4 things I’ve learned writing (mostly) 4 novels

If you want to get anything done, give it to a busy person…

In my life, I’ve started four novels, completed my goals on three, gotten to “The End” on two, and completely flamed out on one.

The first was in 2001. I hadn’t written much since high school. Something clicked in my head that made me realize that writing wasn’t some kind of black art (as one particular teacher had drilled into his credulous students). It was doable. You take pencil and paper and write one word after another. Voilà. I was so taken with this simple idea that every single thing I ever learned about writing went out the window. I had Swifties, danglers, tell-vs-show, you name it. There’s enough material in there for several Bulwer-Lytton contests. By the time I had 70 hand-written pages, the thing collapsed under it’s own weight and the story reached an abrupt, borderline-surrealistic “ending” to abuse the term. I have evidence that I even typed it all in and pressed on for a 2nd draft.

By 2003 my non-fiction book was published–my writing career was under way! Part of the elaborate book proposal dance involved me writing some online articles, including one piece of fiction that was well-received in the tiny circle that was its intended audience. At this stage I adopted electronic writing, and ditched my crashy Windows laptop for a Mac, a vast improvement.

In 2005 I discovered NaNoWriMo, and though I thought it would be a lost cause, I signed up. No way it could be as bad as the previous attempt. I had a new job, and was able to skip a few lunches to write, not to mention intense evenings and weekends. The end goal is 50,000 words during the 30 days of November, that’s 1,666 and two-thirds words per day. All of the prior month I spent outlining, making maps, creating my universe. I used the simplest of tools, my text editor and one file per chapter. I learned that the command wc *.txt could easily give me a combined word count. To my surprise, it worked. I reemerged into daylight with a completed a full story arc loosely based on the earlier story, and ended up with just over 50,000 words. The text itself was very rough, but I read the whole thing out loud in a podcast to edit it. In terms of improvement, it was huge, but still far from publishable.

2006 and another NaNoWriMo rolled around, and I took off on a more ambitious storyline with far fewer notes going into it. The story itself involved the same general characters of the previous two episodes, but with a deeper, more mature feeling to it. In short, I finally wrote a piece of fiction to be proud about afterwards, though when I hit 50,000 words I felt really burned out; hit “save” and left the story arc unfinished.

The pull to dig in to an intensive 2nd draft of the story was immense, but just too many things were going on, including a new arrival in the family and a new set of job responsibilities. I never got more than a few dozen pages into the rewrite. When NaNoWriMo 2007 came upon me, I had a tough choice…do I write something fresh, or try to rework the previous novel? Fresh. A completely new story line, new characters, new setting, new everything. As of a few days ago, I finished the draft, compressing parts of the story as needed to meet both the 50 kiloword goal and the complete story arc. In preparation, I read a number of books, but as far as written outlines, maps, etc. go, almost nothing happened before November 1. I saved enough of the “fun stuff” that a second revision of this story will be a joy. Overall, another improvement year-over-year.

There’s only one kink to the “if you want to get something done…” idea: my slides for the XML Conference talk I have in a few days are still unfinished… -m

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