October & November

Allow me to start off by saying this is less of a post (OK, much less) than usual and there are two good reasons for it.

  1. I’ve not long returned from my brother’s wedding and Texan road trip. While I loved my sojourn across the pond (my premature Christmas-chub and newfound love for country music can attest to that), after three weeks without vegetables, meals that can be served comfortably onto a single plate, and the ability to walk from one place to another instead of relying on your rental car, it’s nice to be home. I’ve missed writing. And carrots. 
  2. October didn’t go as planned. That’s not to say it was bad, it just wasn’t what I expected. As such, it made sense to stitch the two months together in a single post.


[Once again, Kvothe’s words from The Name of the Wind prove to be more than apt.]

The Problem

I was just shy of five-thousand words into October when the taut knot inside my stomach learnt to translate feelings into thoughts. Something’s not right. You need to stop. Turns out the translation didn’t take much, well, thought, but this unease had been persistently eroding my decision to ignore it for some time.

While I’ve recently been happy with what and how much I’m writing, I’ve also been aware that I write too many words for too little story. That’s not to say I’m using ten words when I could be using five. Rather, I’m talking about my pacing. The progression of the story, or the amount so far told out of the overall whole, doesn’t reflect the word count. This isn’t a very economical way to write as it means it will take me longer to finish the book.

Unless you’re George R.R. Martin, Stephen King or Patrick Rothfuss, or some bizarre amalgamated clone of all three, 135,000 words might suggest that a story is near to being three quarters of the way through, not the quarter I find myself at. Last time I looked in the mirror, I was fairly certain I was neither George R.R. Martin, Stephen King or Patrick Rothfuss, or some bizarre amalgamated clone of all three.

For a debut author—or someone who hopes to become a debut author—an excessive word count could mean the same as an instant, corner-reaching red cross to some literary agents and publishing houses. Without a history of sales as back up, neither party is likely to take on what they would consider to be a big financial risk on a first-time novelist.

In other words, I can’t land a half a million word manuscript on a desk and expect a contract in return. Sure, it does happen. The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss is 250,000 words (which is still only half a half a million), but it’s a stellar debut among a few other exceptions.

If I want to better my chances of getting published I need to keep my word count to a minimum. It could still flirt with the 200,000 word mark, providing each of those words counted. Even then, it will likely encourage several instant, corner-reaching red crosses.

The Cause

A more accusatory title might read How Did You Let This Happen? Mine is not the first manuscript, nor will it be the last, to suffer from bloat. That’s why the literary gods invented redrafting.

Sometimes the story is found in its excess words. Even if those words fail to make it to the final page, they still shape those we end up holding in our hands. When we read a book, we’re seeing the thoroughly edited final draft. We don’t get to see the words that didn’t make it. More simply, excess words are the roundabout means to the end.

How this happened isn’t the result of a single cause but from several.

I’ve mentioned before how admiration can sometimes become imitation. When I started my manuscript, this was especially true. That’s when my confidence, along with my word count, was at its lowest. In both cases, I wanted the opposite.

You might understand how I then became influenced by the book I was reading at the time: in The Lies of Locke Lamora, Scott Lynch weaves his wicked humour together with a rich prose made up of long, poetic sentences saturated with verbs and adjectives. It’s the kind of writing that makes you stop where you are in the story to re-read the word-treat you’ve just discovered in the hope you’ll remember it. I’m not blaming Scott Lynch, I’m blaming myself. Fortunately, this is something I’ve since managed to overcome.

Something else I’ve mentioned before—numerous times, in fact—is how writers are often described as pantsers and plotters, or gardeners and architects, and that I’m discovering which group I belong to as I write more of the book. Rather, which group I belong to more, since I discovered I like to plan and discovery write.

When I’ve planned scenes in the past, I’ve found that when I come to write them I lose interest, since I already know what’s happening. Not only that, the words materialise stiff and lifeless. They’re no longer organic.

Some of my best writing—not just the prose, but character development and threads of story too—has come from having a vague, shadowy initial idea and then following it until the words bring the idea into sunlit-sharp focus.

When writing like this goes well, it can feel a bit like going out into the ocean on a warm day and not being aware of the tide. At first its welcoming and you want to stay out as long as you can, but if you’re not careful you can soon lose your position without even realising.

