I wrote just short of 50,000 words of a novel... But now I'm not sure where to go from here.
March 5, 2012 9:17 PM   Subscribe

I wrote just short of 50,000 words of a novel... But now I'm not sure where to go from here. Help me come up with a game plan to finish it. Details inside.

I've been writing fiction for years now. Last year I decided I needed to set myself a stretch goal to work on something longer than the 10-20 page stories I was writing before. I wanted a goal that was realistic, not overly-ambitious but also challenging enough that I would come out of it a better writer than when I started.

Being a mathy sort of guy, I decided this goal should be quantifiable. So I did a little calculation based on a very conservative figure for how much I could write in an average day (given weekends, travel, and writer's block, plus other writing urges that I might like to indulge in). I came up with 50,000 words.

After one year of work, I did it. I wrote just short of 50,000 words of a novel... But now I'm not sure where to go from here.

In retrospect, the word count goal seems misguided. The 'doneness' of a novel has nothing to do with length. (I suppose my 'doneness' measure is more like 'published', but that's a problem for later.) The piece I produced is three large chunks of mostly related plot, which I mostly know how to put together. Then there are scattered pieces that I want to include, but can't quite figure out where they fit. I worry that focusing on length has led me to follow tangential plot lines that I would otherwise have ignored in the interests of continuity.

But the word count milestone was just so damn useful as a motivator. A problem I frequently have in sticking to my writing projects is that I'll quickly give up if I come back days later to an uncompleted, disorganized work. The word count gave me a sense that this is a continuous project and I need to pick up where I left off. It gave me a quantifiable, measurable thing to work toward. I could see my goal being reached just by glancing at one number, and hold myself accountable because I knew how much writing I was expected to do, statistically, every day.

Part of me worries that I'm deluding myself by looking for simple measurable 'progress' instead of reaching for an artistic goal. Then again, maybe the word count thing can be a useful tool, as long as it's not taken too seriously.

For a few stretches, I was writing at least an hour every evening. I have a day job that usually does not completely exhaust me, leaving a bit of energy at the end of the day. But often I found myself getting writer's block, and my S.O. does not approve of my hobby infringing on dinner time, so I tried a morning shift. I found myself worrying about being late to work in the mornings, plus I'm a bit of a night owl, so I'm off that schedule now.

I really do care about this project and now that I've bitten off a sizable chunk, I want to finish it. Does the word count milestone make sense for pacing? Should I write in the mornings or in the afternoon? Where do I set the next milestone, if I don't know how long I really want this to be? (I was imagining ~250 pages, but that's just an estimate based on the scope of the story.) Should I set another milestone – say, to complete 80,000 words by June 1st? When do I need to start editing, or should I lay off on the editor's pen until I've got what I think is a working draft?
posted by deathpanels to Writing & Language (16 answers total) 17 users marked this as a favorite
You might read through the forums at NaNoWriMo, which challenges people to write a 50,000 word novel in a month, so basically ends up with a lot of people where you are now. One of the forum subsites is on "Novel Draft Aftercare: Revising, Rewriting, Editing, Submitting & Publishing", so that may be especially useful.
posted by brainmouse at 9:22 PM on March 5, 2012 [1 favorite]

You need to write when it is good for you. If that happens to be at dinner time, you will need to explain to your S.O. that this is what you need to in order to finish something that is clearly important to you.

As for word count - 80 000 or roundabouts is a standard novel. If what you have is the first draft, it's likely that you will flesh things out once you start revising. Alternatively, you might end up cutting things and the ms will turn into a novella or a short novel.

Mapping might help you with bridging sections. Make a big chart with characters, significant plot events etc. and look at it every day. Connections will begin to form, and you are likely to find bridging aspects as you turn all the aspects of what you already have over in your mind.

Good luck!
posted by New England Cultist at 9:27 PM on March 5, 2012 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Not sure I'm too interested in tricks. That Nanowrimo post actually includes this as advice:
Over complicate everything
..which is what I want to not do. I don't want to avoid actually writing in the service of the word count.
posted by deathpanels at 9:27 PM on March 5, 2012

Response by poster: I actually had to do some mapping to like New England Cultist has suggested in order to pick up after a long period of writer's block (nothing upsets a work in progress like moving and starting a new job in the same week). Can you recommend any software for mapping out a plot?
posted by deathpanels at 9:29 PM on March 5, 2012

Best answer: Initial thoughts:

1) Motivating yourself to 50k is no mean feat! If appealing to your mathy side is what helped you do it, why not apply that strategy again? This time, instead of ticking up toward a wordcount, how reducing the number of disjointed chunks you have? Say you have 10 segments now, and you want to have only 9 by the end of [insert time period], 8 the next. Think of it as a graph connectedness problem, where you're joining the vertices and reducing the number of components. If you like, you can even set wordcount goals on writing the filler between sections, if you have a rough idea how much story needs to go between each.

