Trekking Through the First Draft

Or, How Everything I Need to Know About Writing I Learned From Backpacking the Appalachian Trail

In 2004, fresh out of college, I hiked the length of the Appalachian Trail. It was a 2,183-mile hike from Georgia to Maine, and it took from March 8th to August 12th. It is, to date, one of the crazier things I’ve ever done. When I tell people about it, they usually don’t comprehend the logistics at first. “Five months of hiking?” they’ll sometimes ask. “How did you stock up on food? Did you ever take a shower? Wash your clothes?”

And the answer is, yes, I did all three relatively easily… just less often than at home. Because the fact is, I didn’t go on a five month hike. Instead, I went on a long string of three-to-four day hikes, strung out in series over five months. Every few days, I’d hitchhike or walk to the nearest town, and buy food, take a break, eat at a restaurant– and almost always take a shower, wash my clothes, and spend the night somewhere marginally more comfortable than my tent. Then I’d hit the trail again, refreshed, rested, and restocked.

Explaining that probably makes it sound less impressive. But still, string 40 or so of those shorter hikes together, and suddenly you can say “I went on a 2,000-mile hike!” And that’s pretty cool to say, no matter how you slice the details.

Writing a novel has a lot in common with that sort of hike. It’s a long and arduous journey, usually over the course of months, and it takes a hell of a lot of willpower to finish the thing. In both cases, a lot of people say, “Someday, I want to do this” and then never get around to actually doing it, just because the size of the task is so intimidating.

Most of the advice you hear for novel writing is along the lines of Just barrel through the first draft. Keep writing. If you make mistakes, you can always fix them afterward. Various motivational tools, like National Novel Writing Month, are geared around this idea: shut off your internal editor, and sprint your way through the words. Just get that first draft out on paper.

Twice now, I’ve written novels by following that school of thought. In both cases, I haven’t been particularly pleased with the result.

But wait! I hear you say. It’s a first draft! It’s not supposed to be good! You’re supposed to take it and then write a better second draft!

Well, yes, but, in both cases I feel like the first draft sort of fell off the rails, and I find myself questioning whether it’s worth it to revise them, or set them aside and try to improve my craft by writing something new. And while I still plan to revise those novels into something better, in the meantime, I can’t help but wonder: Is there a better way of writing a first draft? If I had hiked the Appalachian Trail the way I wrote those first novels, then I would have just charged into the woods and kept running until I keeled over from exhaustion. It’s certainly a strategy, I’m just not sure it’s the best strategy.

When I went to the Rainforest Writers’ Village this year, I had hoped to come up with a few short stories, but instead I came up with an idea for another novel. And I thought, Hmmm… this is the perfect opportunity to try out a different way of writing.

This time, I’m not barreling through the first draft. Instead, I’m looking at the novel the same way I looked at the Appalachian Trail: don’t worry about getting to the very end. Just complete one piece at a time. In the case of the novel, each piece is a chapter. I’m working on one chapter at a time, working on getting it into good shape, then moving on to the next, almost as though each chapter is its own short story, complete with a little mini-arc (which, really, is how a chapter should be anyway).

But wait! I hear. How do you prevent yourself from getting bogged down by the editing? What’s to keep you from spending months nitpicking and perfecting every chapter?

The answer is simple: Writers’ Group. My writers’ group meets every other week, and one of the rules I’m following is that I have to submit a new chapter for every meeting. This will, hopefully, help me keep the pace up.

So this is my Appalachian-Trail-inspired style of novel writing. Slow and steady. One chapter at a time. There will still, of course, be editing to do at the end of it, but I’m hoping the first draft this method produces will be a lot more satisfying, and that maybe I’ll be inspired, rather than intimidated, when it comes to writing a second draft.

I actually think my chapter-by-chapter method would work for both outliners and discovery writers. To go back to the Appalachian Trail analogy, there are two ways to resupply over the course of the five-month hike: one, you can buy food at stores in towns as you go, or two, you can actually plan ahead of time what you’ll need, and mail boxes of supplies to post offices along the way. The first method is nicely analogous to discovery writing, and the second method to outlining. It boils down to a simple question: How much do you plan ahead?

