How I Wrote a Novel, Part Five

(continued from part one, part two, part three, and part four)

This is the final part of my series, and it concerns the revision phase.

Once I knew I was going to finish the initial draft of my novel, I also knew there would be many more drafts to follow. It wasn’t just because everything I read about writing said this would happen. I knew it instinctively, because I know myself – perfectionistic, detail-oriented, I couldn’t rest with just one pass through. On the other hand, I also had to limit myself, because I knew I could probably keep going and going and drive myself crazy.

Thus, my plan had always been:

  • Draft 1: The initial draft, get the story out on the screen and finish it
  • Draft 2: Make the story cohesive, thematic, consistent; cut what no longer fits (think: 20 grit sandpaper)
  • Draft 3: Polish the prose; read the story in one sitting to create a proper flow
  • Beta reader phase: let friends and family read the whole thing and offer constructive criticism
  • Final Draft: Incorporate suggestions I agree with from beta reader phase.

And that is pretty much just how it has happened. Draft 2 was very difficult for me. I had hoped to finish all the above in three months’ time. Here is how Draft 2 worked out over those 3 months:

Poor motivation to revise

Yep, failed again. I chickened out on stickk this time, so maybe that had a part to play in it. Since the first half of the book was so different from the second half, I had to reread carefully to make sure I got rid of the old thematic stuff and seeded with new thematic stuff as I went along. I also kept Stephen King’s suggestion in the back of my head: “2nd draft = 1st draft minus 10%”. In the end, draft 2 was exactly that.

But how did I do that? Well, it was my son. You see, today is his due date; we’re expecting him to be born any day now. And I wanted to get draft 3 done and in the hands of beta readers before he was born. Then that would give them all a month or so to read it, and I could spend time with my family. I finally had the motivation I needed for the last big push. January was the hardest, getting through 3/4 of the book in one month.

Now THAT's revising!

Success, draft 2 was complete, and it was 10% smaller. And yet it really wasn’t as hard as I thought it would be. Not trying to sound arrogant here, honestly, but the evidence is clear: I am capable of doing quite a lot when properly motivated. So I re-learned something about myself these last 16 months: with the pressure of a definitive goal I can do great things. (Let’s see if I can solidify that in my mind and finish the next book, start to finish, in half that time.)

The first weekend in February I printed all 350 pages and read the whole thing in one sitting with a red pen in hand. Took another 2 weeks to put those edits in, and it got smaller still. Draft 1 was 109,000 words, Draft 3 was 96,000. During the last week of February I formatted everything and sent it out to the beta readers before March 1. And that is where it stands now.

So there you have it, how I wrote a novel in 16 months. Hopefully you yourself will be able to read it soon. I’m really considering ebook self-publishing, despite the prestige a “real” published work could bring. The always controversial Joe Konrath has some pretty convincing advice about this, so I’ll have to see what my beta-readers think. However I publish – and I WILL PUBLISH – I’ll be sure to let you watch the journey right here.

I hope you don’t feel cheated now that you’ve reached the end of the series. After all, the series was called “How I Wrote a Novel”, not how I published one. But I’m just as interested in that part of the story as you are. Stick around and watch me do it.

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How I Wrote a Novel, Part Four

(continued from part one, part two, and part three)

Before talking about the revision period, I wanted to get into a little more detail of how I finished the second half of my book. One of the things that I struggled with after the big marathon was finding the proper motivation. What, finishing the novel wasn’t enough? Apparently not. Watching my chart during November, knowing I was getting closer and closer to 50,000 words with each passing day, was a great motivator. But come January, the motivation was gone.

What was the problem? Well, burn out for starters, as can be expected. But after taking December off, that wasn’t an excuse anymore. Next problem? Well, there was the fact that I wasn’t really sure how long this thing was going to get. 100,000 words? 150,000 words? And how long would I take to finish it? Another marathon month? Two?

I figured I needed another nerdy chart to watch my progress, but with a wife and one year old at home, I didn’t want to put them through another crazy month. So I came up with a goal of another 50,000 words by the end of March. 50,000 words in THREE months? That meant I only had to work 1/3 as hard as last time! Easy!

Nope. By February I saw the goal slipping so I moved the end date to the end of April. Result:

Goal unmet

Pathetic. But you’ll notice I picked up some steam at the end there. What happened?

stickk happened.