1a) The reason I don't think using wordcount as your sole milestone makes sense anymore is that by this point, I think you have most of the story either down or floating around somewhere. What's going to decide the length of the story isn't your milestone, but the story itself.

2) Very important to keep on a roll. You have a great habit formed (engaging with your novel on a nightly basis), don't let yourself lose it!

3) On the other hand, it's a good idea to alternate periods of intense creation with periods of intense revision. I think of the rough draft as squeezing paint onto a canvas, assembling the broad colors you want. Next is where you take a brush to it and pick out the lovely details, rework dialogue and cut out deadwood and add that first layer of polish. Writing is (can be) a process of alternating between the two modes that both gives you a chance to recharge different parts of your brain, and lets you step back and see the broad picture, then step forward and look at the fine detail. I am not a painter.

4) Celebrate! You're doing great! Feedback can also be motivational. Might your friends or your SO like to take a peek?
posted by segfault at 9:36 PM on March 5, 2012 [2 favorites]

I use this synopsis worksheet for everything I write. It's a little formulaic (based, in fact, on the Hero's Journey), but it gives you, in broad strokes, the major "beats" for a standard commercial story. Try filling it out for your story. If you reach a point where you're not quite sure how to fit together the pieces, think about it for a few days, until something clicks.

Part of me worries that I'm deluding myself by looking for simple measurable 'progress' instead of reaching for an artistic goal. Then again, maybe the word count thing can be a useful tool, as long as it's not taken too seriously.

You weren't deluding yourself. Every novel has a set number of words. The problem is that the number of necessary words varies according to various plot and character needs. You'll get better at figuring out how long a book "should" be as you keep writing. I think your plan of raising the word count to 80,000 words sounds great. Do that!

At this stage of the game, I'd focus on getting a full draft out, not editing. Editing is a whole 'nother story. Come back and talk to us when you finish your draft. We'll help you then!
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 9:42 PM on March 5, 2012 [3 favorites]

I agree with PhoBWanKenobi. Don't stop halfway through to go back and edit, because there is the very good chance you will end up in an evil loop of revising. Finish the first draft. Then edit. If you're anything like me, my first drafts are usually pretty average, whereas my rewrites and revisions kick ass. That's just the kind of writer I am.

As for mapping software, I find getting away from a computer to map is better, especially if you are writing the novel on a computer, which I assume you are. There's something to say for a pencil and a piece of paper.
posted by New England Cultist at 10:40 PM on March 5, 2012

Have you *tried* doing the thing where you just write to achieve the word count? I went through the NaNoWriMo process, and I was initially resistant to that approach. Eventually I got more comfortable with it, though, and while it sometimes turns up a lot of chaff, it got things going in fun directions that I might not have explored if I spent too much time thinking of it. Besides, you'll probably want to rewrite a lot of it once you cross the finish line. If you DON'T want to rewrite most of it, start showing that finished first draft to a trustworthy friend who you can rely to give you earnest feedback. They may point out one simple detail that has you completely rethinking your story.

But yeah, come back when the first draft is done. Right now you tie up your story. Schedule time to do it. Either force yourself to do 1000 words a day or to start writing and not stop for 45 minutes. You gotta get the words out there to make room in your brain for new ones, and I think you should stop dicking around with your schedule - set something (that's agreeable with your household) and stick to it. This is the Nanowrimo discipline. If it sounds untenable, that's cause you're not really that enthusiastic about writing (kidding. Sort of.)

After that, you may find it useful to read up on story structure theories etc. and if/how you can apply them to your story. Again, show it to a friend who'll be honest with you. Then revise!

Also, consider doing nanowrimo in the fall. It should be easy for you -look at all this practise you've got! And it's fun!
posted by TangoCharlie at 10:56 PM on March 5, 2012

Best answer: deathpanels: I really do care about this project and now that I've bitten off a sizable chunk, I want to finish it. Does the word count milestone make sense for pacing? Should I write in the mornings or in the afternoon? Where do I set the next milestone, if I don't know how long I really want this to be?