If you’re an outliner, then when you’re ready to start a new chapter, you pull the next piece from your outline and keep going. If you’re a discovery writing, you keep brainstorming your way down the trail. I always resupplied by buying food along the way, making up my menu as I went– I suspect this is why I’m also more of a discovery writer. I have a difficult time keeping to outlines; I’d rather make things up as I go. And while it’s nice to have a final destination (i.e. an ending) in mind, you have to have fun in the journey, too.

Of course, all this works for me, but I don’t necessarily expect it to work for anybody else. And to be honest, I don’t know even know for sure that it works for me yet– I’ve only written a few chapters, but I’m on schedule, and it’s feeling good so far. I’ll let you know how things go.

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How Chupacabras Saved My NaNoWriMo Novel

For National Novel Writing Month, I’ve been writing a novel called Ghostrunners. And yesterday, I reached 50,000 words, which means I “won” NaNoWriMo. And as a bonus, I finished the story as well! Admittedly, it’s too short to be publishable– to have a shot at publishing it, I’d probably have to stretch it out to 80,000 words. But there’d be so many changes in a second draft that adding 30,000 words is actually one of my lesser concerns.

My original idea, when I first envisioned the novel, was “Sliders meets Ocean’s Eleven with magic.” I set the story in modern day Seattle, to minimize the worldbuilding I needed to do; I developed some good characters; I came up with the outline of a magic system. But I didn’t come up with a plot that really inspired me.

So when I started NaNoWriMo, I was discovery writing. I knew my characters; I knew the setting; I knew some of the conflicts that the characters were involved in at the start. And from there, I was pretty much inventing stuff from scratch every time I sat down to write. Characters often made decisions for which I had only a marginal idea of the ramifications down the road. And they reacted to each other naturally, without regard for whether it would serve the plot. Heck, I didn’t even know what the plot was.

It was a stressful, terrifying, and occasionally exhilarating way to write. When things did come together into a genuine emotional moment, it was unplanned, and in those moments, it was almost like I was reading a good book, except I was typing as I read, wanting to see what was going to happen next. But that exhilaration was tapered by the ever-present fear that I would suddenly lock up, run out of ideas, and the words would stop coming.

When Writer’s Block did hit, I put myself in the characters’ shoes, and thought, “Okay, something has to happen next in their lives. What happens next? Write it.” And I did, without much regard as to whether it would make for a readable story or not.

I did, on occasion, resort to the old ninjas-kick-down-the-door trick: once with police, once with chupacabras, and once with rogue Secret Service agents. In every case it made the book better– especially the chupacabras, who more or less saved me at a point where the book was desperately searching for conflict and I felt like the plot wasn’t going anywhere. In a second draft, of course, they probably won’t be chupacabras: they’ll be creatures that wander between realities, for whom I will probably have to think up another name. But for this draft, and in the spirit of NaNoWriMo silliness, they did perfectly well as chupacabras. Lesson One from NaNoWriMo: Sometimes it pays off to just throw in crazy stuff and try to make it work.

My first novel was a massive, wide-ranging epic fantasy; this novel was a fast-paced action story. And my authorial role model for this type of story was Jim Butcher. In the Dresden Files, he drags his characters through serious pain and torment in every book, and doesn’t pull punches– he’s not afraid to make things worse, or pile even more problems on the characters. And if it all comes together at the end, if connections are made that you didn’t expect and the protagonists win despite everything that was thown at them, the result is often a really, really good book. And I tried to do the same thing with Ghostrunners. Lesson Two from NaNoWriMo: Don’t be afraid to throw your characters into the fire.

Ghostrunners is in very rough form right now– there are a few gems, but most of it is just plain old dirt and rock. A second draft would be like mining the diamonds from the ore; all the discovery-written ideas that didn’t work would need to be discarded, and the ones that did would need to be strengthened and polished until they shone. I’d like to do that with this book– and if it ever reaches “final draft” stage, it will probably only bear a passing resemblance to what I have now.

I haven’t decided what my next project is; I’d like to write a short story, and edit another one, and go back to my first novel and start revisions on that. I also had ideas for about five blog posts that I didn’t write in November because I didn’t want to get distracted. So I’m hoping that I can keep up the writing momentum even with the end of NaNoWriMo upon us. Because in the end, to be a professional writer, it’s not enough to write one month of the year– you’ve gotta keep at it year-round.

So it goes.

