“Quickly” is the short answer, though this NaNo-speed (get it?) gauntlet requires some explanation.
I’m in the middle of a self-made break on my ongoing project, one that I’m struggling to fix inconsistencies and write new content for. After two weeks of distractions, I finally had the urge — Why not try something new?
I had a piece of an idea, one stemming from my obsessive sci-fi watching and reading older genre-makers. I knew my premise and had an inkling of a plot. But my goal this time around was to avoid lots of the mistakes I fell into on my first full-length piece (inconsistencies, pieces that don’t match up, etc.). So I sat down last Thursday afternoon, started typing, and now I’m at a comfortable 30,000 words.
The 30,000 word marathon I ran isn’t how I typically go about a long-form project. Here’s how I went about launching myself further than I thought possible in ~120 hours:
- I wrote a one-page summary of the back story and what I thought would happen throughout the book. Very broad, this page.
- I created the six-ish characters I wanted to use. This explained basic motivations, some quirks, their place in this world.
- I started writing out the first few scenes using my six characters.
- I suddenly realized that I would have to do a lot of exposition throughout the story (and create situations where back story was justified in dialogue). The back story, it seemed, was essential to where the characters are today.
- I created a seventh character and placed him many years in the past, deciding that I would weave a shorter narrative throughout the main story that follows an entirely different vein.
The fifth step created the frame story, the section of the novel I wrote in five days. This frame story introduces important elements of the novel as the characters encounter them, a way for me to actually plot the damn thing from a distance (I guess this is outlining) without A) Holding onto ideas while I move characters around and paint scenes and B) Juggling multiple characters/plot lines at a time.
I’ve never written anything like this before — it’s quite fun, actually, though to tell you the truth I’m not sure what to do with it. I am about 5,000 words until “done-zo” with the frame story. Thinking ahead, I believe I’ll fix some continuity errors, trim it down to 28k-ish words, and find smooth transitions in and out of the main narrative.
My five day writing spree coincided with a bout of inspiration, some free time, a few sacrifices, and a lull in TV shows. I’m not gonna like — I did splurge on Sunday night HBO and SHO, but that’s expected of Middle America.
While I was amazed at how fast and dedicated I was to this 30,000 word rush, I noticed a few oddities of my mindset and situation that I hope will be a useful tool someday when I’m held at gunpoint to turn out a novel in an afternoon. Here are my pieces of advice for those hoping to outdo that one writing “competition” in November that most of my writing peers get sick of due to anticipation and goal-setting:
If I were to give you my manuscript as it stands, you may be annoyed at the amount of BLANKS that show up every few pages. These BLANKS represent names I didn’t care to remember, towns I didn’t want to research, and other details that I will fill out on a second draft. Here’s a made up example:
[NAME] went to [UNIVERSITY IN SWITZERLAND] in late [20XX]. He and his friend [GUY IN HAT] decided to…
That’s a forced example, of course. The blanks in my new project are few and far between as you’d scroll through the word document, largely because the characters and details that mattered stuck in my head. I’ll go through eventually and make an appendix of sorts, a resource I’ll use to double-check consistency and see where I can improve. I utterly encourage you to leave blanks if you find your hand moving from the keyboard to the mouse way too often. Seeking out a detail (or researching one) takes time, time that should be spent writing with momentum.
Of these blanks, there are a number of sections (transitions, mostly, near the beginning of a scene) that I only give cliff notes for. This is because I couldn’t think of where I wanted the action to take place. One says, “Somewhere not in NAME’s apartment — it is afternoon, or darkish outside. Fill this in later, dummy.”
It’s your manuscript and the end product, the refined product, is what people will see. Do as you will.
I know there are a few holes and “lame” sections in my 30,000 words. These are largely a result of me moving too quickly and not thinking of ways to combine scenes, revelations, and plot-worthy details.
I call this “thoughtfully careless writing,” or when you take the F-it approach and move on when stuck. We don’t want to hit a monstrous wall of writer’s block and spend a week thinking, “Where did my time go? Why hasn’t my page count expanded?” when we’re trying to jam out a book as fast as possible.
