Writers of Metafilter, please help me stay on track and keep going.
May 19, 2013 3:07 PM   Subscribe

Writers, and novelists or fiction writers in particular, can you share your goals, processes and timelines for each of your drafts?

Ten months ago, I asked for advice on launching a writing project. I bought a dozen how-to-write-a-novel books, I carved out a schedule, I shut down my social life except for family, I covered my apartment in index cards and notebooks and inspiration. I (almost) stopped imbibing, so I could be fresh and ready every day. Thank you all for the good words of advice. And now I need some more.

I didn't actually start until January, but I am now 250 pages in to my first draft, rounding the corner into Act Three, with a 100ish more pages to "The End," by the middle of June, I hope, I hope. I plan to take a couple weeks off and then go back and start again on page one for draft two.

My goal for draft #1 was just to get a beginning, a middle and an end on paper, stack the pages. My goal for draft #2 is to have a manuscript I actually show -- the whole thing -- to a few close, trusted readers.

Questions:

Did you find yourself writing in shorter chunks as you approached The End? I was regularly logging 1000 to 1500 words a day but as I come to the conclusion, I find it's taking me the same amount of time, with a smaller word output. Any thoughts on this?

Did you try to make all chapters the same length, or let each chapter be what it is? Did you name them or simply number them?

How did you approach draft two? What were your goals? How long did the second draft take?

Did you use online support (that isn't an official class)? Sites, blogs, etc.? I've got the podcasts covered, thanks to an earlier AskMe.
posted by thinkpiece to Writing & Language (8 answers total) 29 users marked this as a favorite
 
1. I find the ends harder and slower, yeah. There are more balls in the air to keep track of, and I can't get away with just fudging stuff knowing I'll fix it later.

2. In one book I mostly tried to keep the chapters the same lengths, but that went completely to hell once I started rewriting. In the next one, I'm making them a lot shorter and making every scene change a chapter break, which means some of them are longer and some are shorter. That may completely change on the rewrite, again.

As near as I can tell, the official wisdom on chapter length is "chapters are as long as they are." I have officially decided to not overthink it. If some day an editor wants me to handle it differently, then by God I'll do it differently, but until then I don't think it matters enough to stress over.

3. I've done one second draft, and my goal was to get all the bits that didn't make it out of my head the first time around onto the page. I consciously decided not to quibble over word choice - plot structure and character development was the point. But I am a chronic underwriter, which not everyone is, so your process may need to be different.

I got about three quarters of the way through it in six or so weeks. (Then I shelved it for logistical reasons - long story, really.) It went faster than writing from scratch, but not all that much faster, as I was adding a ton of new material - on the order of 50%-100% of each chapter, for many of the chapters.

4. I have a robust writing-focused twitter feed and enough twitter and facebook writer friends to commiserate when I need to gripe in public. Other than that, there are a bunch of links in this thread that are worth checking out.
posted by restless_nomad at 3:36 PM on May 19, 2013 [1 favorite]


Endings are difficult. I find it takes longer and goes slower. Part of that is because I don't know how things are going to end till I get really close. But I imagine that even if you've worked out all that stuff ahead of time things will still slow down at least somewhat as you try really hard to end on the right notes. Also you just lose energy. At the beginning it's all exciting and fun, towards the end it becomes a bit of a chore. At least that's how I feel.

I let chapter lengths be what they are. I had never thought about controlling their lengths, though my writing style is such that chapters are always pretty short.

For fiction I only number chapters. This is obviously a matter of personal style but I feel that having names for chapters feels old-fashioned and busy. I prefer that kind of modern simplicity of just having a number. But I could certainly see having chapter names and epigraphs and going all out like that if it really fits and not done just 'cause.

My workflow is a bit different in that I heavily edit as I go along. There is no clear indication when one draft ends and another begins. By the time I reach the end the first chapter has probably been rewritten 20 times. After I finish I'll still go through and redo things but they don't feel like drafts. But like I said, my approach is different here.

