On (my first time) Writing (a novel)
The ups, the downs, and the semi-triumphant finish
I’m usually pretty shy about the fact that I spend my free time writing *gasp* fiction. Yes, that’s right: I make stuff up in my head, and then I put that stuff down on paper and secretly hope people will pay attention to it. How weird, self-indulgent, and sort of gross is that?
Anyway, I happened to have a lot of extra free time this spring (aka I quit my job and moved across an ocean), and I figured it was now or never for a novel. I also figured some Internet folks might be interested in how I did it. So here we are.
I’ve been turning a particular idea around in my mind for a long time, and a couple of years ago I went so far as to write a short story based loosely on the concept, which landed in a wonderful genre-bending literary journal. But I didn’t start writing the novel in earnest until January 26, 2016. Yes, I marked the date on my calendar. I accept your pity.
At first, things moved along pretty smoothly. By the end of the first week, I’d produced a smidge over 10K — a word count only possible because I’d already outlined the big-picture plot and done a fair amount of world building. Sure, a lot of the plot points that I started with initially blew up later, but what people say is true: word vomiting works. And I word vomited big time that first week. Like, a severe-dehydration-take-me-to-the-hospital-before-I-die amount.
By the end of week two, I was banging on the door of 20K and feeling pretty cocky about the whole endeavor. I’ll have a draft in three months, just like Stephen King says you should. No problem. But let me hurry up and admit this before I sound like a jerk: After the first 20K, I stalled. Totally and completely. And it took me another three weeks before I could manage to limp across the 30K mark. The 40Ks were even worse; 45K was essentially the mid-life crisis of my novel.
What happened? Basically, I waded into mental quicksand. By 30K, I’d exhausted my initial plot outline and was slogging through new scenes and wrestling with integrating new secondary characters. I then gave in to temptation and reread pages from the first two weeks. And, of course, those pages were terrible. A lot, and I mean a lot, of the dialogues and descriptions just weren’t working. I tried to fix them and made them more terrible. So then I felt terrible. And then I started to worry that this whole thing was just an exercise in vanity (of course this is an exercise in vanity). I told myself that I should do laundry rather than sit in front of the computer for yet another hour. And then we ran away to Budapest for a second, and so on, and so on.
But even though I slowed way, way down in terms of word count progress, I never completely stopped working. I kept picking at the draft, and every day, I added a few hundred words here, a few hundred words there. I stopped rereading. I stopped planning scenes, and instead, I tried to just let them evolve. I changed the plot to accommodate these new, more natural developments. And I only wrote scenes I felt enthusiastic about that day; if I couldn’t summon the energy to write a transitional section or flashback that I thought I “needed,” I didn’t worry about it and assumed I’d do it later. (I never did, and the story is better for it.)
The pickings added up. On April 1, no joke, I hit 60K. I made a major change to the ending of my story (involving a squirrel), and I felt #inspired again. 60K is a totally arbitrary number, and it’s still well short of the average debut novel length, but for me, it was a number that felt hefty enough to tell myself this is happening. I imagine this is how people feel about getting to 50K during NaNoWriMo.
I took most of the next week off to hang out in Amsterdam, but the 60K happy hangover stuck with me. I told the husband he was on dinner duty for the next week couple of weeks, and I pounded my way to 80K. That didn’t make for a totally complete draft — I still had some pesky sex scenes to add, among other things — but I decided I’d come close enough to call the pile of words in front of me The First Draft.
I refused to formally celebrate, though, because despite my pride in having word vomited the most words I had ever vomited in my life, I knew in my heart of hearts that, well, the book was shit. No other way to put it. And I also knew that the real work was just beginning. So much for three months.
The month of May sucked. I carried The First Draft around with me, viciously marking up pages while consuming various beverages. Once, I even edited while sitting in a sauna. (Those particular pages are now rippled with my dried sweat. Take that, Stephen King.) Pro tip: Double space your damn manuscript before you print it. I don’t have a printer at home, so I single-spaced it with 10-point font to save cash at the copy center. I’m an idiot.
During that first edit, I never managed to read the whole thing in order. Instead, I worked on the sections I liked least so that it wouldn’t hurt my soul (as much) to rip ’em apart. I then incorporated my handwritten edits into The Master Digital Document. Finally, though, I was left with my favorite part of the book, and let me tell you, nothing slays you like re-reading something you actually thought was good and realizing it’s … okay. Not terrible, but not great, either.
By Memorial Day, I still hadn’t quite finished the plug-and-chug editing. And once again, I started to do a lot of laundry. (My husband’s clothes have never been so clean.) I also began using pages from The First Draft to smash bugs, make grocery lists, etc. Let’s just say progress had stalled. I was so close to “the finish line” of the first revision, but there was also a powerful, psychological barrier to getting across that line. I’m not sure why, but I think it has something to do with this. (Specifically, this part: “As long as you have not written that article, that speech, that novel, it could still be good. Before you take to the keys, you are Proust and Oscar Wilde and George Orwell all rolled up into one delicious package. By the time you’re finished, you’re more like one of those 1940’s pulp hacks who strung hundred-page paragraphs together with semicolons because it was too much effort to figure out where the sentence should end.”)
I also gave in to another temptation that I strongly recommend you avoid while still writing: I made an account on QueryTracker. This is probably the most embarrassing part of my story. Now, don’t get me wrong, QueryTracker is a fantastic tool. But I was (am) a lightyear away from being ready to approach an agent, and yet there I was, putting together my agent wish list and reading their bios to get a sense of what my own pitch would look like. Hell, I even wrote one, because that seemed like fun.
I also took a goofy stab at pitching by participating in #PitDark, a Twitter event where authors who work in speculative fiction and other “dark” genres pitch their stuff to the world. But the first #PitDark didn’t have a huge number of agents watching it, and the ones who were didn’t bite on mine. This premature shot out of the gate was disappointing, and it got to me more than it should have.
But, I mean, seriously, is Twitter really the future of book pitching? How can you sum up 80K in 140 characters? Think about reducing some of the best books you’ve ever read to one sentence. That’s the kind of pointless exercise we put high schoolers through simply to keep them too busy for drugs. (Or maybe this is what pushes high schoolers to drugs in the first place. I don’t know.) Would I even want an agent who solicits work in that way?
Anyway, as you can see, after disappointment came ego defensiveness, and I burrowed deep into my pity-party hole. For awhile, whenever people asked about the book, I deflected. I even started to work on another project, because my doubts — combined with my exhaustion from the editing process — began to take over.
But in late May, I locked down a freelance contract for the month of July. My feelings about the novel were already such a roller coaster that I doubted I’d want to return to it at all in August after such a long break. If I was going to finish it, I had to finish it now.
So, I clenched my jaw, forced myself to get real, and made some brutal cuts. In the end, I wholesale deleted around 3K, which mostly included info dumps that didn’t directly advance the plot. This tightening improved the flow of the weakest section of the book, but it did break my heart a little to know that a solid chunk of information about the world I’d created would never see the light of day. So it goes.
Finally, on July 15, it happened. I finished a draft that clocked in at 82,159 words. And though she may still be a hot mess, she’s a beautiful, COMPLETE mess.
So why am I ending my story here rather than at a more triumphant point in the process, like maybe when I have a real, live book to plug? Because regardless of what happens next, I have indeed “written a novel.” And I never promised you, dear reader, that I’d written a good one. #micdrop
Sandra Knisely is an American writer Austria. Maybe someday you’ll find a novel called The Myth of Er in a bookstore near you. It’ll be about philosophy, campfires, and stabbing out your own eyeballs. But for now, she’s on to the next one. sandraknisely.com