Prepping for WorldCon

Tomorrow morning I catch a plane from Seattle to Reno for the World Science Fiction Convention— four days of soaking up wisdom from professional writers and editors, meeting lots of cool people, and in general having fun and reveling in pure geekery. I spent some time going through the program, marking off stuff I’d particularly like to do, and came up with over 120 hours of panels, readings, and various other activities I’d like to attend. This makes things interesting, since WorldCon is only 96 hours long. And that 120 hour number isn’t even factoring in time spent at parties, or just hanging out with friends. Or eating. Or sleeping.

It’s gonna be great.

In related news, my main goal prior to WorldCon was to finish the first draft of my novel In a Land of Wind and Sky, and today I did so. The draft is 176,902 words long, and it stretches across 642 pages in Microsoft Word. Since the time I wrote the first word of it (November 1, 2009), it’s been 653 days.

But to be honest, it feels a bit anticlimatic. There’s still a lot of work to do, and the line between where the first draft ends and the second draft starts is kind of arbitrary. For my own purposes, “first draft” means that I’ve built all the plot lines and character arcs from beginning to end. But that doesn’t necessarily mean they’re consistent. Sometimes the character’s voice changes from scene to scene as I experiment with different styles, or setting details are added midway through the story. Major plot elements are introduced and disappear as I try to decide what should be important and what isn’t, or change my mind about exactly what’s needed in order for different aspects of the story to be resolved.

In the second draft, my task is going to be to go through and make things consistent— support what needs to be supported, emphasize what needs to be emphasized, and take out what needs to be taken out. After the second draft, I think it’ll be ready for alpha readers.

But for now, I can head off to WorldCon, secure in the knowledge that if anyone asks if I’ve written a novel, I can say, “Yes.”

My flight leaves in less than 12 hours. Hmm… I should probably start packing.

Clarion West Write-a-thon: Complete!

Back in mid-June, I signed up for the Clarion West Write-a-thon, and set myself a goal: add at least 1,000 words a day to my novel. Now, 41 days later, I’ve added 41,653 words, for an average of 1,016 words a day. Success! There were a few individual days where I fell short of 1,000, but it averaged out to over 1,000 a day– plus, every day, the thousands digit of my word count ticked up by 1, according to my daily tracker. All in all, I’m calling it a win.

I did not, unfortunately, meet my secondary goal, which was to finish and submit a short story for the Writers of the Future contest at the end of June. That story just needed more brainstorming. As I wrote in my last Write-a-thon status update, it may yet become my NaNoWriMo novel… or maybe not. I have a hankering to write an urban fantasy this year. Anyway…

As for my current novel, the total word count now stands at 163,772– almost 600 double-spaced pages in Microsoft Word. What makes me even happier is that I think I can finish the entire first draft before I go to WorldCon in August! I’ve actually written all the way to the end; now I’m going back now and filling in a couple of holes in the story which I skipped over earlier. A couple weeks from now, I hope to post a blog entry saying that the first draft is, indeed, done. At which point I can start on the second draft. But that’s another story (no pun intended).

Writing these 41,000 words over 41 days has actually been harder, I think, than the 60,000 words in 30 days that I wrote when I originally started this novel for NaNoWriMo 2009. Starting fresh in NaNoWriMo, it’s easier to be flexible, and change things up if you get stuck– here, I more or less had a set path that I needed to follow, and if I got stuck, I had no choice but to power through whatever scene was holding me up. I still did get stuck once– namely, in the climax, which needs some judicious editing. I was reluctant to tackle that during Write-a-thon, since editing 3,000 words out of the climax would have meant I’d need to write 4,000 more words that day in order to keep my word count up.

But now that Write-a-thon is over, I can delete and revise to my heart’s content. That said, I do plan to keep up one part of Write-a-thon: namely, I plan to continue writing at least 1,000 new words every day. I can edit all I want, but I still have to write 1,000 new words– whether on the novel, or a new short story, or a mix of both. Luckily, I tend to have 4 or 5 projects going at once, so if I get stuck on one and need to spend time brainstorming, there’s still almost always another story that I can still write 1,000 words for. One thousand words also seems to be a good number because it’s substantial, but not overwhelming. If it’s 1 am and I’m sitting at my computer in a zombie-like trance, I can still usually bang out 1,000 words before bed, even if they’ll need substantial editing later.

That, perhaps, will be my biggest takeaway from Write-a-thon: confidence that I can write consistently over a sustained period, and make good progress, without feeling pressure to hit NaNoWriMo-like levels of word count (2000+ a day).

