Monday, June 18, 2012

When writing fast is not enough

Last Friday night I finished my 10th book. Hooray! That's a million and a half words (not counting the ones I tossed) over the 8 years I've been writing seriously. And of those 10 novels, 4 were written last year and 2 were written this year so far. Ahh, the difference of life in the fast lane...

But that's not actually what I wanted to talk about today. I wanted to talk about what happens when plans fall through. If you look at the numbers above, you might notice something odd. Most novels run about 100-120k. At 10k a day, it should only take me 10-12 days to write a book. 14 days if you count in backtracking. Oh, hell, why be stingy? Let's make it a month per book. Add in another month for editing and I should be clearing 6 books a year no sweat.

Last year I wrote 4 books, but I didn't figure out the 2k-10k trick until May, so that was 5 months of bad numbers. Also, 2 of those books (the final 2 Eli novels) were 170k plus, so that also put me back. Still, 4 books ain't bad, especially in my first year of fast writing. Back in January, I was pumped for 2012 to be a banner year. I was ready to go for broke with 7 books in 12 months. I already had the blog posts in mind. :D

But it didn't work out that way. Today is 6/18, over halfway through the year, and I'm just finishing my second book of 2012. This with the first book (currently with my agent) mostly written last year. Looking at my records, I've been working on the first draft of book #10 since 3/13/2012. That's almost 3 months exactly on a 120k novel that's the sequel to the novel I wrote in 12 days last year.

*Insert incoherent noises of rage*

I've spent my downtime this weekend trying to figure out what went wrong here to make sure it never happens again. Unfortunately, the answer isn't that simple, because it ties into the nature of writing itself.

If you keep up with my blog, you've probably already heard that novels are wicked problems. You don't know how to solve them until you've solved them, or, more poetically, you have to write the book to learn how to write the book. For novel #10, this applied in spades.

See, when I sat down to write it, I was pretty confident. I had a rock solid plot planned out, I was writing a sequel, so world building was already done, and I love love loved my main character. This was the novel I was supposed to write during my #novelin14days hashtag on twitter, and for 10 of those days, I was golden. Then the problems began.

First, I'd just like to say it wasn't a plotting problem. The story map I wrote out way back in March changed very little from the planning stage to the finished novel. What changed was the execution, the how of what happened, not the what.

Execution problems are the worst kind to have in a novel because there have no right answers, but some answers are more right than others, and you don't know which answer is better until after you've written one that doesn't work. For example, my book opens with the main character burying a friend. Plot wise, it's pretty simple: Main character digs grave in desert, but I rewrote this scene 5 times because I just couldn't get the tone right. It's a first scene, so it has to be punchy, but we're digging a grave, so it has to be somber. I have to remind the reader what happened in the last book (and why we're digging this grave) without info dumping. I also have to sum up my MC's extremely convoluted mental state in a few snappy sentences that would actually make sense for her to say.

But Rachel, you say, that's writing. Of course you have to do all this stuff! And to you I say, you're right. I just had a really hard time of it this time around.

Before I marked the book officially done on Friday, I'd rewritten it completely 3 times. I'd rewritten the beginning 5 times, added a prologue and completely redone the sequence of events at the end. I also cut and redid countless individual scenes. When I compiled my final copy in Scrivener, my cuts document was over 70k long. Seventy thousand words! That's nearly a whole novel of words just thrown away!

So what does all this mean? Well, in the final tally, my words per day average on this novel was 7.5k. Not 10k (though I had several 10k days), but not bad either. It wasn't like I was slacking. My writing speed was pretty good, but this is one of those cases where writing fast isn't enough. Even though I like to measure words in numbers, stories are not widgets. Some take longer than others, some give you fits. I planned this novel the same way I planned the first book in this series. That one took 12 days, this one took 3 months. The plot didn't change, I just refused to settle for bad scenes, so I kept writing until I figured it out.

This is the difference between being a hack and being a writer who writes fast. Even though it meant doing a lot of rewriting and taking a lot of extra time, I refused to settle for a scene that didn't fit or didn't do everything I wanted it to. Because in the end, it's not how fast you write, but how well.

No book leaves my house unless I'm proud of it. No scene stays in a book unless it's the right scene. Ten thousand words a day doesn't mean squat unless they're the right words. I'm two months behind where I thought I'd be and facing the fact that I might only get 4 books done this year instead of the 7 I wanted, but I finally have a book I'm proud of, and that's what matters.


Laura said...

Excellent post. I'm a quick study and my family is accustomed to me breezing through stuff. Not this book-writing gig. I'm on the first one, so learning as I go, and re-writing ad nauseum.

Love the Spirit Wars and am so glad that you are dedicated to getting books out quickly. Thanks so much!

The first scene in the first book, where Eli is in jail and wakes up the door is brilliant.

Anonymous said...

Ah, yes. You write one fast and think you've gotten your black belt in writing fu. Then your quick little "side project" takes weeks longer than the time alotted, and you're on line-editing and still making character changes.

The up side is it may have taken you 3 years to write that novel, if you weren't using your methods!

Tirzah Duncan said...

Thanks, Rachel, for making sure to keep your books something we can look forward to!

I know just what you mean; I don't know how many scenes I've had to cut because they were just... poor. Well, *glances at figures* not as many as you have, but enough to feel your pain. X)

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