457. I Don’t Write Novels Any More

I’m offering a look at the nuts and bolts of how I organize my writing, in four posts. 456 explains the system I used for years. 457 tells how I keep order while writing today. 458 gives the gory details on why this system works and 459 shows you how to keep track of your research. Take what you can use and ignore the rest.

The actual writing of novels before computers was a royal pain in a dozen ways, but there were a few advantages. The rough drafts — 300 to 500 sheets of actual paper — could be carried around, rummaged through, and sorted as needed. Several times I brought a long 1 x 12 from the wood shop as a temporary table to hold a row of single chapter stacks.

In the mid-eighties I quit writing full time and went to work as a teacher. I could finally afford a computer, and I never looked back. Symphony in a Minor Key and Raven’s Run, the first two novels I wrote on a computer, each ended up with a single file 80,000 to 100,000 words long. Finding something in that mass worked well enough if I remembered which page it was on, or if what I wanted contained a distinctive word cluster that allowed me to use the find function. You’d be surprised how often neither worked and I was left scrolling, scrolling, scrolling.

Cyan was written half on typewriter, decades ago, and half on computer. I used word recognition software to convert the first half to digital. All in all, Cyan called out the best and worst in both systems.

When I recently sat down to write The Cost of Empire, it was clearly time to reinvent and streamline my process.

First of all, there was the issue of manuscript length, and how to keep it under control. I have no trouble with writing too much; I learned the trade when novels were fifty to sixty thousand words long. That wouldn’t even be publishable today. I tend to write tersely and reach the last page under modern length requirements. It struck me that it would be a lot easier to correct that as I went along, if I knew where I stood on a daily basis.

For The Cost of Empire, I set a goal of 100,000 words. I divided that into twenty chapters of 5000 words each. That seemed a good chapter length for a novel that progressed in a linear fashion with a single viewpoint character and almost no flashbacks. It set a stately pace.

Another novel, just begun, has multiple viewpoints, confused chronology, and a ton of explanatory matter dropped in a word here and a sentence there. It seems to be all transitions. For that novel I have chosen 1000 word chapters, and lots of them.

I use the chapter break-down to keep from having to scroll through long chunks of text. I don’t write novels any more; I write chapters, and copy them into a single file only when the writing is done. Each chapter gets its own file, named (number)(space)(title in quotes). Here are the first four chapters from The Cost of Empire:

1 “Tick, tick”
2 “Unit A”
3 – 6
3 “First Mission”
3.1 rewrite
4 “Field of Fire”

When I began to write, I had placed a few numbered, blank files to receive the first few chapters, and had a dozen files of notes which I will explain two posts from now, on January 31. Chapter one went fairly smoothly, with a rough draft finished in a couple of days. The first draft of chapter two followed, also fairly quickly.

After that point, things were less clear in my head. The next chunk of writing stretched out with no obvious breaking points, and went through several rough re-writes. That piece of writing finally spanned pieces of several chapters. Now the value of the multi-file system came in to play. I simply re-titled that chunk of writing 3 – 6 and left it in place. I moved on to 3 “First Mission” and started writing again, copying and pasting large and small chunks of 3 – 6 as needed.

Note: copying, not cutting. 3 -6 is still unchanged today; nothing in it was ever lost, even though everything in it eventually found its way to a “real” chapter in the final book.

At first, there were days of research, days of invention, and days of writing. Or more likely, two hours of research, fourteen minutes of inspired writing, forty minutes of planning, thirty-two minutes of organization, twenty minutes of writing something to fill in a hole left in a previous chapter, and so forth.

Later in the process, I sat down every day and wrote, starting where I had left off the day before, and proceeding in a reasonably linear fashion. That is, I did what non-writers think writers always do.

Initially, that was not possible. I was inventing my character, inventing the plot, and inventing the world everything took place in — all at once. That process never stopped, but the amount of invention went down and the amount of linear writing went up all through the production of the book.

Even when I was a beginning writer following Whitney’s procedure, I didn’t do planning followed by writing. They always went on as simultaneous, semi-independent tracks.

There were a number of plot complications in 3 “First Mission” which had to be worked out. It took several iterations. I knew what I needed to do, I did it, and I didn’t like the results. This happens; it’s just part of the process. Sometimes you have a plan, you execute it, and the result just lies there, smelling like something that dropped out of a cow.

That, by the way, is the difference between an experienced writer and a beginner. The experienced writer recognizes the smell — from past experience — and reaches for his scoop shovel.

I copied (not cut!) out a big chunk and placed it into 3.1 rewrite. I took a new tack on some tricky points and wrote an alternative version. Again, this is where the multi-file system shone. I brought 3 “First Mission” up to standards, but kept the alternatives filed as 3.1 rewrite, for future reference.

I wrote two versions of chapter 7 because it was a critical introduction of a character that would be an important adjunct to my main character, and it had to be just right. A sizable chunk of chapter 13 was heading the wrong way and got pulled. It was titled 13.1 Pulled, but it was retained so that its content could be mined, if need be.

When I got to chapter 20 all was done. I was only seven or eight percent short of my goal length because I had kept track of my chapter lengths. I needed an Epilog. To keep it immediately after the last chapter in the folder, I titled it 20.1 Epilog. I could have called it 21, but that would have implied it was a chapter, and it was quite short.

I also needed for some ancillary material to stay with the chapters, so they were titled 0.1 chapter outlines and 0.2 introduction. That put them in order just before chapter one.

The really nerdy stuff comes next post.

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