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Day 17 Recap

Day 17 total: 1265 words      Total: 52,593/? (in progress)

Got a late start yesterday, no real excuses other than being afraid to confront the pages, which I sublimated into a mix of useful map-making mixed with cartographic procrastination. But it ended up all right. I went back through Chapter 1 and have almost whipped it into the kind of writing that I want. At the risk of jinxing myself, here’s the opening:

Fire rained down from the sky, setting canvas and flesh ablaze. Burning men and Goblins leapt from the rails and the rigging, falling like shooting stars into the sea, only to find that the water’s kiss would not extinguish the alchemical flames that ate their flesh.
Rone swam down, illuminated by the fires raging on the waves above him, pursuing the outline of a sinking wooden chest. He swam until the water grew murky and the chest was lost from sight, until the blood roared in his ears and he thought his lungs would burst.
In the fading light writhed a dark silhouette, a cloud of curious ink that paced his descent like a shadow.

D. Sims, Illyria’s Shadow*

Now, based upon reflection and advice from friends and family (and even from blogger vnw), I think the best thing to do is finish Chapter 1,  jump ahead to the last chapter of Act I, revise part of it with an eye toward facilitating the transition to the next section, and then move forward to Act II, leaving behind notes on what I might correct within those intervening chapters. I think the key for me was feeling as though I could polish the prose and evoke something of the sensations and mood that I wanted to create. But, as wiser people than me have noted, that’s for the revision stage.

Thought I’d mention a few more books and other resources that I’ve enjoyed referencing as I try to polish up aspects of the setting and give it more depth:

My tastes are nothing if not eclectic when it comes to history and sources. 🙂

Well, time to get to work.

*kind of a working title

Days 14, 15, & 16 Recap

Three-day total: 10,265 words      Total: 51,328*/? (see below)

Well, I haven’t posted for a while because I’ve hit a block and been unable to work around it with much success so far. Not a block in terms of getting words down, because I’ve been averaging over 3,000 words a day.

The problem is the number to the right hand side of that slash up above. My net total is actually decreasing because I keep reworking the first Act of the novel. I wrote three versions of the Act I ending, gateway chapter called for in my original outline before I realized that I just can’t make it work without hand-waving too much in the way of common sense. So I scrambled frantically to replot on Monday and then start revising/rewriting chapters to fit.

I’m now on target for six chapters in Act I instead of nine, and though the chapters have gotten a little longer, it’s still looking like perhaps 15,000 words total instead of 20,000.

I also got into a bit of a funk because I just don’t feel like my current writing does a good enough job of transporting the reader to another time and place, which is a key function of a fantasy story. This failing is partly due to the fact that I haven’t focused as much on thinking through all the little details of the setting for this effort, choosing instead to focus on character and story.

So right now I’m bummed. I can still say that this process has been useful because it is forcing me to write and work on story with an intensity I haven’t approached in many years, if ever. But I am less convinced each day that I’m producing a real novel manuscript. This inability to let go of flawed beginnings and sustain my personal faith in a novel through to the finish has dogged me before and I am afraid that I’m going to let myself down again.

Days 12 and 13 Recap

Today for the weekend: 8,463 words      Total: 41,603*/19,749 (see below)

Whewh! What a weekend. Saturday we went to a friend’s house to watch the Boise State football game for a few hours and Sunday we attended a big anniversary celebration for our church. I had sort of forgotten about both of these events when I made my big revision plans for the weekend. Absent-minded writers and all that.

I finished revising Chapter 3 and revised Chapters 4, 5, 6, and 7 as well. Major rewrites as I tried to do four things:

  • Shorten the chapters individually and the first Act as a whole (I’ve cut the average chapter length by nearly 9% and the length of Act I by nearly 20%)
  • Inject some more drama into some of the scenes
  • Improve the believability of how a few key characters acted in some big confrontations
  • Corrected a plot point problem I had overlooked the first time around

I saved snapshots of all the early chapter drafts in Scrivener so that I won’t lose anything interesting that could be reused later or reinserted based on reader comments somewhere down the line.

