Beginning another Long Seige

It’s been a week since I got the news about my break-in success. Wish I could be more specific about it. Still enjoying the rush of the win. But I’m already feeling some anxiety about the next, most obvious goal: completing a 100,000 word novel in time for the Lincoln City workshops with Kris Rusch and Dean Smith. I’ve got until the end of January to have the novel complete, while a 50-page sample and proposal of same is due two weeks before that. On my spreadsheet it says that I owe 1,200 words a day — every day — starting next Sunday and not stopping until February 1, 2009.

The flake in me says it’s madness. Even if I do 450 words before work, 200 words at lunch, and 450 words after work, this leaves almost no time for Goofing Off. And I dearly love to Goof Off. The freedom to Goof Off is perhaps the most precious freedom of all, to me. I hate deadlines and structure and being on a schedule, especially when it comes to doing Creative Activity. And especially since my last bona fide novel project royally crashed and burned at 100,000 words, what makes me think it’s going to be any different this time? At least with shorter material, when it goes bad, you can usually at least get to the end, say, “Frak it,” and move on to the next piece without feeling too bad about the time you’ve invested.

Not so with a novel. That’s a considerable investment, both in time and in creative capital. I screw that up — again — and it’s gonna feel ten times as shitty as it feels if I screw up a short story. I’m going to have to work very hard to resist the Internal Critic who will doubtless, by 25,000 words, be screaming loudly about how the book is a bust, it’s all wrong, the whole thing is a joke, avert your eyes and turn away, and so forth. Otherwise I am going to throw in the towel, and won’t have anything to show in Lincoln City, and that’s just not an option right now.

I think part of my problem is that I’m kind of skullfrakked about what it is I want to actually write. I don’t have any illusions about writing The Great Science Fiction or Fantasy Novel. It’s 99% likely that this novel will be practice only — because virtually all first novels are. I console myself with the knowledge that maybe because I’ve begun — but not finished — about for or five novels in my lifetime, maybe some of the lessons I learned on those abortive attempts will finally percolate to the top and help me make this one not only finishable, but sellable too.

In the longer scheme, I actually want to have two novels done by this time next year. Getting one wrapped before February leaves me most of next year to work on the second one, so maybe if I relax and just tell myself that this first one is a warmup exercise for the second one, I can stop psyching myself out, get a plan put together, and get cracking next week?

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3 thoughts on “Beginning another Long Seige

  1. A few words of advice from somebody who has finished NaNoWriMo once and is on his way to do it again this year. No novels published yet, so the advice is worth every penny you’re paying for it. 😉

    Just start. Doesn’t matter if you know where its going, just write some scenes. Get the car in motion, then you can steer it.

    I went into NaNo this year with no idea what I wanted to write. I had a one-line plot summary (humanity’s first trip to Alpha Centauri, they find surprises) and an idea of where it fit into the backstory of some shorts I’ve written. But no actual plot, characters, or even much in the way of setting.

    The first day I just sat and wrote about 650 words of stream of consciousness crap that I will delete at the end of NaNoWriMo. (The rules just say 50,000 words; they don’t have to be coherent.) My first lines are, and I quote: “Blah blah blah. Wordy wordy word. The quick brown fox up and jumped over the reclining dogbat’s back.” Actually by the end it was starting to get coherent, taking note of a couple of facts I’d need as background. The point was to start things flowing and getting the internal editor to just SHUT UP. I even left the typos.

    The second day was another 1300 words of crap, but there were hints of an idea showing up in there. I wrote some random scene from the middle of the story (which again will not survive the first draft) not caring about character names (I needed a biologist, named him Darwin. I needed a second biologist, named her Biologist2. etc.)

    It wasn’t until the third day I started to get into the groove, writing a bit more than by 2k word daily target. Again it was crap as far as story goes, far more telling than showing, but the telling was at least plot-related. It wasn’t until last Friday, the 6th day of writing the novel, that I finally came up with a coherent plotline that I could hang the already-written scenes on. The subconscious just needed a while to churn, and the internal editor needed to be beaten down until it gave up trying. Key point: I know that what I’m writing now is a “zeroth draft”. It’s more of a detailed outline (it’ll be a 50-60k word detailed outline when done, but it will also be a long way from a finished novel).
    I still need to go back and flesh out the characters, but I’ve discovered a bit about them as I write.

    If I were in your position (I wish I were, I’d love to do that workshop but the current job situation (rather, lack thereof) doesn’t permit.) I’d start now the same way that I started NaNoWriMo — with a vague idea and just writing some random ideas and scenes (heck, pick a scene from a movie and write that, just change the names, locations and dialog) for a few days, then brainstorm a broad outline. And keep writing your zeroth draft.

    Trust the process. The process is that while writing that zeroth draft your subconscious will come up with some brilliant stuff that you won’t even notice until later. You’ll be writing chapter 20 and realize that something you wrote back in chapter 3 as filler to get your daily wordcount brilliantly foreshadows the neat plot twist you just thought of.

    It’s different for short stories. We – you and I and other writers who can do short stories – can generate an entire short story in our heads and then write damn good first drafts. There may be writers out there who can do that with a novel but that’s way above our level yet. Personally I don’t have sufficient working memory to hold a novel’s worth of story while thinking up new stuff to add to it; getting the scenes down on paper frees up working storage in the brain for it to come up with new stuff. Besides, sometimes those brilliant ideas go direct from the subconscious to the writing fingers, not even reaching your conscious brain until you read them on the page.

    So give yourself permission to write crap. Nobody else will see it, because you’re going to redraft it before the workshop. Chris Blaty, the guy who started NaNoWriMo, makes the comparison with a sculptor. A sculptor can just go buy the lump of clay that he shapes into the finished work. We writers have to create the clay too by throwing words on the page until we have enough to work with, and then we can shape it to the finished product. (And no, this doesn’t really contradict what Kris and Dean say about not rewriting. That’s Heinlein’s Rule 3. Rules 1 and 2 are write, and finish what you write. The zeroth draft is Rule 1. Throwing away all the crap that you wrote that wasn’t part of the story is Rule 2. At least in my opinion.)

    Okay, I’ve gone on long enough. Hope it helps. Two final thoughts in parting: Writers are the worst judges of their own work. And — I’ve heard this from multiple pro writers — every writer hits a point mid-novel where they’re convinced that it is utter crap and the worst thing they’ve ever written and that they might as well just throw in the towel; if they’re lucky they get reminded that they say that with every novel, and get back to work and finish it.

    So just write. Go ahead and tell instead of show, write infodumps, commit banal dialog. Get the wheels rolling. Before long that Internal Critic will give up trying to just stop you and start steering the flow in a better direction. For the rest, fix it in post.

  2. Alastair, this is brilliant. Absolutely brilliant. I think unconsciously I was heading in the direction you’re pointing, but now that I’ve read this I am excited for next week because I feel like this process for me will work.

    Last time I tried to start a book I was very wrapped around the idea of getting it all right The First Time and it was agony. I think I need to just relax, focus on making the word goals, and let the book develop itself as I go. I can do some expansion and re-editing in January if I get the bulk of it out before the new year comes.

    Again, brilliant. And thank you.

  3. I probably didn’t say anything you didn’t already know. Sometimes we just need to be reminded of what we do know. It helps that I just went through that whole process last week.

    If you like, when you’re a famous novelist, write a cover blurb for one of my books. 😉

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