier time outlining those kinds of things, as it happens, than I do outlining say, a story or a novel. But still, I’d rather eat tacks than outline sometimes. I’m winging this blog post as we speak, for instance.

It isn’t that I don’t see the utility of outlining – I very much do. I just don’t like doing it. When I started out writing novels (and, like many novelists, I have written way more novels than I’ve actually published), I started out by trying to outline the book first. Weirdly, I found it really difficult to make any headway if I did this. Something about making the outline robbed me of the motivation to actually write the book. I may have spouted some nonsense about outlining “robbing the book of its magic” or something, but what it comes down to is this: it is more fun to write a book without an outline. You get to preserve your sense of wonder at your own book. Like the readers, you are along for a ride which has an ending you can only guess at. This is called “pantsing.” As in, “by the seat of your pants.” Just sitting down at a computer with the barest sense of an idea and then writing it. Just going. You become the Lewis and Clarke of your own work; you are pathfinding the Oregon Trail to the promised land of “perfect novel.”

The problem is there are significant drawbacks.

Your plot has failed. Please try again.

For one thing, much like the Oregon Trail, there is very little guarantee that you will actually make it to the end. Your book might crash and burn halfway through and then you look back and realize “oh, crap – I’ve got to rewrite that whole thing!” So you go back and rewrite it, this time resolved to take lefts where you took rights. Except that doesn’t work, either. Next thing you know, you’ve rewritten the entire book a thousand times and have had a miserable time of it. There is no magic, there. It’s nothing but thick forests, craggy mountains, and snake bites.

Now, with an outline, you can (theoretically) circumvent many of those hazards before they crop up. You can look into the future and ask yourself “will this actually sustain a whole novel, or am I writing a novella?” You plan and you re-plan and you re-plan again. Granted, you are rewriting things just as often as the pants method, but outlines take a lot less time to rewrite.

But what about the magic? What about those glorious little surprises that can creep into your plot? Don’t outlines kill those things? How are you going to get your butt in that chair if you already know how everything is going to go? I can’t understate the obstacle that creates. As much as I know making a detailed outline is a wise activity, so much of me just wants to dive right in, you know? I want to be inspired by my own work!

These, though, strike me sometimes as the wishes and complaints of a child. I hate magical discussions of the artistic process. I don’t believe in the “muse” and I don’t accept writer’s block as anything other than fear of making mistakes. By that metric, I know that the so-called “magic” of pantsing a novel is just me being lazy. Outlines are work, whereas drafts are fun. But these days I have deadlines and very limited writing time. I can’t spend 2-3 years entirely rewriting the same novel five times. You know what kills the magic? Draft seven. That kills it dead, believe me.

Pictured: Me, pantsing yet another book.

So, for this next novel, I’m rolling my sleeves up, biting the bullet, and outlining the damned thing before I start. You know what should keep my butt in my chair? The idea that I’m a goddamned professional, that’s what. The fact that I’ve got 9 months to write a polished novel and four of those months will be taken up by my day job, and so I need to write this thing in one. It’s time to grow up, be responsible, and make a plan before I wander off in the wilderness and crash and burn yet another 100,000 word draft.

Or so I tell myself now.

As I write a blog post to procrastinate from outlining.

(sigh)

 

Fearing Your Work

In all this talk of writing and revising and revising again and hunting for agents and publishers and book deals and all that jazz, there is something we sometimes neglect to discuss: how psychologically daunting writing a novel can be. And it is. It downright terrifies people – terrifies them into inaction or despair or even cleaning the house over and over again like some kind of deranged amphetamine addict. Writing hurts on a spiritual level. Well, it can, anyway. It often does.

If you’re reading that last bit and saying “ha! When I write, I am FREE!” I have this to say:

Wait.

For some, this is the scariest thing imaginable.

For some, this is the scariest thing imaginable.

The more I write, the more I believe that the great filter that separates those who write from those who wish to write is not one of talent or time or intelligence or training or money or any of that – it is a psychological barrier. You’ve got to sit down and fail. Yes, fail. And not even spectacular failure, either – mundane, limping, ignominious failure. Failure that makes you question your worth. And then you’ve got to get back up, sit down at that desk again, and try to find success in the failure somewhere.

