Friday, April 29, 2016

Things I have learned (so far) about the novel-writing process

  1. It takes a long time.
  2. The first draft really is allowed supposed to be fast and crappy. Your job as a first-drafter is to just get the story written down. Seriously, don't worry about quality. You'll change so much of it later anyway. I spent almost a year, hating the idea that bad writing might exist with my name on it. But I've still rewritten or cut so much of it.
  3. Oh, naiveté. I believed that if I took my time, my first draft would be fabulous (okay, decent), making revision easy. On the one hand, keeping a timeline and researching as I went helped me avoid gaping plot holes to sort out later. On the other, I didn't yet have a grasp on pacing, structure, or overdescription floweriness, and so the draft was way bloated. Oh, and the writing was still bad.
  4. I underestimated how many words a scene takes up...
  5. ...and overestimated how many scenes I needed to bridge plot points.
  6. It's hard to cut subplots from a manuscript. I once read (can't remember where) where someone said they'd rather have their first draft end up twice the target length than half--you can cut material in revisions, but it's hard to add story without seeming forced. At the time I agreed. No longer. My first draft was about 45,000 words too long. It can be easy to decide a scene or entire subplot needs to go. The problem is, when I cut them, I have to go through and cut all later references to them as well, which can leave huge gaps.
  7. Lots of research. Sometimes big stuff, like society and technology of whatever setting/time period you're writing. But also incidentals like river sailing speeds, reproduction rate of cows, how to treat particular wounds without first aid kits or hospitals.
  8. Sometimes research gets you no answers. I basically found none about the wounds, the speed and effectiveness of traditional medicines, or whether a particular plant blooms or produces fruit year-round in the tropics.

When you start writing every day:

  1. Everything around you suddenly becomes potential story material. Names, overheard sentences, personality quirks, scenic views, art, song lyrics. Everything you see, smell, hear, feel, wonder, etc. gets filtered through, "How could I use that in a story?"
  2. When I see a sunset or fog, it automatically narrates itself in my head.
  3. Sometimes you'll get sick of your story. You spend every day pouring over the lives and emotions and feats of these people who don't exist! You'll question the vast amount of time you're spending on this one single story.
  4. But you'll mostly obsess. You'll read writing advice, play scenes out in your head, revise mentally while you're at work, and not even be sad your characters are fake, because they're really real.
  5. You'll mentally revise other books you read.
  6. Reading a bad book can actually be a blessing. Good books are good examples, and writing advice can tell you what to do or not do, but experiencing a bad book as a reader is an excellent way to learn firsthand what you want to avoid. (But watch out for mediocre writing. It's more subtle than bad writing, and might rub off on you!)
  7. When you get to the revision stage, you might find yourself editing everything you write. Facebook posts, blog posts, book reviews, emails. I tend to write too bloated, and re-read many times trying to pare down and streamline. Twitter is good practice. Which 140 characters are the truly important ones?

Things I hope to do differently next time:

In the first draft:

  1. Sketch a plot outline, estimating word/scene counts between plot points.
  2. Write fast. Make my sentences sound as fourth-grade as possible if that's what it takes to get the story down on paper.
  3. Err on the side of too few words rather than too many. If I'm writing fast, it will probably be kind of sparse anyway. Then later I can elaborate on what's there rather than chop it to pieces.
  4. If I have a new plot idea by November I'll try NaNoWriMo. The goal is 50,000 words in 30 days.


  1. Triage. Big stuff first. Structure, plot (holes). Then medium stuff. Characters, pacing, tension. Then small stuff. Dialogue, showing vs telling. Then surface stuff.

Sunday, April 03, 2016

Below 95,000 Words (more than once) (AKA the quickest way to slash a stubborn word count)

(Okay, maybe the quickest way to slash the word count is: Boring scene? SEVER IT!)

I've pared down to the mid 90,000s. In the first two drafts, part 4 (the end) got minimal & rushed tending, so it still has several not-yet-written scenes. This time, I wanted to get to part 4 before I lost all my steam, so I've skipped ahead to add those missing scenes. In other words, whatever word loss I've managed now gets reversed.

Getting back up near 100,000 freaks me out, so in between adding scenes, I'll go find an easy hit to pare down. There's still a lot of story I know I need to cut from parts 2 and 3, but I want to finish part 4 before I go anywhere else scene-by-scene.

So here's my favorite way to cut a lot of words in not a lot of time. I use Scrivener, but any word processor with a search feature will work: Search for a word you overuse. (Looked, turned, and reached are common and, good news, they're often unnecessary because they're implied: the narrator can't describe something if the character hasn't looked at it. I personally overuse smiled, frowned, and seemed.) Go through each search result, and see if you can cut the overused word/phrase. If not, that's okay. If so, yay!

Doesn't sound like it'd make much of a difference, but it has for me. When I revise scene by scene, I'm caught up in the story, and feel more protective of my dear words. But when I see only snippets, I notice the prose more objectively. I realize just how many times characters turn, look, smile, grunt, emerge, etc. EXTERMINATE! Sometimes "She turned and walked away" can be "She walked away." SLASH! Sometimes (surprise!) I don't need the sentence at all, because walking away doesn't matter to the scene. SEVER! Huge bonus: in my snippet-browsing, I notice a lot of nearby extras: Ex. The conversation she's walking away from has two or three lines that slow the dialogue, something I didn't realize/admit in my scene-by-scene editing. Or this scene where he smiles three times is pretty much a repeat of that other scene with all the smiles. CUT! (The trick is to not read everything, just focus on the target word, and notice easy hits nearby.)

With my most overused words, I can get a 1,000 word difference after one search.

Tip: In Scrivener, instead of the search box at the top I use the Find & Replace, because it has a "next" button. So instead of scrolling to find the next instance, you can just click straight to it.