I would not have started a novel without NaNoWriMo, but I would not have finished my novel if it weren’t for stickk. I highly recommend stickk for anyone who wants to “stick to a goal” (get it?). I chose a method that worked very well for me, and I called it negative reinforcement. I set a goal of 10,000 words from the last week of March to the end of April, 39 days. I gave stickk my credit card number. I authorized them to take $10 of my hard earned money and give it to an ANTI-charity (a politcal organization I was opposed to) if I didn’t meet my goal. You can set up a referee to tell stickk you stuck to the goal, but I chose the honor system. I WAS HONORABLE.

And it worked. Here’s a better view of late March and early April:

Much better

I still floundered a bit there. That was because the goal was so small (250 words a day). I needed a little more to keep the pressure on. For May, the goal was 12,379 words to get up to an even 80,000. June was 15,000 more words. That was a busy month and I was scared I wouldn’t make it, so July was back to the easier 10,000. For August I just needed a little more time to finish it up. I finished on August 8, 2011.

Every month I wagered $10 or $15 that could have gone to “the evil charity” if I didn’t meet my goal. And I was dead set on making sure they never got any of my money. They never did.

So I had finished a novel in less than a year, pretty cool. Except, as I said in part three, the two halves of the novel were very different. So really, I hadn’t finished at all. I was again only half-done. It was revision time.

Concluded in part five

How I Wrote a Novel, Part Three

(continued from part one and part two)

So I had just finished writing half a novel in a month (50,000 words!), and after an honest critique I had to face an uncomfortable truth: it wasn’t really a novel.  I had a choice to make.  I could either wallow in self-pity, go back to making it a video game, or start educating myself on just what a novel really is.

After some wallowing, I decided I didn’t want this story to be a game.  I wanted it to be a book.  So the education began.

I’m a fairly adept writer.  I don’t say that to sound arrogant, I know I’m far from a great writer, but I also know that this is a talent I have had for a long time.  If you peruse my site, you’ll see I’ve been writing for over ten years.  Never published, mind you, but that’s only because I’ve never tried yet.  I’m man enough to admit when I don’t know something, though, and I was faced with something I did not know: what makes a novel good enough that people will buy it?

I’ll be creating a list of resources soon so that people can see all the things I’ve read up on over the last year.  For now, I’ll list just three things that had a major impact on shapping my novel’s story.

First, I had to boil the whole thing down to a protagonist who wants something, and give the story a theme.  My first attempt had a protagonist, sure, but he was just thrown into the middle of saving the world because I, the writer, made it happen that way.  Fine for a video game, not really believable for a novel.  So I searched my heart, decided on the “big picture” story I wanted to tell, and I found my theme.  From there, I used that theme to drive the motivations of my main character so that he had a reason for doing the things he did.  Every obstacle in his way equaled a scene of action, and those scenes together formed a plot.

Second, I had to structure that plot.  For this, I found the Ten Scene Tool from The Writer’s Little Helper to be an excellent resource.  The general idea of this tool is to create rising and falling tension, a point of no return, a climax and a resolution, and break them down into ten key scenes.  The novel only has ten scenes?  Of course not, but it has ten really important ones, and they form the skeleton of the story.  Everything else built around them, filled in the gaps so to speak.

Third, I needed some guidance from a master.  To that end, I read Stephen King’s On Writing.  I recommend this book to anyone who wants to write.  Not only is it an encouraging read, he is refreshingly honest about what it takes to write in a way that people like to read today.

As I said, there were a lot of things I looked at, but these three were essential.  Another final piece I found everywhere I searched was, “Finish it.”  I had to resist going back to the first half and begin editing.  I made myself write another 60,000 words before ever looking at the first 50,000 again.  It took me 8 months, but I’m glad I did that way.  Now I could look at my huge document and say, “alright, draft one is done.  I did it.  I really wrote a novel.”  It was a great accomplishment, and those of you who have done it know the feeling.

NOW, I had to piece together two halves of a book and make sure they told a coherent story.  Oh what fun.

