Lessons of 100,000 Words

No one should run a marathon the day after they completed a half marathon.

Now, I’m no expert on running. I’ve tinkered with the idea of competing in marathons in the past, in the same speculative tones one might discuss owning a yacht or where they’d put the action figure collection in their mansion(wait, is that just me?). I’ve even gone as far to buy running shoes and planned practice routes, but as my decidedly un-Dwyane “The Rock” Johnson physique will attest, those ideas have died faster than the guy with a picture of his girl back home in a war movie. So I don’t really know if the advice that leads off my column is necessarily sound, but common sense plus a quick Google search suggest I’m right.

Yet, in a literary sense, that’s how I’ve spent the last two months. Due to a variety of factors I spend most of September listening to writing podcasts, flipping through books on craft and starting to read extensively in the genres I’m interested in. This all led into my decision to one again tackle National Novel Writing Month in November. I started to do some research for my book, everything from MMORPG(Massive Multiplayer Online Role Playing Games for the uninitiated) to the Maori language, all of which I assure you applies to the same book.

Then October rolled around, and I reposted a story I’m still reasonably proud of that had a Halloween theme. Inspired by that and my own memories of the holiday, I came up with a fairly ludicrous plan: One month before NaNoWriMo, I’d produce three more stories, one a week, leading up to Halloween. About halfway into the second Halloween story, I questioned the wisdom of the idea, and probably haven’t really stopped ever since.

Late Sunday night into Monday morning, I typed the last few words of my book1, and clocked in a final word count of 70,362 words for the zero draft of the book(if you’re curious what the zero draft is, check out this awesome explanation by the wonderful Leigh Bardugo). Combined with the three new Halloween short stories and a couple of blog posts along the way, that’s over 100,000 words in the space of two months.

Other than having fiction dribbling out of my ears and making me question my sanity, what did I gain from the process? Well, I’m glad you asked, imaginary question asker in the writer’s brain. Here’s a few takeaways from the experience.

I learned a lot about my revision process. There are writers who live for the first draft, and writers who write for the edit. I’m definitely in the first group, and at one point in time I fancied myself a Lawrence Block type of writer, who could produce great copy that needed only minor revision after its completion. I chalk part of this up to my apprenticeship in fan fiction and, to a lesser extent, message board and journal RP, where work goes up quickly in an attempt to garner a response.

As I tried to take raw ideas and convert them into serviceable fiction, I applied the zero draft idea to try and piece the basic elements of the story together and to explore the concepts. While I’ll come back to this later, this probably led to my biggest takeaway of the short story challenge, specifically finding a revision process that worked for me. After producing the zero draft, I reread it the next day and took notes as to how I could best craft the narrative for maximum impact. A second draft follow, which I then printed and looked for bigger grammatical and plotting issues. Then, if time allowed, I’d do another pass to root out the smaller issues and iron out any remaining bumps.

Doing the revisions in rapid succession over a short space of time forced me to hone the process and learned the best environments to work in. Specifically, working away from the computer and then retyping the story the first few times minimized distractions and made me reevaluate each line that went into the story. It’s also a great way to make more typos, but that’s the price you pay.

…I should also point out that this blog post is very much a “draft one and done” project, so I’ve not given it up completely.

I found benefit in “pantsing” the story. Pantsing, or working without an outline, is how I handled most of my writing this month, and even a story like Masquerade came about based on a simple two paragraph outline and scenes and entire characters were added over the course of its creation. I’m starting to see myself as an instinctual writer, something that comes with positives and negatives. While I tend to deviate from the narrative and sometimes create more work for myself, I’ve woven in themes and motifs that I couldn’t have planned otherwise.

In The Echo of Hattie Palmer, for example(and there are spoilers ahead if you’ve not already given it a read), one of my beta readers pointed out that early in the story, Maya brings home a stack of books to try and free Hattie’s ghost from its connection to the farmhouse, which then comes back later on when Hattie is freed, in a fashion, by the books Maya wrote about the character based on Hattie. Now, I didn’t intend that, but I like the way it brought the story together.

Similarly, in my NaNo project, I went with only the vaguest idea of a story, a girl meets her friend from an MMORPG, someone who seems to think she is the character she plays online. I can’t begin to tell you how much that story changed, but the most prominent example comes with a member of the supporting cast.

She’s a joy to write, a character whose voice comes naturally to me and whose complexity and internal conflict make her possibly the book’s most well rounded character coming out of the zero draft. And until a third of the way through the draft, she didn’t even exist. I needed her to serve a plot related function, but as she developed she had a half dozen connections to other pieces of the story, and now I can’t imagine telling it without her.

Self imposed deadlines make life more difficult. Writing three stories in October meant I needed to complete several drafts of a story each week, and I wanted to have the story read to post online every Friday. While I missed this by a few days on the last story, the extra few days didn’t make the process any easier.