In my case, I recently finished a draft of a novel (my seventh novel overall, the third in the Saga of the Redeemed). It was the fourth draft of the book and I completed it in about ten weeks or so. I walked away feeling pretty good about myself, let it rest for a week, and then went back to read it.

Oh. Oh God.

The thing is an unutterable train wreck. The external conflict was working okay, but the characters’ motivations were all over the place, the action was boring and predictable, and the twists weren’t telegraphed enough to make any sense. Gah! I’m going to have to rewrite maybe 75% of this damned thing and now the summer (with its blissful days of writerly concentration) is over! No! Soon the students will once again descend upon my mind palace and supplant all this novel-thinking with reams and reams of papers to grade and lectures to deliver and discussions to moderate! I’ve failed to finish the book I swore I’d finish this time around! No!

Honestly, the failure of this draft (complete as it is) has been enough to knock the wind out of my sails in these last days of summer. I feel useless. I threw the novel up on my office wall in color-coded index cards and stare at it bleakly.

But I’m wrong. I didn’t fail. I just didn’t finish yet – I’m one step closer to completion, and I will make that step. It’s just a matter of dusting myself off and fighting for some time to do it. But man, looking at that wall, looking at the orange Xs I crossed through terrible scenes, really hurts. Not physically, but almost so. It’s a knot in my chest I can’t work out, a thing that makes me wince every hour on the hour.

I’ll get over it, though. I’ll ride back into battle with that beast soon enough, and perhaps this time with the wisdom to see myself to victory. As Abercrombie’s Logen Ninefingers once said:

Once you’ve got a task to do, it’s better to do it than live with the fear of it.

True words, my friends. Sit down. Write the words. Feel the pain.

Hey, You Got Some RPG In My Novel! (on Ragnarok)

Hello!

The genesis of so many writers...

The genesis of so many writers…

Having a crazy week, so here’s just this quick link to a guest post I made over on Ragnarok yesterday. It’s about how writing novels/stories differs from tabletop RPGs, which is something I feel I know a bit about, as I’ve spend a good 25 years parsing through the differences.

Check out the post here, and check out Ragnarok, too – they’ve got a lot of cool things going on over there and they’re relatively new, so wander around.

Talk to you next week!

 

The Frankenstein Stage of Novel Writing

I am currently in the fourth draft of a novel. What this should mean is that the novel is nearing its final state – I have the plot figured out, the character arcs established, and it’s just a matter of pacing and sticking it all together. Except, well…I’m not there yet. The first few drafts of this beast didn’t go especially well (damned book’s first act just doesn’t want to gel!), so what this means is I’ve written this book three times now in three slightly different ways. I’ve got deleted scenes coming out the wazoo. I’m a guy  who’s lost the instructions sitting in a pile of Lego bricks that he knows is supposed to make the Taj Mahal, but for some reason he can’t figure out where it all fits.

This is what I call “the Frankenstein Stage.”

The term is inspired by a tweet from Chuck Wendig from a couple years back which went like this:

Editing is frequently standing over a corpse with a hammer, a scalpel, a car battery. “I WILL MAKE YOU BEAUTIFUL. I WILL MAKE YOU DANCE.”

Hmmmm...needs more denouement...

Hmmmm…needs more denouement…

The analogy is apt. Right now, this novel is an ugly, dead thing. It isn’t dancing…yet. Right now, a lot of what I’m doing is taking big chunks of scenes from other drafts and copy/pasting them into the new draft and then altering them so they fit with the flow. It is a *lot* like stitching together pieces of a dead corpse and hoping, at the end, to get a living one.

This stage of novel writing is a very dispiriting one. Part of this is because you don’t always hit it – sometimes the book comes together much more cleanly and evenly and the edits are clearer and you feel like a million bucks. When you don’t, therefore, you feel as if you’ve failed and that your book is crap.

But it isn’t.