No online support. I have two friends whose opinions I trust/respect and I'll ask them things when needed. I write in a particular style that's at least a little outside the norm and I feel like any advice that does not take everything I think about art and writing into account won't be particularly useful. These two friends of mine are almost exactly like me when it comes to artistic tastes so their advice is useful. If a community exists that shares your same ideas then great, use them, but I'd be wary of leaning on them too much.
posted by bfootdav at 3:40 PM on May 19, 2013 [1 favorite]


Did you find yourself writing in shorter chunks as you approached The End? I was regularly logging 1000 to 1500 words a day but as I come to the conclusion, I find it's taking me the same amount of time, with a smaller word output. Any thoughts on this?

Not an expert, but maybe because the end of a story has a lot riding on it? Everything has to be tied up. A common complaint is that a plot started out ok but the ending was disappointing. Many good stories can be foiled by the lack of a good ending because it seems like the themes of the book don't really converge, the characters don't develop in the way the reader hoped, or whatever it is. And a good ending can really elevate a book. Some of the books that I remember most fondly have endings that are literally impossible to put down, due to how the author paced it. You just want to see what the characters will do next. It seems like everything is perfectly arranged to intensify the themes in the book, but also resolve them. I think it's easy to think of examples of each kind of book- ones that are gripping in the middle but get disappointing near the end, and ones that become unpredictably fascinating at the end. Maybe it's also partly the 80-20 rule or something like that thrown in there.
posted by kettleoffish at 3:57 PM on May 19, 2013


Endings are easy for me. Once I have all the pieces in place, my book tends to be a rapid downhill tumble that almost feels like it writes itself. In fact, my output typically triples in that period (whereas my middles tend to be a slog). The only times this hasn't happened was when I'd failed to put the structural elements in place to make the ending gripping (this usually requires a total rewrite). But then, I never, ever start a book without an ending in mind. Do you know how your book is going to end? You might be losing steam because that's a pretty big, lingering question.

I typically use beta readers, who are integral for second drafts. On early drafts, I typically ask for bigger, structural edits: character consistency, pacing, logical gaps. Because my beta readers are awesome, they usually send me this feedback in some sort of editorial letter which will list each issue out, one-by-one. After I receive editorial feedback, I'll take a few days to mull over it. Revisions are where Scrivener comes in really handy, particularly the split-screen feature. I'll typically go through a manuscript scene-by-scene, updating each with new text. Moving through in order is important for me, so that I can address each plot thread and its impact on the text holistically.

As for chapter length, it really depends on genre. I like each chapter to be short enough to be read in one sitting, but mine trend long for my genre (some as long as five thousand words!). Each project I've written has a different numbering system, whether chapter names or numerals or even decimals, for one. It depends on what sort of book that is.

I use online support--twitter, as restless_nomad says--and at one point I heavily relied on absolutewrite. But at this point I tend to be off on private forums and boards with writing friends from other communities.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 4:02 PM on May 19, 2013 [2 favorites]


Did you find yourself writing in shorter chunks as you approached The End? I was regularly logging 1000 to 1500 words a day but as I come to the conclusion, I find it's taking me the same amount of time, with a smaller word output. Any thoughts on this?

Endings are the fastest part for me. In fact, when I get toward the ending, I often find myself getting back up at night to work more. It's all there and I have to get it out of my brain. The exposition is where I slog. Regardless of where I am in the book, I require myself to write at least 1000 new words per day. if I write more than that, then yay, but it doesn't roll over. New 1000 words each day until it gets done.

Did you try to make all chapters the same length, or let each chapter be what it is? Did you name them or simply number them?

I try to make them somewhat uniform. When people read, part of what sets the pace of the book is how long the chapter is. Can they finish a chapter in a night? Is this STILL the same chapter? If you teach readers early on that a Chapter is 10 pages, and then they're suddenly 40 pages, it's unsettling and makes the book feel uneven. But that's also true in reverse- if you teach readers a Chapter is 40 pages, then suddenly they're all 10 pages, they feel truncated. Uniformity!