In fact, I believe I could have made all three stories stronger if I hadn’t pressured myself to complete and post them by a certain time. Beyond some of the little errors that I’ve noticed, there are sections of each story that I would have liked to develop further or changed in some way. There’s something to be said for setting a deadline to make sure you keep working on a project, but unless you’ve promised to deliver work to a client or publisher by a certain date, you should be flexible with the deadlines you set.

When I tackle the revision of my NaNo project, I hope to have it done in a month’s time, but I’m not going to beat myself up if I don’t make that goal. Likewise, I’d like to produce a Christmas story this year, but I’m not going to put other things on hold in order to make it happen. Finding a happy medium between deadlines and producing the best work you can is crucial. At the same time, if nothing else, I’m hopeful the stories existing as they are might be of some benefit to other writers to see the honest results of the process I tried.

And speaking of timelines…

It’s important to make your work evergreen. Now, I don’t think any of the Halloween Challenge, with the exception of Masquerade, are tied to heavily to the holiday. However, if you’re posting your Halloween story at the end of October, there’s naturally going to be a limited shelf life for it as everyone’s attention turns to pumpkin spice and carols. As a result, I’ve decided if I can’t finish the Christmas story, or at least post the first chapter, by mid December, it might not be worth completing.

Making your work evergreen, or relevant throughout the year and in time, is important. There are a few references in my NaNo project that might be dated in a few years. Heck, they might even be dated by the time I start revising the book. In my Path of the Just stories, I make several references to a cartoon and toyline. While creating my own series helps me avoid nasty trademark issues, it also keeps the story from being dated. For example, there’s no Michael Bay to make my invented cartoon stories a buzzword for bad movies.

I wasn’t afraid to have fun with my writing. There’s a section in the NaNo project that is pure self indulgent fanboy. The character is a thinly veiled reference to a recurring villain from one of my favorite JRPG series, he’s using swords that are clearly intended to be famous weapons like the Sword of Omens and Cloud Strife’s Buster Sword, and there’s a lot of really silly dialogue to set the scene up.

None of this will probably make it into even the next draft of the book. I wrote the scene when I was really struggling with what needed to happen next(a definite drawback to the pantsing process), and writing that scene let the words fly onto my keyboard. Some of the dialogue might remain, and who knows, maybe some of those subtle(and not so subtle) nods will find a place in the story as well. It helped me overcome writer’s block, and the general bones of the scene can easily be used with another, less derivative character.

Seriously, if you’re having trouble writing, just do something silly for the sake of being silly. Throw Han Solo or Freddy Krueger or Peter Parker into the scene if the mood strikes you. At worst, you’ll free your writing and be able to attack the scene with renewed energy. You might even find it gives you an idea of the kind of character you need to make the scene move. Who knows? You might even find a compelling, original cast member who has only the most vestigial of connections to what came before.

Every writer has their own process. While this should be blazingly obvious to anyone, sometimes it’s hard to acknowledge this until you find your own. The writing resource section at any book store is jam packed with books that purport their way is the only way to craft a salable novel or short story. I’ve also sat in classrooms where teachers have been very strict on how to construct a story, and seen talented writers fail to produce under those conditions.

Listen to interviews with half a dozen different writers, and you’ll hear a half dozen different techniques. Some writers need the structure of an outline and notecards full of detail. Others can work from a basic concept and have no idea where the story might end. While I’m a huge proponent of the zero draft proposed by Leigh Bardugo, I can’t get move on without at least blocking out the basic beats of an action scene or dramatic reveal.

And how do you find your process? On a basic level, I suspect you already have an idea of what works for you. But don’t be afraid to experiment, trying new and different techniques. If they don’t work for you, then you never have to use them again. But if you find a benefit, it’s another widget in the tool chest, and we can always use a few more widgets, can’t we?

With the benefit of hindsight, would I take on the two projects back to back again? I’m not sure. I certainly learned a lot, and at the moment I think I produced some decent enough work to share with people. On the other hand, there were times when the words wouldn’t come and the stress level increased exponentially. You’ll find, especially when you’re editing your work over and over again, there are certain pet phrases and weaknesses in your writing that stand out under the unrelenting glare of that intense of a process, and it’s easier to doubt yourself as a result.

Strangely enough, though, none of this has diminished my drive to create. I felt a strange void when I wrote out that last words and got my final word count. That’s part of the reason I’m writing this post, and part of the reason why part of my evening after work will involve giving the Christmas story a go.

I think I finally love writing again, and, for me, that’s the biggest takeaway of all.

1. “Let’s go exploring!” for those of you who are curious, and yes, if you recognize the line, it’s deliberate. Don’t worry, it spoils nothing and will probably be changed in revision.

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