I am exhausted. Didn’t get my normal workouts done in my desperation to get everything done and keep up with my schedule plans. Hopefully I will be able to wrap up the revisions to Act I tomorrow and then push into Act II and just let the ideas flow. It seems to work best for me when I write freely to begin with, then come back through with a red pen mentality to edit the material. Sort of like building a model and then mashing up that clay and sculpting it again.

As far as word counts go, I’m just barely on track for my NaNoWriMo goal by one measure and well ahead of it by another, as you can see in the split counts above. Guess which measure I will use to evaluate my progress personally? 🙂

Day 11 Recap

Today: 3,821 words      Total: 32,600*/21,776 (see below)

*Revised based on some recounting and recalculation. Basically, the Excel worksheet told me I had the wrong total when I plugged in all the numbers. 🙂

I think yesterday went well. I rewrote the majority of Chapters 1 and 2, shortening them in the process. I had wanted to avoid rewriting on such a scale during this stage, but when you (a) make a significant change to the main character and (b) realize that your characters should be traveling by ship in the early chapters rather than by caravan, changes must be made. They may call camels the “ships of the desert” but it’s remarkable how little carryover there is from one set of descriptions to the next.

I’m also almost through revising Chapter 3. There were substantial rewrites there, but also blocks of text that I could keep in place. Some of the biggest changes have been cuts to the length. I’ve shaved 1,000 words off the first draft of the chapter so far and I think it reads better.

At this point I think that I will be combining Chapters 4 and 5 in addition revising and making some cuts to each. Then Chapters 7 and 8 need to be cleaned up, though if I’m down close to my total word count goal of 20k for Act I, I’ll be less concerned about handling that bit of business at this stage in the process. As for the Prologue, I’m not touching it for now, which technically means I’ve still got those 2,000 words available to cut if the Prologue disappears down the road. By its very nature, the Prologue doesn’t impact the immediate storyline in Act I, so I don’t feel the need to square it away before moving forward to Act II.

Anyway, as a result of all this, my total writing word count for the project window has gone up, while my net word count for the manuscript has gone down again. It’s odd seeing those two numbers moving in opposite directions during this phase. I think it’s all productive and part of the learning experience, however. Not wanting to cut or shorten scenes is a natural feeling, particularly this close to their creation. In the past I would have seen that I’ve already ditched 1/3 of my total output as a depressing sign.

But my perspective is starting to change. Finding the determination to make these cuts in the service of larger goals (clarity, continuity, marketability) is somewhat liberating. As is being able to bounce back from a bad day or two and forge ahead. For the first time in a long time, I feel as if I’m gaining control of my own writing process. I just hope that I can build up a discipline that I can carry through into a daily routine once I have more challenges. On the other hand, I go through a fair number of “dry periods” as a freelancer. Even being able to use those more productively to pursue my own goals would be a big step forward.

Day 10 Recap

Today: 3,249 words      Total: 27,477/23,869 (see below)

This post is fairly numbers heavy. In addition to all the issues of style and storytelling that have to be considered, there’s a valid set of quantitative considerations that come into play when hoping to create a marketable work of fiction. And the simple way to say that would be: the length of the book counts.

I’ve finished a first draft of the chapters that comprise Act I of the story arc. Allowing for the fact that I cut a few scenes and rewrote one early chapter draft, the total word count right now for Act I is 23,869. So my net total is less than the gross wordcount listed above (ew, gross wordcount sounds like I’m writing a Captain Underpants story). However, since the spirit of NaNoWriMo is to write at a furious pace and revisions are probably not a big part of that process during the initial 30 day window, I’m going to keep track of both net and gross figures. I think of it as having two parallel but distinct goals: boost my writing output with a word count goal and create a manuscript whose quality satisfies me.

