Passing the 50,000-Word Mark
I’m sorry; it has been a while since I’ve updated anything. I’m not really sorry, I’m just being polite. I’m 85% through my first novel and it has consumed more of my free writing time as it has progressed. This is a great thing too. My first two attempts fizzed out with the second one being the farthest I’ve tried to push a story topping out at 12,000 words. With each attempt I learned a lot and I have no regrets as those attempts have paid off in this successful attempt. So I just want to share my story for two reasons: To brag, and to document certain details for the dark times ahead when future novels get bogged down by blockage, and self-doubt.
Here’s how this novel got started: My X-Box360 died after rain leaked into the window of my room and fried it. This was early November, and due to school and Christmas I had no extra money to replace it. I had been writing an hour every day anyway, but now I had tripled my free time with this loss. I already had a Chapter 1 featuring my writing crash-test dummy, Max Chrome, who I used to practice writing specific aspects of action like car chases, fist fights, shoot-outs, and stakeout humor. Max had been the subject of my other two attempts as well because I know him, and I have created a world full of characters for his universe. This is “Off the Shelf Writing”.
Off the Shelf
I’m a Lockheed Skunkworks groupie. They’re the gang who developed the stealth fighter and the legendary SR-71. With the Stealth Fighter (F-117) they kept costs down by using as much existing, or off the shelf technology, to build the aircraft. The plane was produced under budget (unheard of in the defense industry), and years ahead of schedule. This has always stuck with me along with zillions of other things that made people successful. I’m a short-story writer, but I knew one day I would at least take a shot at novel writing. I’ve read dozens of books and hundreds of magazine articles detailing “How To…” and I began taking writing classes at Monterey Peninsula College. Max Chrome was a guy I created with action-paranormal adventure stories in mind. As I explored aspects of action and thriller writing I used Max to tell these stories, or to focus my scene. Through these scenes I created an entire world that dated back 150 years into the past, and millions of years if you count his ultimate villains. Once I felt ready to write a novel I pulled Max off the shelf and went to work.
Writing is Never a Waste of Time – Ever!
Like I said my first to novel attempts fizzled out. I was sad each time for a week, and then I would read them closely to do a post-mortem, and figure out where and when the wheels came off. There were a number of things too. The biggest was the story itself; I didn’t give a shit if I finished it or not because I was writing just to write instead of writing a story that I cared about. The next problem was that I strayed away from the things that made my short stories good, as if my voice required a change from my short-story voice. And the other big problem was that I insisted on enforcing my plot outline instead of letting my characters lead me through the story. I discovered that I didn’t understand Max as well as I thought I did, and I had made him too rich, and too ass-kicking to be interesting. In between the second attempt and this successful shot I had written a short scene for writing class where I had to write dialog. I put Max into play with his buddy, Tom Sky, and turned them loose in a small hotel room in Prague with an uptight CIA guy. The result was hilarious, and I’d found the Max Chrome I wanted to write.
My second attempt yielded many great scenes, and a nemesis named Royce. I cannibalized the good stuff for use in this novel without shame. If you could read the failed novel and compare these scenes with how they appear in the new one you won’t recognize them. As I launched into this new project I quickly became stuck on a scene. I used the Steinbeck theory of moving past it to write the following chapters, and then coming back to fill in the problem chapter. This paid off. Later I was able to use elements from the lost chapter to finish a later one. Like Stephen King says, you have to kill your babies. I had written about Max entering a temple in the Afghan mountains loaded with Indiana Jones-type secret doors and booby traps, but the problem was it was too much for the story.
The characters who built this place in Afghanistan had built it quickly, so there would be no time to build for all the crap I put in there. I wasn’t listening to my characters. Plus I had built up Max’s fear of skydiving in the previous chapter, and I realized that this was where the story needed to go, following him out the door the plane into the night sky. This paid off with great stuff, and moved the story in a stronger direction. There would be six chapters that I would have to rewrite as they lost scent of the story. The first time I was frustrated but I quickly realized that the replacement chapters were so much stronger as I discovered that knowing where I didn’t want to go was as important as knowing where I was heading. There was no such thing as a waste of time, and this drove me farther.
Somewhere around chapter 17 the story took on a life of its own. By then two of my characters had become romantically involved, and I had a handful of new characters, including one named Baker who has become a central figure to the story. My story had developed a narrative engine that powered, governed, and drove the story along. Mistakes became fewer, and once I built to the climax I was able to quickly map out the key elements on the fly. When revision time rolls around I will have things to fix, but not many. I gave myself time too. I had no idea how the confrontation would go down. I tried to plan as much out as I could, but in the end when I sat down that day to begin the chapter I had no clue how the next eight chapters would unfold.
My fears vanished as my characters took charge. Not only Max, but my villains filled the chapter with surprises, suspense, and humor. It stopped being a writing exercise and became dictation as I typed the scenes inside my head as they rolled into focus. After each session I was jazzed. I would walk out of my room, often to go to work and on the drive in I would think about the next chapter. It had become easy.
The process had benefits in my short story writing too. I was taking more time, not much, but an extra beat here and there to add weight to the narrative. My shorts have become longer now that I am comfortable writing a longer story. There has been no down side to this entire adventure. So here’s my advice (again, this is mostly to my future self for when I get stuck):
- Don’t over plan the story. Have an idea where to go, but let your characters take you there.
- If you are stuck, write anyway. Even if the chapter you write is shit, you can rewrite it.
- If a chapter is shit – rewrite it. It will pay off, guaranteed.
- For crying out loud, write a story you care about. If you don’t care then nobody else will either, and you might as well write a textbook or something.
- Have a schedule. If you don’t feel like writing your novel that day then use the time to write something else. Stick to it as much as you can.
- Hey, if you don’t feel like writing on particular days then don’t. It’s a free country, and I’m not the boss of you. I’m barely the boss of me. But the novel won’t write itself.
- Research your plot points; they will fill your head with ideas. Researching ferry schedules on the Black Sea I received the gift of four chapters and an important plot development.
That’s really all I have to add to the thousands of other “Write your novel” advice columns. Either you’re a writer or you’re not. It’s the easiest thing and the hardest thing at the same time. If you aren’t writing then you’re not a writer. I’m driven to write now. I think about it the most. I doubt I will ever sell anything, but it has become a part of my identity. Good luck is made, and nobody has ever sold a story that wasn’t written. So keep on writing, my internet friends, it will save you.