Different writers have different ways of working. For instance, China Miéville sets each chapter a certain word-count minimum and writes to fit that. I tend to not worry about that, but in my field novels of 40000 words are perfectly acceptable (and I have edited books published as novels that were as short as 22000 words, but I work in a very different publishing culture from the Anglophone one). That said, with 50000 words, what I would start doing now is figuring out a good end point and head for it. If word-count milestones work for you, keep to it (e.g. pick an ending and give yourself 30000 words to get there). You seem to have found a good writing schedule for yourself. Keep to it. Don't worry about revising right now, but also don't worry if you feel like doing some revision from time to time. All author have their own ways of working and there's no right or wrong way. To give one example of a working method which would horrify a lot of writers, William Gibsons starts each morning by revising his entire manuscript.
posted by Kattullus at 11:09 PM on March 5, 2012 [2 favorites]

The software I use for plot mappping is very complex: a pen and a stack of 3 x 5 notecards. You take all the elements of your pilot, stick 'em of a card and move them around until they make sense. You'll see plot holes and where you're getting bogged down and where you've got areas without any big set piece, etc. I LOVE my notecards. Plus: they're cheap to try.
posted by Countess Sandwich at 11:35 PM on March 5, 2012 [2 favorites]

Greatest advice from an English prof in a creative writing class:
First drafts are for gettting it all down. Revision is for rewriting the crap out of it. (loosely)
Finish your first draft. Take the story where it needs to go now. Finishing a draft by no means is like finishing the story. You still have a lot of work to do to rewrite and make this into a coherent novel. Don't stress over it; take it one step at a time.
posted by DoubleLune at 2:09 AM on March 6, 2012

The word count was a good motivator to get you started. but now you have three chunks of plot that you know how to put together; it strikes me that "putting them together" could be a perfectly fine new motivator. The "new milestone" then becomes the thing itself ("I just have to link these things into one story") rather than a word count -- it'll be what it is.

And don't worry about the length. Novellas exist as a concept because someone somewhere wrote something that didn't fit the word count of either "short story" or "novel," and they had to call it something.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 4:25 AM on March 6, 2012

Part of me feels bad recommending a how-to-write-your-novel book, particularly one written by a friend, but Nail Your Novel by Roz Morris is really good. Roz has been an editor and ghost-writer for moer than a decade,r really knows her subject and knows how to communicate it.

From my own perspective (fourteen books), do not start editing or rewriting until your first draft is done. Longform writing is like running across a swimming pool full of custard: you can do it, and it's an amazing feeling, but the moment you lose momentum you're going to start sinking.

I've written books to a fixed length (usually set by a publisher) and the only way I can reliably deliver to that length is just write and write, in the knowledge that 10-25% of it is going to have to be cut at the editing stage. Writing a first draft to a fixed length is fine if you're a member of an experimental writing group, but it's no way to build a novel.
posted by Hogshead at 5:48 AM on March 6, 2012

I faved your question because I'm about where you are in my own novel (and am embarrassed to admit just how long I've been there)!

The length of your draft is a good sign - shows you didn't quit at an earlier stage, so you began with an idea that worked for you and took you pretty far. The middle of things is always the hardest place to find yourself plot-wise. But it can be really fun sorting it out!

I'd recommend looking at your main character right now. The plot of your story will unfold pretty naturally if your main character has a tough problem that he is trying to solve. Throw lots of obstacles at the character, and other characters who are trying to derail him, subtly or not so subtly. Let your main character have a couple of triumphs, and then sock him with a brand new catastrophe that seems far worse than the others.

And then...

Let your character find a way out of the mess. So by the end of the book your main character will have lost something - an old dream, a cherished illusion, a relationship or two, his innocence, etc. But his hard-won gains in self-development, new courage or insight, a new point of view, or whatever - will make it all worth it.

I would emphasize that the solution to the mess has to be discovered by your character - it shouldn't arrive conveniently from outside.

Your main character should be different by the end of the story than he was at the start.

Good luck and have fun!
posted by cartoonella at 8:33 AM on March 6, 2012 [1 favorite]

I'm pretty sure that it's "different strokes for different folks" when it comes to writing, so what works for others may not suit you, and you'll need to experiment to find what does.

That said, it seems to help me with most kinds of writing if I think of the process as: write version 0.1, and then expect to do major editing and rework on it. In my case that often includes significantly trimming things down and removing the sidelines that don't need to be there.

Now it might be that at your 50k milestone it'll suit you to take a pause and do some refactoring right here. Or another way would be to just shoot for that 100k milestone next, or whatever seems to make sense in terms of reaching something that can stand as a whole.

If you can find some metrics that you can watch visually (progress bar or whatever) that might help you too. Metrics might be words or chapters or scenes or whatever fits. I personally would probably benefit from having something that I could see clearly moving every day. Though that could be just a journal where I note a line or few about what I accomplished.
posted by philipy at 9:51 AM on March 6, 2012

The book The Weekend Novelist is surprisingly helpful.
posted by Sidhedevil at 10:44 AM on March 6, 2012

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