A writing post-mortem (in progress)

Logan's World (1978), 1978 Corgi paperback edi...

This week, I had a birthday. Thank you, thank you, that’s right, I survived another orbit around the sun without the red crystal in my hand glowing and my being forced to go on the run in search of a utopia where us older folks are allowed to continue living. Not like my buddy Logan.

Somewhat foolheartedly, I had pinned my birthday as a great target date for finishing the first draft of the novel in progress. Needless to say, I failed on both accounts, but I think it might be worth it to explain why.

I didn’t make the date – why?

Simply put – because I made it up. I thought my birthday would be a good target, something to build up to (plus it’s been great having Scrivener tell me how many days until I get presents). The scary thing is that I almost made it. I originally thought the book would be 70k long – by my birthday I was at 65k. In a burst of writing the last few days, I made it to 70k last night. I’ve learned (or relearned, as the case may be) from this that even setting arbitrary target dates is still helpful for giving you a focus. If you know you are approaching the target date, and that target date is immutable (my birthday can’t be changed)(ok, can’t be changed easily, not without exotic matter and a lot of energy), it helps keep you focussed on getting it done in time. I knew as I approached just how many words I needed to write per day to make it, and that usually sufficed for making me just do it.

The almost frightening thing? I could have made it. I had a few more setbacks than expected, and that’s where my planning failed. Rather than assuming everything else is going to remain equal, I should have assumed the worst and padded how many words I needed per day from the start. Instead, I grew complacent with being able to hit my target (which, with occasional bursts, was getting smaller and smaller). One life interruption I was able to absorb, but when life threw a few more zero total days at me, I stumbled and never recovered.

So you’re at your target word count, but not done? How does that even happen?

That’s right. I’m over 70k and running still. I honestly believe this story will be wrapped up within the next 10k or so, but that’s just a guess. How does that happen? Well, like my target date, my estimate for how long the story is going to be is just a guess. I know my writing speed, and I have a good feel for how long it takes me to say something. That, combined with the flow of the story in my head, gave me an estimate of 70k. In the long run, I don’t think I was that far off (if I were to finish in the next 10k, then my novel would be 80k, still within spitting distance of 70k imho).

This one’s even more of a guess, though. I don’t work with a fully fleshed outline. I sketch the flow of the novel, and I try to map out the next few chapters in details as I’m going, but I don’t have a set in stone roadmap for the entire novel. Sometimes, this backfires, but usually it serves me well. I’m not always proud of my organic writing methods, and I wish I could sit down and just outline the flow of the entire novel. I know from the few occasions where I have been able to outline what I want to write that it speeds up my output dramatically. Most times, however, it just doesn’t work for me. I work better thinking I’m unconstrained.

What are some things you’ve learned writing this novel so far?

Our brains are tricky things. I find myself realizing that that apple I mentioned a hundred pages ago is about to be the key to the mystery I didn’t know I had being solved. It all fits, works, and is a complete surprise to me as much as the reader.

Also on that list – I may not sit down and outline, but some part of my brain does. I don’t know if it does it late in the night or what, but a trend I’ve seen with past efforts has been confirmed with this one. Once I finally found the rut and rhythm of the book, I haven’t rearranged or gone back once. I know a few things I’ll need to sprinkle in for consistency, but by and large the story is coming out in the right order. Right order doesn’t necessarily mean chronologically, either – I saw this same thing when I was writing A Mountain Fell From Heaven. As that novel progresses, we begin to have flashbacks for each of the main characters, until we get to the point where the flashbacks and the present happen with the same frequency. With that novel, the flashbacks began to uncover a different story about the characters, with the hope that by the end of the novel you didn’t like the heros that started the novel, and felt a little more sympathy towards the antagonists. I don’t want to call this more than it is – it isn’t some gifted knowledge of structure or some other hooplah. I honestly suspect that even when I’m not doing it knowingly, there’s a part of my brain that plots and outlines so that the organic writer can continue to feel like it’s making all the decisions, blithely unaware that the magical path it’s treading was set down with blood, sweat, and tears the night before.

What next?

Well, for starters, I’m not done with what I’m working on now. The WIP has three or four main strands that I’m working to weave back together again so that I can tie a knot and present a conclusion. But there are points I haven’t gotten to yet, though, so we’ll see. It might be another 15k before I’m done. Or 20k. Probably no more than 25k though…

For now, I’m setting a new target date (the specifics to be shared at a later time): I need to be done with this draft before we move to California this summer. Preferably with enough time to let my brain unwind and start veg’ing so I’m not trying to work on something else when I should be focussing on packing, lifting, and unpacking.

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