And as for the chapter heading, I do whatever is right for the book. I've done numbers, I've done alternating names. I did one book with screenwriting headings; I did another with mathematical expressions. Just whatever

How did you approach draft two? What were your goals? How long did the second draft take?

The second draft's goal depends on what I did in the first. If I was just slapping words down to get the shape of the book on the page in the first, then second draft's job is to actually tell the story. But generally what I do is go back and fix stuff I knew I broke at the time, re-read and find things I didn't realize I had broken-- and then get notes from other people.

If one person has a problem, it's an opinion. If everybody has that problem, then it's an error I need to fix. I like to do little fixes first and work up to the big ones because it makes me feel like I'm accomplishing something.

If the manuscript is really, really broken, then it may take a couple of months to fix it. If it was pretty tight, then maybe a couple of weeks. (I have one book that I wrote in 2002 that I know it would take me at least a year to "fix", so I haven't even tried to revise it.)

But for me, second draft's goal is "I can show this to my agent now." Or "I can turn this in to my editor now." If you aren't agented or contracted, you might want your goal to be closer to a perfected manuscript.

Did you use online support (that isn't an official class)? Sites, blogs, etc.? I've got the podcasts covered, thanks to an earlier AskMe.

Mostly, I just suck it up myself and get it done. Sometimes I will yowl at my friends or my agent if things are especially bad. But yowling doesn't get stuff done. I feel better if I can just point myself at the manuscript and plow through it.
posted by headspace at 4:56 PM on May 19, 2013 [3 favorites]


Did you find yourself writing in shorter chunks as you approached The End? I was regularly logging 1000 to 1500 words a day but as I come to the conclusion, I find it's taking me the same amount of time, with a smaller word output. Any thoughts on this?

1000 words per day is the baseline expectation I set on myself, but I know from experience that I can cover much more ground than that if I know what I'm doing and I'm not frequently distracted. Being at the beginning, middle or end seems less of an issue than my knowing precisely what will happen.

With my first novel (urban fantasy), everything was character driven and I just went with "what would [this gal/guy] do next?" and let that dictate things, but I wasn't writing super seriously. My 2nd novel was sci-fi, and I'd had the climax in my head for many years before actually writing it, so my trouble was in getting there in the first place. Now I'm on the sequel to the 1st book, and it has taken weeks to crawl through my climax piece because there are just too many characters and moving parts... but I feel obligated to keep them for various reasons. Mostly I think it's dependent on how clear an idea you have of what you want going in on a particular piece. There will always be highs and lows.


Did you try to make all chapters the same length, or let each chapter be what it is? Did you name them or simply number them?

I don't try terribly hard with that until I'm done with the rough draft. I try to hammer them into place after that. There was much more consistency in my second book than my first, but I just push on through. I'm a fan of naming chapters, but I can see how it's an unnecessary detail for a lot of folks.

How did you approach draft two? What were your goals? How long did the second draft take?

I googled around for "commonly misused words" and "overused words" and such. I edited myself like crazy and tried with each paragraph to tighten every sentence as much as I could while still getting the same points across. Off-the-cuff eloquence is a wonderful talent, but in writing most of that eloquence comes as a matter of constant revision.
posted by scaryblackdeath at 5:49 PM on May 19, 2013


If one person has a problem, it's an opinion. If everybody has that problem, then it's an error I need to fix.

I tend to agree with this in the abstract, but even that one person's opinion is worth chewing on. They may have poor reading comprehension skills. They may be reading what they want into a given scene or sentence based on personal experiences vastly different from mine. Or maybe they're more insightful than other readers. It's always worth considering how they came to their conclusions and then considering whether the point of feedback should be addressed.
posted by scaryblackdeath at 5:54 PM on May 19, 2013


Invaluable, thanks all.
posted by thinkpiece at 10:46 AM on May 23, 2013


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