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.

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