After extensive note-taking and a few false starts, just over two months ago, I actually sat down and starting writing that young adult subterranean fiction piece I first thought of more than half my life ago. (it is now best described as *bracing myself* a dystopian YA novel-meets-Jane Austen.)
I’ve learned through this project the importance of persistence.
I learned how to effectively deal with something that’s not working. Rather than just giving up or sitting around waiting for it to get better I learned to change my approach.
I started writing this story just for fun, just to write and see what happens.
That got me through two or three chapters and then I petered out. This is part of a larger pattern and is why I have so many unfinished projects. I lose steam. I lose my way. I don’t know where to take it from there.
So I tried something different this time. My message to myself was:
Just finish it, goddamnit. Who cares how good it is? This is a first draft. Stop your worrying, Ashleigh.
The idea of writing a whole book is always daunting. So I tried something different. I decided to focus on smaller goals, smaller hurdles.
I told myself to just write one page. One page to outline what the story would be: beginning, middle, end.
One page was easy.
Then I took that one page and delineated the beginning, middle and end into three clear parts: First Act, Second Act, Third Act.*
And then I took the three acts and wrote one page for each.
Again, focusing on just doing one page is easy. And it’s okay if every sentence starts with “and then.” These are just notes. The “and thens” are what you want to figure out right now.
Sometime during all of this, I arbitrarily decided that 75,000 words was a good length for a YA fantasy novel. I also arbitrarily decided that 3000 words sounded like a good length for each chapter. So there I had it: twenty-five chapters.
Forgetting for the sake of maths, the first chapter that I’d already written as something of a prologue, I was left with eight chapters per act.
I took what I’d written for each act and a different colour pen and separated the page into eight sections, each section a sentence or two.
I then expanded each sentence or two into a one page. This might seem daunting because that immediately meant I had to write twenty-four pages, one per chapter, but this was the fun part. This is the part where I flushed out all those “and thens” and made sure they actually flowed.
You might bang your head on the desk a few times when you realize that you can’t find an adequate character motivation for a certain “and then” that you’d been banking on and then things change and evolve.
But that is the beauty of this thing called writing. It’s just as much discovering the story and characters as it is making it up. If it doesn’t flow naturally, something is not working.
This part of the exercise I found invaluable because twenty-four pages might sound like a lot, but it is certainly better than having written 150 before you find out a key part you’d been banking on isn’t going to work. And you’re not worried about style or sentence structure, because you’re just making notes. It’s the best way to find out if the story sinks or swims. The stakes are still low and you will have identified any major problems before you’re already too far gone.
From there, I had roughly 300 words per page, which would then be expanded to 3000. For some chapters, this was as good enough a place to just sit down and start writing as any. For others, I hit a block and needed an even stricter approach.
For about half of the chapters (All the Act Two ones; I have a huge problem with second acts. I blame F. Scott Fitzgerald.), I actually broke it down further into scenes or subjects and applied word count goals to each. Then, it was as if I didn’t have to write a whole 3000-word chapter, I just had to write one 250-word scene where the main character rides a horse. Easy. Write a few of those and then you’ve got a chapter.
When stuck, break it down to a page at a time. Or even a paragraph at a time. Sometimes, the first couple sentences are the hardest and then it flows. Most times, it’s just getting going that’s the hard part. Once you’ve started, you’re golden. You just have to force yourself to write that first paragraph. Just get it done.
When I’m trying to write, I set myself word goals a day. The easy default is 1000 words a day.
I used to meet this goal adequately enough before, but once I really set this level of organization to this project, I slowly started writing more and more each day. By the time I got into Act Three, I was writing an entire chapter – all 3000 words – a day. For the last several chapters, I was writing two chapters a day.
Another bit of discipline that I forced on myself was to not go back and read over what I had written. Not until it was all done. I would finish a page – just one page – print it off, stick it with the others, and keep moving forward. One page at a time. I didn’t want to get into that cycle of editing while I write, constantly going back and then pushing forward.
I wanted to focus on the forest not the trees. I will edit it all together when the first draft is done.
So, here I am. Done.
The whole thing is 81,000 words right now. But 81,000 words in two months marks me as the most prolific I’ve ever been. That’s not even counting other stuff I wrote this month. It’s amazing how focusing on writing one thing makes you already ‘in the zone’ for writing other things.
And now I am prepared to read that first draft over again and just see how terrible or magnificent it actually is. But even if it is terrible, that’s okay, because the hard part is over. It is done.
All I have to do now is edit, and editing can polish a turd into a diamond, that’s for sure.
*This is a good starting point for breaking down structure. It’s something I learned from working in film, but it gives you a spine and then you just have to fill in the blanks. It will either help you get over any humps in the brainstorming process or give you a placeholder to put in until you work out the finer points.
A version of this post was originally published at sandpaper blues.