…Continued in part four

How I Wrote a Novel, Part Two

(continued from part one)

National Novel Writing Month, affectionately known as NaNoWriMo to its participants, occurs every November, with the goal of writing 50,000 words in 30 days. Quick math: that’s 1,667 words a day, about 5 double spaced pages. When you break it down like that, it doesn’t seem all that bad, does it?

What, just me?

Alright, I know I’m not your average guy–or person for that matter. I like complicated things. Really complicated things. My wife says my leisure activities are more complex than most people’s jobs. She’s probably right. My favorite books are thousands of pages long encompassing hundreds of characters involved in intricate interweaving plots (Lord of the Rings, Song of Ice and Fire). My favorite video games take hours of dedicated gameplay over many months to unravel all the deep lore and nuance of the designers’ vision (Elder Scrolls, Zelda, Civilization). My favorite board games cost over $50, take hours to play (or an hour to take your turn), and involve great strategic thinking and planning (Axis & Allies, Agricola). My ideal movies are hours long, with artsy camera work, strange plots and lots of quiet reflection afterwards (The Fountain, The Thin Red Line).  I like my music to be multi-layered, in odd time signatures, busy, and out there (Genesis, Yes).

So, write a book in a month? Game on.

October 2010 was planning time. The rules were that you couldn’t have any prose before Nov 1, but you could have an outline. I took all month to write a ten page outline and I also drew a map. (Fantasy books need maps, you know.) I had just joined a writing critique group, so I had 8 people who knew what I was doing. I told many other friends and family. I highly recommend this strategy: the more people you tell, the harder it will be to quit, because you will have to tell them.

Nov 1 arrived and I hit the ground running. I wrote during lunch at work, and at night at home. Sometimes it flowed so fast that I was done in an hour. Other days I had to stretch myself for 3 hours to get anything down. Sometimes I didn’t make the daily quota, other days I got ahead. I took Thanksgiving Day off. I kept a good pace. Here’s my actual chart:

National Novel Writing Month, November 2010

National Novel Writing Month, November 2010

Yes, I charted it. I’m a geek, so what? It worked though, because you notice the end there? Yeah, I did it. I won. 50,000 words in one month. Unbelieveable, right? You know what was even more unbelieveable?

I was only halfway through my book. Argghh.

For my own sanity, and my wife’s, I took a break. All of December. During that month I let my critique group take a look at the first chapter. I know, I know, you shouldn’t let anyone read your first draft. It really wasn’t that bad, though. I wanted to see what they thought.

They liked it. A lot. Praise felt good. Well, there was one guy who didn’t really like it. He’s been published before, I better listen, right? He came to the group after I started. He didn’t know the origin of my story. And what did he have to say?

“It doesn’t read like a novel. It sounds more like a role playing video game.”

Uh oh.

…Continued in part three

How I Wrote a Novel, Part One

My novel wasn’t a novel at first.  It began as a video game.

Seriously.

Since the mid 90’s I have always wanted to make my own Role Playing Game (RPG) in the style of my old-school SNES favorite Final Fantasy II (IV if we’re being true to Japanese numbering).   I still do.  Making games takes time, though.  I worked on learning programming over the course of many years, and only gave a little bit of thought to the story line.

A few years ago I discovered RPG Maker XP, and then the easier-to-use RPG Maker VX.  Wonderful tools, just a little too expensive and too short of a trial period.  But I started making something I really liked without the hassle of coding.  It was fun.  And lo and behold, a story emerged.

The demo ran out of time, but I kept writing the outline for the story.  That was fun too.

Then life happened. Depression happened.  Life ambitions fizzled, and with it my life’s focus.  A dark page.

I can’t remember why I started thinking about the old game, but it was around the summer of 2010.  I guess I just wanted to be creative again.  I looked over my notes.  It was pretty good.  Complex story.  A bit cliche, but standard fare for the RPG genre.  I remember thinking about the first task the game required: go to the temple cellar and kill all the rats (a deliberate cliche).  I remember picturing the lead character, Adain, swatting away rats with a pole, the weakest weapon in the game.  In my mind it looked like a movie.  Wait, what if I wrote it down like a story?  I hadn’t written fiction in 10 years or so.  But sure, why not?  I wrote a paragraph.  Wow, pretty good again.   Not bad for a depressed guy. But it sat for a while.

And then in October of 2010 I saw something that would change my life:  National Novel Writing Month.

…Continued in part two