I know the book I want to write is contained within some combination of the elements I have already laid out. It merely remains for me to find that combination and, possibly, see what needs to be added or subtracted to the final framework to make it sing. Writing, I must tell myself, is not a mystical process full of muses and fairy dust. It is work, as methodical and rational as any other kind of work, and merely requires sufficient time and attention to be made good. This is another way I think the Frankenstein connection is a good one: gods and angels did not fashion Dr. Frankenstein’s monster – a man did. The monster is the result of hard work, intelligence, and dedication with just a sprinkle of inspiration to get it all rolling. And, while Dr. Frankenstein came to regret his labors, you sure can’t say the thing wasn’t a success. I mean, not everybody can manage to get their whole family murdered by a series of body parts you stitched together at medical school – that is, on the whole, pretty damned impressive.

So, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to get back to work. There might be a lightning storm coming in later, and I want to be ready.

Igor, get me more rising action! We’ve got a climax to ascend!

 

Learning the Short to Master the Long

Over the past three or four weeks, I’ve written four short stories. Ordinarily I would spend my semester break writing a novel, but I was waiting on the edit note from my editor (fun story there – see the note appended to the bottom of this post) and, rather than get deep into a long-term project only to be torn out of it by a more pressing long-term project, I opted to fill out my stable of short stories to have on submission at any one time.

I know a bunch of writers who don’t bother with short stories – either don’t write them at all or don’t really take them seriously if they do. I also know a fair number of writers who seem to write exclusively short stories and quail at the prospect of tackling something as big as a novel. I’m here, today, to make the case for writing both.

Why Novelists Should Write Short Stories

I know what you’re thinking. “Do people even read short stories?” and “You’ll never make a living writing stories all the time!”

Well, in the first place, yes people do read short stories. Not a tremendous, vast multitude, maybe, but certainly a hell of a lot more people than, say, read your blog. Some of those people happen to be editors, reviewers, and professionals in the genre you’re writing in. Making an impression doesn’t hurt. In the second place, I have to break something to you that you’re probably not going to like hearing: you probably aren’t going to make a living writing much of anything, novel or story. Most writers don’t. We all have day jobs, and you should think about keeping yours (or finding one that affords you time to write) rather than dreaming about making a mint writing the next Hunger Games. Who are you to turn your nose up at a hundred bucks for a story you wrote over the course of two weeks?

And anyway, neither exposure nor wealth are reasons you should write short stories. You should write short stories because they make you a better writer. At worst, they can be seen as practice runs for plot, character, theme, diction, style, and the lot of it. You get to work your writer muscles at a more rapid pace than you do writing a novel. You take a beginning, a middle, and an end and you paste them together and see if it sings to you. If it doesn’t, you break it down and try again. You can do this over the space of a few weeks or days or even hours.

The short story is an unforgiving form – it doesn’t permit indulgence or dithering or random tangents. You’ve got to stay on target, keep it focused, and make it magical. That’s a challenge. The thing is, though, if you can do it in 5000 words, you can certainly do it in 10,000 or 100,000. If you can’t do it in 5000, how are we to expect better from you with more space? I mean sure, you can do it, but while novelists you can’t write stories do exist, somebody who can do both things is usually better off. Or at least I think so.

Ummm...that's it?

Ummm…that’s it?

Why Short Story Writers Should Write Novels

Say you are a master of the short story or, hell, even the short short (flash fiction, under 1000 words – bing, bang, boom, you’re out). You’re comfortable there, in your little story writing niche. You’ve gotten some publications and so on and you figure “yeah, this is nice.”

Well, far be it from me to suggest you vacate your micro-fiction utopia, but the novel is out there, waiting for you to call. Short stories can only do so much – we all know this. They also struggle for readership and, while very flexible, lack the weight and pathos a staying power a good novel can provide. And if you can write a good story, you can also write a good novel. It requires a different set of gears, yeah – a bigger scope, a broader picture, a more populated world – but it also gives you the opportunity to really see what you can do as a writer. To paraphrase Stephen King, you can “dig something big outta the sand.”

You can do it, too. You know you have it in you. I feel we mostly think in terms of novels – the stories of our lives, the stories of our families and our towns and our nations are novel sized stories. They always have been, though we haven’t always told them as novels (there were epics and romances and myth cycles, and so on). I think every writer owes it to him- or herself to make the attempt. To seek out the mountaintop. You’ve been honing these skills – take them out of the yard and see what they can do.

