Last week, I documented how I came up with the initial idea for my latest novel—“Lisa & Charlie & Mark & Suzi & Monica & Tyrell,” which I was then calling “The Porn Novel”—and how I simultaneously began exploring that idea and laying out some basic formal parameters. I also provided a general overview of my general writing process. Today I’ll cover how I finished this initial exploratory period and settled into a stronger sense of the project as whole. Again, my hope is that these posts will prove useful to other writers, and interesting to everyone on God’s green earth. Because I remember very clearly that, during the decade I spent writing my first novel, Giant Slugs, I often felt frustrated and confused. And while every writer must figure ultimately things out for her or himself, some of my strategies and methods might prove theft-worthy—or at least provide a good laugh.
So I’d gotten to the point where I’d translated the original idea (“a pornographic novel that doesn’t contain any sex”) into a more specific approach: six chapters featuring six friends meeting up for six meals. I knew that each chapter was going to be long, to make the absence of salacious material more palpable. And I’d whipped up some character names, and sketched out a list of potential meals.
I also tried estimating how long each chapter would have to be. I decided that, in order to convey the proper feel, the first five chapters should be at least 20 pages each, and that the final chapter (the group dinner) should be longer—at least 30 pages. That added up to 130 pages minimum, which felt like the shortest the project could be. I translated that into word counts, since I think better that way (for one thing, I always single-space my manuscripts, since years of teaching/grading, not to mention taking writing workshops, have led me to despise the look of double-spaced manuscripts). I had a sense that the project would be dialogue-heavy and not contain any long paragraphs, running maybe 250 words/page. Hence, the projected numbers worked out to 5000+ words apiece for chapters 1–5, and 7500+ words for chapter 6. These were just targets, of course, but having a rough idea of what I’m aiming at helps me pace myself, and estimate how long the writing will take.
I also started my writing journal. I use Excel for this and it’s nothing extravagant; I just note each time that I work, and jot down a few words as to what I did. I also track the word counts as they change (using blue for increases and red for decreases). And while this habit of mine is probably the sign of a diseased mind, it helps keep me motivated, encouraging me to “log in” every day, and stick to my routine. It’s not unlike tracking my workout routines, or the movies that I watch. Plus it yields data I can later analyze, which is the only thing that sustains me through the long cold Chicago winter. (Dear NSA, I hear you had an opening recently? Call me!)
Now before you think me entirely insane, consider this. I have a simple litmus test for what enters/exits my writing routine: is it fun? I write a lot, and want to enjoy it, and make it something I look forward to doing. As such, I’m always looking for little ways to reward myself, and to make the situation more pleasant / less stressful.
For example: when I was younger and writing only fitfully, I mostly wrote late at night, even though I never had much success doing that. Writing was something I did after stressing out about it all day, feeling guilty about not having gotten any work done. After a decade or more of that, I switched to writing in the morning—and, believe me, I did not think I was a morning person at that time. But I started living with a yoga instructor who taught early morning classes. So I started getting up at 5 AM and, amazingly, I discovered that I was much more productive and happier when I wrote then. (I also realized that predawn is my favorite time of day.) That experience taught me to examine the rest of my writing routine, and to try making it more enjoyable overall. So my Excel files are in some sense silly, yes—but they are my only friends, and I name them, and I love them.
Here’s a snapshot of the journal that I made:
I’ve wanted for a while now to try writing a story “live” here, posting my work as I went from initial idea to finished piece. I might still do that, but for now, here’s a related series of posts. I spent the past forty days writing a new novel (“Lisa & Charlie & Mark & Suzi & Monica & Tyrell,” though my working title was “The Porn Novel”), and want to share with you how I did that. My hope is this will prove less an exercise in vanity and more something instructive—like, you might want to do the exact opposite of me.
Let me state up front that I don’t think there’s any one way to write novels, or fiction, and I don’t approach all of my projects in the same way. And what works for me may not work for you. But I have developed some basic procedures that I find useful and that you might enjoy trying. Also, this time around, I encountered some formal problems that should make for good discussion.
I write pretty quickly, but forty days is the fastest I’ve written a novel. (This is the third one I’ve really completed.) My first novel, Giant Slugs, took nearly a decade from start to finish, during which time I wrote three completely different versions of the book. That experience was, on the whole, difficult and often mystifying. Only in the final two years, when I wrote the final version of the novel, did I feel as though I understood what I was doing, and even then I felt crazily out of control most of the time. I had by then a Master’s in Creative Writing, but never received much instruction in novels, so I had to figure out a great deal on my own. (Perhaps that’s inevitable?)
I wrote my second novel, “The New Boyfriend” (still unpublished) as an anti-Giant Slugs: whereas GS is a mock-epic with dozens of characters and locations, covering several years, “TNBF” is a single scene featuring four characters, set in a single location on a Sunday afternoon/evening. That project took me seventy-five days total, which taught me that time is a resource, and some projects take less of it than others. I’m sure I’ll return to more time-intensive projects later, but for now, I’m having fun sprinting.
Recently I’ve wanted to try writing a novel in one month, and when I dreamed up this new project, it seemed a good candidate for that. (And, no, I’ve never done NaNoWriMo, though I have done the 3-Day Novel Contest about six times. I learned a lot from doing the 3-Day, but never produced what I’d consider a finished novel.)
Sorry Cormac McCarthy, I know everyone says you’re great but I just don’t buy it. I need to inquire for myself. If your books don’t got that “LOOK INSIDE!” feature I just won’t take the chance — and God forbid I leave my house and browse the bookstore; that would require me to put on my underwear, and my junk needs to shrunk. See what I just did for a rhyme?
Jabs and jokes aside, it’s interesting how the “Look Inside” feature points (inadvertently or not) to what’s most essential to the consumer/reader: the ‘judging a book by its cover’ cover; the marketing flourishes of blurbs/synopses on the back cover and/or inside flap; and the first 5 or so pages of text. (I’m not making any argument, for an arbitrary excerpt at pg. 214 would be fairly inapplicable. This ain’t exquisite corpse bitch.)
Perhaps the writer’s job is inextricably slash irrevocably also the publisher’s/vendor’s job as well: to capture, convince, and compel the reader by pg. 5. It’s like a blind date: you can tell by the first 5 sips of that gin n’ tonic if ur gonna fuck. For those novelists out there (for I am not), how cognizant are you of your reader’s fickle ADD constraints? Do you expect someone to bear through the first 50 pages on “good faith,” or do you throw your best punches at the start? Maybe the best plan is to do it throughout the entire book, but hey, we can’t all be idealists. Is a short story simply the beginning of a novel that is never finished? Is Cormac McCarthy basically a version of Ralph Lauren without the cologne? What drives a writer: ego, love, or pain? If one answers a rhetorical question in the comment section, how closer are they to infinity? Who’s your daddy?