It might take you three pages to get a character from A to B. However, when those three pages are placed in the grand scheme of the entire novel, you realise it might have to happen a lot more quickly, perhaps within a sentence.

This is hard to gauge when A) you’re writing the scene for the first time and B) you’ve not yet reached the end of the novel and therefore don’t know its grand scheme. (Thank those literary gods for inventing redrafting, eh?)

This is how you end up with three times the words for the amount of story you have. Though it’s not as bad as that. It was even necessary. Writing in this way allowed me to discover the story, meet the characters, and to establish and embellish their world.

A good forty thousand of those words can be instantly deleted when I come to the redraft. In order to discover the story, I wrote the same scenes multiple times, each from a different character perspective, or with a different setting. Other scenes will be deleted altogether (they may turn out unimportant, even redundant). Thousands of more words will meet the same fate through natural redrafting.

That will likely still leave me with more words than I need. So what will I do?

The Solution

Now that I’ve discovered the story, along with its key characters, I need to keep a tighter rein on my word count and to better judge my pacing. The solution wasn’t hard to come by, which is probably why I resisted it for as long as I did.

Let me explain. I like writing. And I also like hitting word counts. It gives you a sense of progression. You can actually quantify how far you’ve come. My solution went against this.

I started a plan.

Rather, a re-plan. One that will help me to see the grand design of the entire novel before it’s completed.

I always saw a plan as the thing you did before you began writing. (That’s how I worked at University, though I was always writing much shorter and far less complicated stories then.) I now realise that the plan, much like the writing, should be organic. That it shouldn’t remain set, but should be allowed to change with the writing. Since some of my best ideas have come from writing, it only makes sense to adapt the plan to them.

Once I had listened to the taut knot inside my stomach, I decided to review what I had so far written and to think of ways I could improve my pacing by condensing the word count.

This was like coming down from the loft in early December with the box of Christmas lights from the previous year, only to find the intervening months had done as much as your past self had to untangle them. I hate untangling Christmas lights.

Fortunately, I’m better with words than I am with a string of broken bulbs.

Much of the first half of what I had was already redundant due to the aforementioned duplicated scenes. The rest of that first half would still have to be reduced. The second half was the more important half (of course, I only discovered this once I had written it), though it too would not be safe from the strikethroughs.

I wrote notes by hand. Drew arrows and circles and shapes that supposedly held meaning. I typed different notes into a new document. I even typed similar notes into a spreadsheet. To my surprise, this last approach was the most effective. It allowed me to break the story down into its scenes and isolate them clearly for me to better judge them.

A breakthrough came when I decided to turn the first two days of my story into one. As soon as I thought it, it made sense. It’s the type of idea I end with a YES! in my digital notebook, so when I come to review my notes I remember how important it is and how excited it initially made me. This allowed me to then see how the scenes I had could be altered to fit the new timescale.

As I believe my best writing occurs through discovery writing, I made a compromise with the plan. I’ve not mapped out the scenes from beginning to end. Rather, I’ve only made notes of what might happen in each. I will discover how to get them onto the page when I come to the page itself.

By the time I went to Texas, I had a good understanding of the new shape of Act One. (I imagine I will do this when I reach the end of Acts Two and Three—first, I have to reach them.) Time and space away from the laptop can sometimes prove just as productive as an afternoon of writing (or planning). Texas and its vast country and straight roads gave me plenty of time to let my mind wander.

I continued to add to my notes on my digital notebook [one of my best decisions for writing has been the digitalisation of my notebook] while I was away, this time focusing more on Acts Two and Three. By having a better understanding of the shape of the Acts to come, I should hopefully be able to better adjust my pacing. (I will be able to tell if I’m spending too long to write a particular scene, for example.) My hope before the end of the year is to have a clear plan of the two, which should help me better gauge my pacing when I return to writing.

IMG-20181113-WA0009[At the peak of the first hike in the Chisos Mountains, Big Bend. What the picture fails to capture is the cold clawing of the wind—I couldn’t feel my hands at this point, nor could I feel them on the descent. It took the car heater ten minutes on full blast to thaw them! I’m pretty sure they’re still thawing now.]

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