Carelessness, it seems, often leads to unrivaled creativity. I found myself typing in close to real-time at times, when the action and dialogue was as smooth as anything I had ever written. Sometimes writers get lucky and stumble into great things, like when we go down the hill the quick way instead of hiking diagonally.
If something turns out sucky, I’ll delete it and find a new way to introduce the idea. At least I have a platform to stand on.
The frame story I have is written in chunks. It spans a long period of time (about 60 years? I don’t know…there are too many BLANKS) split into maybe 20-some scenes ranging from 800 to 1200 words each. I really, really enjoy writing shorter chapters in my books. I do this because I enjoy playing with multiple points of view, but maybe I just have a short attention span.
Writing in small sections (an average of 1000 words, some split into two chunks to designate a small gap in time or boring movement) I was able to two things:
- Sit and write 1000 words in a reasonable amount of time before I grew bored, anxious, or distracted. These small, achievable goals were entire scenes and by getting up I knew I’d lose out on the rhythm of the scene and would have to reread them, for god’s sake. (About 45 mins each.)
- Internally, I know that when it comes time to revise/edit I can work in manageable chunks. If something is bad, it’ll only take a while to change since each section is padded by months of time and a few references to past events.
Not every story deserves sectionalized scenes — it just seemed to fit this new project of mine.
There are red, blue, and even green squiggles all over my word document. They yell at me each time I type a character’s name, jam two sentences together because I can’t decide on an em-dash or semicolon, and when I use the wrong to/your/from/form. You know what? This doesn’t bother me.
I keep my attention focused on the bottom of the slowly scrolling page and don’t look at the aging words. I’ll find the errors (mostly obvious) later on, fix dialogue tags, iron out sentences, and improve readability ten-fold by the time I’m complete. I enjoy editing and having things to do while editing (fixing errors) is the only way to keep yourself interested.
Pretty much the only correction I did out of habit was add spaces on either side of my em-dashes. That’s just me — though.
Writing sloppy isn’t for everyone, of course. Though for you super-format-anal-OCD authors I’d recommend sizing your word document down so you can only see one line at a time. Lemme know how that works out for you…
Notes and Forget-Me-Nots
I would wake up in a cold sweat with an idea for my first project, think I’d remember until morning, and punch myself when I forgot what it was. This is why every author should keep a notepad or app at the ready at all times.
While writing an unplanned novel, however, I did come across dozens of ideas I never wanted to let go of. These ideas may be used later for the main story’s plot, character quirks, and what have you. They pop up between sentences (when I don’t want them to) and I must remember them. So what I do is hit return twice, put a little dash, and type of the idea. The bottom three pages of my 53-page document are notes in this format.
I know writers who l like to take notes on legal pads (I used to) and be all fancy with it. The trouble is that this process can slow you down — the slower you are, the less your brain can handle.
At the end of every writing session I went through my “Ideas” list, deleted a few, bolded a few I needed to remember for the next writing session, and put stars next to others because they were too obvious to forget.
*And I like asterisks.
I don’t know if writing fast is something I should always try and do, but for this it seemed to work and that’s enough. Having 30,000 words forces me to continue working — sputtering over 1,000 is hardly motivational.
Here are a few key reasons why I encourage writers to try and write quickly on their own clock. Doing so with the pressure of a November writing contest has never been my thing, really, since procrastination takes over when you’re under someone’s thumb.
- You stop being so damn perfect and actually get work done.
- The rhythm and tone is consistent when you complete entire scenes at once.
- You don’t become hung up on minor plot points and descriptions that could otherwise distract you.
- It’s a personal, impressive achievement.
- Having 30,000 bad words in a document is more progress than 10,000 perfect ones.
One more thing: Find a comfortable chair, tune into a good radio station, charge up the laptop, have a six-pack at the ready, and move outside.
Oh, and turn off your Internet and put your phone on silent. You’d be amazed at what you can do without the world watching over your shoulder.