That figure of about 24,000 words is interesting. At the moment I visualize the novel as being divided thusly: Act I=20%, Act II=60%, and Act III=20%. Those are rough estimates of course. But those proportions would leave me with an approximately 120,000 word novel. Based on the guidelines at this site, a small paperback novel usually works out to about 350 words per page. So 120K words would equal about 340-some pages. That seems reasonable to me at first glance. But I’ve seen other estimates that say plan for 250 words per page. That’s a BIG difference.

Moreover, it’s been suggested to me by friends who have explored this process that it can be hard for a new author to get an agent to look at a manuscript over 100K words long, particularly in this age of YA novels that run much shorter. That advice is also repeated in this blog postSo I’m going to revise my original goal and shoot for a manuscript that is 100,000 words. Given that new target, I want to avoid having Act I stretch out too long before propelling the reader into the middle section.

With these facts in mind, it looks like Act I is probably running too long at this stage; it should be closer to 20k words than 24k. Which is fine for the first draft. In addition, I think it’s likely that the Prologue will be cut entirely at some point, which saves 2,000 words right off the bat. However, if you look back at earlier posts, you’ll see that there are areas I was hoping to expand upon when revisiting these early chapters, such as environmental descriptions and little setting details.

So today, having escaped jury duty by the sheer luck of the draw (my number never came up), I’m going to use the unexpected writing time to review the first few chapters in Act I, synch them up with the more recent chapters in terms of what is revealed in the plot, and try to cut things down and streamline them.

If you are pursuing NaNoWriMo in its pure, official format, I think this sort of approach is probably counterproductive. The mindset required to tighten and clarify prose is quite a bit different from the one employed to spur creativity and boost word count. In my case, I have my own, personal window of opportunity to try to get most of the way through the manuscript at the end of 40 days.

I’ve seen some strongly worded advice that rewriting needs to wait until the bulk of the writing is complete. That makes intuitive sense to me. But I also think there might be some merit to improving my discipline at this stage by dealing with a discrete chunk of the story as a training ground, if you will. I guess I’m influenced by my experience with various exercise programs here: it doesn’t matter how much weight or how many reps you add to an exercise if your form is flawed. So I’m going to attempt to revise those early chapters and hope that it doesn’t derail me.

Day 9 Recap

Today: 4,097 words      Total: 24,228

Got through Chapter 7 and the bulk of Chapter 8. Coming up to the end of Act I, the “doorway” (to use Bell’s term from Plot and Structure) that the protagonist passes through that commits him to a new set of goals and challenges. A quick assessment of these chapters reveals that a fair number of the scenes could be taking place on a stage with no backdrop or scenery; they are largely dialogue and action. I do have some ideas in mind for key elements of the architecture I’d like to describe, so that’s something that I’ll need to add in when I revise.

I’ve noticed that when the writing begins to flow for me, the aspect most likely to be missing from the end product is description of place. This is no surprise, but just something to be aware of after these sorts of writing days. When the writing is a bit more of a slog, I’m more conscious of what I’m doing and I tend to take the time and effort to add more descriptive details of the environment. I suppose the takeaway is that there are positive aspects to both “good” and “bad” days at the keyboard.

It will be interesting to see if I’ve dumped too much expository setting info into some of these dialogue exchanges. It seems believable to me right now in the context of the conversation and I prefer to work it into dialogue rather than just have it sit there in a narrative paragraph, but I have a nagging feeling that when I read it over again some of it will feel forced. That’s really where having additional readers of the manuscript will help identify things that are escaping me.