But don’t abandon the story, either. Do both. Write both short and long.

 


Notes on the Saga of the Redeemed and No Good Deed

I’ve gotten some fan mail recently (fan mail! w00t!) that has been prodding me over book 2 (or 3, or whatever) in Tyvian’s story. So, here’s the deal: book 2 (No Good Deed) is finished and on my editors desk. It has been since May of 2015. I’ve been waiting for her edit notes so that the book can be polished and revised and then be ready for print. I have been waiting since May and the release date as been pushed back twice now (from Jan 21st to February to now April 12th).

My editor is leaving my publisher for a different publishing job (and good for her – she’s great and I hope she’s happy where she’s going). This means, though, that I have a new editor. This new editor needs some time to get familiar with the book before she can give me notes and she also has been slammed with a good number of other writers from my former editor, so things might take a while. This means the release date might be moved back again (though I really hope not). None of this is really my fault (so far as I’m aware), and I’m every bit as anxious to put the next book in your hands as you are to have it there. I promise.

Oh, and I just saw the preliminary cover art, and it looks really, really cool. Can’t share it just yet, but soon. Very soon.

Thanks everybody, and I’ll keep you posted!

NaNoWriMo: A Novelist Reacts

Just take away the sunlight and...yeah. Pretty much exactly.

Just take away the sunlight and…yeah. Pretty much exactly.

So it’s November now. Up here in Boston, it gets dark before 6pm. My day job (as a college English professor) is just about to shift into overdrive. Student papers stack up on my desk, eyeball high. I’m tired all the time; my brain is a dried out sponge of an organ, barely capable of sustaining gross motor control. Did I mention that I have trouble breathing, too? The leaves, as they fall, kick up some kind of mold or fungus or something – let’s just call it poison – that makes my lungs convulse. I hack like a consumptive; I inhale like an asthmatic.

Weak, depressed, exhausted, I crawl to the internet to see how things are going.

Turns out everybody’s writing a novel this month.

Dammit.

Look, I don’t have any real, actual problem with NaNoWriMo. I love writing novels – I recommend it highly to like minded people. If NaNoWriMo is the thing you need to get your ass in gear on that novel you’ve had kicking around, then godspeed, I say! Good for you! If you need some encouragement to write, then I think this little thing the world has going is just wonderful. Go for it! You got this!

NaNoWriMo has helped hundreds of authors feel more confident in themselves, more devoted to process, and has taught countless people about the dedication and work ethic needed to be a writer. I get that, and I support that.

But dammit, there are times this whole thing feels like torture to me.

I’m writing novels (or wishing I was) pretty much all the time. November, as it happens, is the month I am least able to do so. I’m here, in a little cage fashioned from student work and professional obligations and just plain old health, that sits just out of reach of my keyboard. I’m a professional novelist, and I can’t novel in November. In a word, I’m insane with jealousy.

I’m also worried and conflicted for all you NaNoWriMo folks. There’s that, too. For one thing, novels aren’t written in a month. Drafts are (or can be, if you write faster/shorter than I do), but drafts aren’t novels. Besides, 50,000 words is barely novel-length (well, depending on genre). So, even assuming you succeed in this endeavor, you need to know that you aren’t done. And that’s okay. You haven’t failed; writing is not a race. Keep going! Keep writing! Revise! Revise again! Submit!

But then there are those people out there who seem to do this on a lark. “Oh hey,” they say, with a shrug and a sip of their pumpkin-spice latte, “I figure I’ll give NaNoWriMo a shot. Why not?” As though writing a novel (an actual novel) is something you do easily, with limited thought or preparation, like growing a beard or deciding to wear scarves from now on or opting to talk like a pirate on Talk Like a Pirate Day. As though I, and all the other novelists I know (professional and otherwise, many of whom are themselves doing NaNoWriMo), who slave and obsess and weep over their manuscripts, are really just weirdoes doing nothing more impressive playing the kazoo in a marching band and, what the hell, you’ll do that too. It belies how hard this is.

It’s just a little bit insulting, you know, to have the things you work so hard on depicted as fun diversions people can successfully perform in one month. “Writing a novel? Anybody can do that!”