Also, thanks to everyone who donated! It’s not too late to sponsor me (or any other author)– click here to go to my Clarion West author’s page, or click here to see the full list of participating authors.

It’s been a fun experience, and so have the weekly author readings. Next year I’m planning to apply to the Clarion West Workshop itself, which would entail one of the most awesome and educational six weeks ever. There’s a great line-up of teachers next year– they announced the full list at the final author reading of 2011, and while I wasn’t able to write fast enough to get them all down, two names stuck out in my mind: Connie Willis and George R.R. Martin. Next year’s gonna be an awesome Clarion West.

Congrats to all the other Write-a-thon participants, and of course, the workshop graduates! I’m looking forward to meeting y’all at cons and workshops and author signings to come.

Clarion West Write-a-Thon Midterm Report

I’ve gotten through twenty-one days of the Clarion West Write-a-thon– precisely halfway. It’s been mostly successful: after 21 days, I’m sitting at 21,199 words, which means that so far I’ve hit my goal of 1,000 words a day. I’ve dropped below 1,000 on a few individual days (see the Write-a-thon tab for daily progress), but as long as I can maintain that 1,000 word average I’ll call it a win.

Unfortunately, I didn’t make my secondary goal, which was to submit a fantasy short story to the Writers of the Future contest. I think that particular story needs more time to simmer in my head. I false-started writing it about six times, mainly because I wasn’t sure how to get from the beginning to the really cool ending I had envisioned. I like the setting, but the characters and the plot were a little threadbare, and I could never make everything mesh the way I wanted to. The setting is complex enough that I think it could support a novel, so that story may yet become my NaNoWriMo novel this year.

Maybe it’s for the best. The short story needed to take a back seat to the novel anyway. I’m still hoping to have the whole first draft of the novel complete by WorldCon, and those 21,199 words (with at least another 21,000 to be added during the rest of the Write-a-Thon) are an important step.

In the course of these 1,000-word-a-day spurts, I’m coming to terms with an important fact: the first draft of this novel is a long, long way from finished. In fact, it’s closer to an outline than a finished novel.

When writing passages for a novel (or any story), there’s a lot to keep in mind: realistic and consistent voice and motivation for each character; a fully-realized, consistent, and deep setting; a plot that’s interesting and complex without being convoluted. You need good dialogue, good descriptions, prose that reflects the pace of the story, among many other things, and it’s easy to get bogged down or overwhelmed.

As I near the end of the first draft, I’ve basically shelved all concerns except for two: (1)figuring out how to progress the plot toward where I want it to go, and (2)examining character motivations. Often this takes the form of long, introspective sequences that have no place in, say, an action scene, but which I need in order to get a grip on what the characters would be thinking and doing in the situation. If I can get the characters feeling right in my head, and ensure that I know what’s going to happen next, then in the next draft I can excise a lot of the rambling, and put in better description, and ensure that all the little setting details are consistent, and make sure that everything I’ve put into the ending is foreshadowed in the beginning, and…

Man, who knew that writing a novel was this hard?

In all seriousness, though, I’m really enjoying the write-a-thon, and I’m hopeful that in addition to bringing me much closer to finishing my first novel, it’ll help me establish a more consistent daily writing routine. If you’d like to sponsor me, for any amount (all funds go to the Clarion West Writers’ Workshop), I’d really appreciate it. Just click on the Paypal link on my Clarion West Writers Page, located here. Or, if you look at the directory of Write-a-thon writers and see any other writers you’d like to sponsor, you can make one donation and split it among multiple writers.

Thanks!

MyNoWriMo Wrap-up

Back at the beginning of May, I decided to embark on MyNoWriMo, my own personal version of NaNoWriMo. My goal was to hit 150,000 words, or finish the first draft of my eighteen-months-in-progress novel, whichever came first. Well, as it turns out, I didn’t make it to either goal. Here are my final stats:

Starting Word Count: 91,484
Final Word Count: 122,118
Words Written: 30,634

Overall, I found it a lot harder to sustain 2,000-word-a-day momentum than I was expecting. Since my main goal was word count, I didn’t want to spend a great deal of time banging my head against individual scenes, planning and plotting and re-writing them. And even though this was probably a good attitude to have, it did mean I always pushed forward through rough points in the plot, rather than backing up for a moment and trying to find a better path. Maybe that’s the right mindset for the first draft; maybe it isn’t. I think I probably need more practice (as in, several more novels) before I figure out what works best for me.