On a similar point, I felt as though I had enough chapters in hand to create a chart displaying the word counts per chapter so far. It was very illuminating. (I find that after dealing with words all day, it’s very helpful to visualize parts of this process and activate a different portion of my brain.) After my big structural revision, I do seem to have achieved my goal of writing shorter chapters. But there are a couple big exceptions, and those chapters tend to have a slower pace to them. I’m not experienced enough or removed enough from the manuscript to know if these longer chapters will derail the pacing for the reader or if they will act as useful breaks, stepping down the momentum slightly for the reader to regroup before moving forward again. I have tentatively split one other long chapter that didn’t match the pattern of the others. Now I’m thinking it might be an action sequence that runs a little long, without a clear breaking point to use to increase or decrease the tension. It’s just hard to know how this will read when it’s fresh to someone else’s eyes.

That’s the sort of insight that comes from the combination of experience and feedback, I imagine. It’s hard to resist the urge to show this material to some of my trusted friends and colleagues right now. I’m blessed to have some great resources in that area: three professional technical writers, a creative writing student, two self-published authors, a couple university professors in the humanities, and a couple more people actively writing and submitting speculative short stories. These are all people who care about words and writing.

But in the past I’ve jumped the gun and shown people work that was either very rough or that never got completed. This time I want to hand over something that reads from start to finish, even if it reads in a flawed way. Today I’m hoping to wrap up the first Act and then perhaps take time to revise the earlier chapters so that I have a clear idea of what has been established in terms of character, plot, and setting before I jump into the many chapters and twists of Act II. It’s a pretty sure bet that I’ll have jury duty tomorrow, so that might be a good day to pause and reflect, review my outline, and make some notes so that I can jump into Act II with renewed focus. But first, grinding out Act I.

Day 8 Recap

Today: 2918 words      Total: 20,131

Finally got back on track in terms of making forward progress on the novel. Completed Ch 6 and got about halfway through Ch 7. Once again I got a sizable chunk of writing done in the evening before bed, so no blog update in the evening. I’m not counting a couple pages worth of handwritten scenes that I wrote in the car while waiting for my son’s piano practice to end, mostly because it’s a pain trying to estimate them! Hopefully I’ll be able to transfer those passages largely intact to the computer when I sit down later today. I can tell there’s going to be a lot of editing to do down the line with some of these chapters to craft them into a story that has the little nuances of character and setting that make great speculative fiction come alive.

On the other hand, I think I’m achieving my main goal of learning by doing. I’ve spent far too many years sitting around pondering the writing process rather than putting words on paper (or pixels on screens). I’m starting to gain confidence in my ability to evaluate the strengths and weaknesses of different scenes and note ways to improve them. That’s a big deal for me, as in the past I’ve often rewritten material without a clear set of goals in mind to guide the process, leading to endless recursions and little progress.

I also remind myself that it’s highly unlikely that the first novel I write will measure up to many of the fantasy and science fiction novels that inspire me when I’m writing. Those novels are generally the products of talented writers who honed their skills over time with a lot of prior publications. Everyone has to start somewhere. I don’t mind aiming high, but I’ve made the conscious decision to keep certain elements of this story, like point of view, fairly simple at this stage until I learn more about what I’m doing.

Finally, I’m learning more about how I react emotionally and physically to the process of writing intensely for myself. For example, in the past, writing right before bed has made it hard for me to sleep. Last night I listened to some very soothing Brian Eno music from the albums Ambient 2, Apollo, and Pearl during the last portion of my writing, then took some time to stretch before bed. The combination helped calm my mind and led to some peaceful dreams. I think I’ll try to stretch along to the music the next time I’m in this situation. I’m also coming to realize that I can’t work out as hard physically as I’ve been doing lately while also trying to write. Physical activity and exercise is very important for emotional/mental balance and well-being, but I have a limited reserve of energy to burn. So I’m going to try to dial back my routines a bit and incorporate more dynamic stretching and core work to compensate for all the time spent sitting and focused.

Heh, here I am writing as though the completion of this novel manuscript was a done deal. Based on my past efforts, it is no such thing. Based on how I feel right now and upon the steps I’ve tried to take to gain more control over the process, however, it seems like more of a possibility than ever before. As always, we’ll see.