Novels are works of art. They are hard work. They deserve respect. And if you’re going to be a novelist, you need to do it more than one month out of the year. No, not everyone can do it. No, not everyone has a novel inside of them. The world doesn’t work that way. I, trapped in my rainy cage of fall misery, acutely pine for the freedom to write novels in November. If you are lucky enough to be able to do so, too, the least you can do is take it seriously.

I mean, sure, you can sit down and bang out 50K of whatever you please this month and then shuffle it away in a drawer somewhere. Why not? If it makes you feel good, if it gives you a sense of accomplishment, who am I to judge? Good for you. But you didn’t write a novel. You aren’t a novelist. Not yet, anyway. And that’s totally okay – you don’t have to be to make this month a worthwhile experience. Not all of us want or need the same things.

However, to those of you embarking upon NaNoWriMo this month who intend to write novels (or a novel) in earnest, let me say this: welcome to the fold. Keep writing. Your journey doesn’t end – shouldn’t end – on November 30th. There’s more to go after that – much more. Trust me: writing novels is not a lark or a fad. It’s a state of mind and a way of life.

 

When is Enough, Enough?

I’m in the midst of a rough draft of a novel and it isn’t going well. It hasn’t gone well from day one, actually – writing this thing has been like pulling teeth. I know where I want the story to go, but getting it to go there has been very awkward work. I’ll be honest: the book, right now, is a shambles.

But that’s okay, right? Rough drafts are supposed to be terrible. They are you, the author, dragging together a great steaming morass of garbage into one place that, later on, will be mercilessly revised and edited into something awesome. This is tried and true authorial practice – ask anybody. As Hemingway said, “The first draft of anything is shit.”

You can take that to the bank, friends.

Let us pursue this question one step further, though: assuming we know that the first draft is going to suck and assuming we are aware that it’s purpose is to collect raw material for future drafts, then how much of the first draft do you need to complete before you abandon it and start over?

Hey, Mr. Bad Daft, why don't you step into the courtyard for a second...

Hey, Mr. Bad Daft, why don’t you step into the courtyard for a second…

Let me give you a strictly hypothetical and in no way actual or currently relevant example. Say I’ve got, I dunno, 50,000 words of a rough draft done. Now, going off what my (hypothetical) loose outline dictates, I’m only a third of the way through (which means the book is shaping up to be too long, but that’s not important right now). However, the first third of a novel really needs to be solid in order to support that last two thirds. I mean, if you screw up getting Luke off Tatooine, how much of a story do you have for the later parts? The worse the beginning is, the less likely anything you set up in the end is going to be useful, anyway.

Now, granted, the remaining 70-80K of novel (well, 100K) will probably have its gems, but they’ll be gems buried in a twisted pile of tubular steel – not exactly useful. If I know what’s wrong with the story now (and I needed that 50,000 words to help me figure that out), why not ditch it and circle back? Strong foundations make for strong middle acts, right?

In saying this, I realize I’m flying in the face of a lot of conventional story-writing wisdom. “Finish what you write,” quoth Heinlein. I know, I know – and it is good advice, too. The thing is, though, the purpose behind Heinlein’s second rule is that, until you’ve written the thing through, you supposedly can’t see what needs fixing. But what if you can? Like, I get it, okay? I see where I made the wrong turn and now I’ve gone down this whole other path that leads to pretty much nothing but tea parties and navel-gazing and I needed to go down this other path, where I’d be more likely to find zombie ninjas and fire-breathing unicorns.

I know there's a garden over there and I know where I went wrong, so I'm just going to turn around now, okay?

I know there’s a garden over there and I know where I went wrong, so I’m just going to turn around now, okay?

For me, writing a novel is a lot like trying to solve a maze. If you make a wrong turn, do you really draw your line to the end of the bad path? I know this one’s a dead end, folks.

If this were a short story, maybe that would be different – how long does it take to write to the end of a short story, anyway? But a novel? That’s another month or two of my life, slogging through the pages to a conclusion that will probably have to change entirely for the book to work. What an incredible waste of time!

Hypothetically speaking, of course.