Both experiences were valuable, though very different
I write novels to practice my storytelling skills. Getting published was not a primary goal though it may be some day, however I’ve had eight non-fiction books published by national publishers and know how hard it is to get fiction looked at. I’m in it for the writing, and my two experiences have taught me a lot.
Zipping my way to 80,000 words
My first novel, The Rememberers, poured out at the rate of 600–800 words a day. Once I got going it kept coming at a steady pace and I wrote every day. The story, which was entirely unplanned, kept me interested as I never knew where it was headed. Characters kept doing unexpected things, which at first worried me! It was fun.
The book is about a man who finds out he has a talent for moving between versions of the world. But there is a catch. If he does not travel with a Rememberer, he will forget his past and not be able to return home. Which is what happens. It gets weird in a magical realism way (no elfs or swords, it’s for grownups). I discovered part way in that I had a theme, the unreliability of memory.
Four years later a very different story emerged
In contrast, my second novel, Trespass Strike, started with a theme. It follows a woman, Nella, whose husband has committed suicide as she tries to reassemble herself and her life. This rebirth theme was much more challenging because it had to be both realistic and compelling. Suicide is not the focus, the focus is on the living.
The beginning was relatively easy and I got through the first 20,000 words fairly quickly. Then I stalled. The story had moved beyond my personal experience (I knew someone who had gone through this but had lost touch). My attempts to get back on track didn’t feel authentic. I wrote and threw out a lot of words. That in itself was an educational process.
Literally changing perspective
The first book was written mostly in the first person with sections written from the POV of other characters to keep the reader and the story moving forward. It was a technique to keep a sense of dislocation and mystery.
The second book was written in third person omniscient and began with a very dislocated person trying to reassemble herself. When I reached my blocked point in the story I stopped, but every once in a while would try to restart it without much success, though it did creep up to about 30,000 words over time. Then I set it aside in frustration. But it kept nagging me with the notion that what was good was very good and should not be abandoned.
One day I started writing a second section but in Nella’s voice from the perspective of twenty years later. She spoke directly to me as the teller of her tale and to the readers who had read it. It was very strange but her voice seemed so natural and engaging that I went with it. But when she had her say, she stopped.
40,000 words won’t get you anywhere
I had no intention of writing a novella and knew that it was very challenging to get one published because they seldom sell well. The story needed something else and I was stuck again. This time I decided to let it work itself out and not try to force it out. I was learning something about muses and that place where stories come from, a place you can’t always tap into.
Instead I started writing a sequel to The Rememberers and blasted out a hundred pages relatively easily. But Trespass Strike wouldn’t have it. In it I had introduced an interesting character named Raoul that Nella meets on a cross country train trip. He had a plot purpose but he also interested me as he was a train vagabond, constantly on the move (a personal goal of mine). The two characters only hang out on the train for a few days but something important happens.
Thinking about my block, my mind kept coming back to Raoul. What did he make of this woman who is distant but tells him something very intimate? I started telling the story of their encounter from his point of view and added about 5000 more words. With that I had a legitimate first draft, finally, which is going through minor rewrites.
If you have faith in a story, it will come back
Both of these extended writing exercises were big learning experiences. The Rememberers showed me what many writing mentors will tell us, that you need to let the story follow its own path. Sometimes it will be easy, yet strange. Other times it has to be drawn out patiently.
Stephen King writes fast but does not plot. He is a pantser. Michael Ondaatje (English Patient) seems to average about seven years between novels. And he is a pantser also. The point is that speed is an individual thing. There are people that can write a novel length manuscript in weeks and others who spend a lifetime messing with a project. Sometimes both can happen to the same writer. Some stories just need a longer gestation time.
The classic advice that gets it done
Speaking of Stephen King, his basic advice is to stick to daily word count regardless of whether you think it is any good or even makes sense. I followed that advice with my first novel and it works. And I didn’t second guess that day’s work, or even edit it. With the second book I strayed from writing steadily and got off track and blocked. That was a fundamental mistake.
With my next one I’m going back to a daily word count whether I’m in the mood or not. Just hammer it out and fix it later. This is the beauty of writing- it is not written in stone, you polish a turd if you have to!
Though I write a lot, both for a living and for myself, averaging around 1500 words daily, I am never bored by it. And rarely frustrated, though I certainly hit dead ends and have to drop pieces that just don’t work. That’s true of any craft. It’s important to know that it is the doing that counts, not always the end product.