At 122,118 words (411 double-spaced pages in Microsoft Word), the plot has developed a lot of threads, and I’m at the point where I have to figure out how to tie them all off– or, rather, that I have to guide the characters into figuring out how to tie them all off. So whereas in the first half of the novel (most of which was written in NaNoWriMo 2009) I was able to breeze my way along, the scenes now take a fair amount of planning, and have specific outcomes that I need to reach. If I don’t reach the specific outcome, I either need to re-write the scene, or figure out a new path that will still let me tie everything (or almost everything) off in the end. It’s actually a lot harder than I anticipated. (Funny how that works.) But if I can do it, I think it’ll set me up well for the revision, as well as for writing an even better second novel (which will probably not be a sequel to the first; I need a break from this world).

Despite having failed with my stated goal for MyNoWriMo, I actually succeeded with my larger goal, which was to get moving on the novel again. My even-larger-than-that goal– to finish the first draft of the novel by WorldCon in August– now looks much more feasible than it did at the beginning of the month. If I can continue to write 1,000 words a day on the novel, I’m almost positive that the draft will, indeed, be done by the start of WorldCon on August 17.

But there’s a slight hiccup in the plan: I have to shift my focus away from the novel for the next two weeks in order to write a short story that I can submit for the Q3 Writers of the Future contest at the end of June. I have a general idea of what the story will be; I just need to plan it out and write it, and do so within about 12 days so that I can submit it to my writers’ group in time to for them to critique it and me to revise it. I’m not sure how much progress on the novel I’ll be able to make during that time period; if I can’t, then I’ll have to pick it back up as soon as I finish the short story.

No time for slacking or Writer’s Block over the next few months. There’s stories to be told.

MyNoWriMo

Since Norwescon, I’ve been thinking a lot about my novel, which has been sitting, stalled, for over six months. In that time I’ve embarked on a few other projects (like writing a short story every quarter for Writers of the Future), and my novel has taken a back seat. Part of this is because I’ve felt like I need to redo the outline– it’s a large and complicated plot, with five viewpoint characters (four major ones), and I’ve sort of lost my way amongst the intricacies of the different character arcs, and the various setting details and plot reveals that need to be unfolded in just the right way… basically I’ve been intimidated.

However, I’m also 95,000 words into it. Even though in retrospect I think this novel was probably too complicated for my skill level, it’d be a shame to give up on it. Yet at the same time it would be a shame to let other projects and ideas stagnate because I’m possessed by a bull-headed desire to finish this one. What is an author to do?

I reached the decision a while ago that I would give myself until WorldCon (August 17-21) to finish the first draft, and if I didn’t finish it by then, it would be time to set this novel aside and work on the next. But while it’s all well and good to give myself a deadline, that still hasn’t helped me get around what’s blocking me. In addition to a deadline, I needed a new strategy.

At Norwescon, I attended a panel on novel outlining, which was sort of useful– if nothing else, it got me thinking about the novel again, about the motivations of the protagonist and the trials she endures, and perhaps most of all about why I want to write it. Add to that some words of encouragement from Mary Robinette Kowal, and when I got home I opened the outline I had been working on and moved it into Microsoft Excel. From there I was able to identify the point-of-view character for each scene and get a better grip of what order the scenes needed to go into, as well as filter the POV characters in order to get a quick glimpse of the story arc for each one. It’s been extraordinarily helpful as far as wrapping my brain around the plot, and for the time in a while, my goal of finishing by WorldCon is looking doable.

So I’ve decided to give myself a little extra motivation. Next month is May, which lays six months opposite on the calendar from November. November happens to be National Novel Writing Month, or NaNoWriMo, so given that May mirrors November on the calendar I decided to hold my own personal NaNoWriMo next month. MyNoWriMo, if you will, with my own goal, of reaching 150,000 words (or the end, whichever comes first) by the end of the month. It’s a tall order, but May is looking to be less hectic than April– which was interrupted by a weeklong visit back home to North Carolina, among other things– so I think I might actually be able to pull it off. So in May, the novel is back on the front burner, and other projects (including my Q3 Writers of the Future short story) will just have to wait. Starting Sunday, it’s MyNoWriMo time. I’ll let you know how it goes.

(If you’re interested in reading part of the novel, check out the excerpt I posted for the Valentine’s Day blogfest this year.)