The lessons 100,000 words will teach

As it turns out, putting 100k words together in some semblance of both sequential and logical order is not an insignificant task.  I suppose I realized that at the outset of my adventure, when it occurred to me way back in the Spring of 2010 that the Puddintopia exercise in laying down some random fiction wasn’t actually all that random and that a fledgling novel was afoot.  I wrote the first 400 some-odd words on February 2, 2010.  In the intervening 18 months, I learned an awful lot about what it really takes to draft an entire novel.

To wrap up my week-long personal back-patting exercises, I thought it might be worthwhile to post about I learned.  Before I do so, though, one important caveat: this is not a blog for writer’s.  At last count, there are apparently more aspiring writers on our little planet than actual people.  Well, not really, but it’s a big number.  Some of those writers write about writing with the intent of helping other writers write what they want to write.  Make no mistake, though, I’m not that kind of writer, this is not that kind of blog, and I’ll thank you, sir, to keep your hands to yourself.

Puddintopia is about, well, a wide range of stuff, but how to be a better writer isn’t included.  I’m still figuring it out as I go, and as an example of that I’ll happily point to the fact that it took me 18 months to write a novel when someone with experience could probably pound it out in a season or something.  So, here, then, are the lessons I learned though the course of producing draft zero.  If you’re working on a project of your very own, these may apply, they may not.  Taking advice about writing from a guy like me would be like letting a kindergartener teach you how to paint.  And I’d think twice about something like that, considering they just learned how to finger-paint using the same instruments for art that they use to “dig for gold”, if you catch my drift.

In other words, here are the lessons I picked up along the way. Your specific mileage may vary.

  • Outline is everything – I so wanted to be cool.  See, there are two approaches to writing a novel: carefully outlining is one, winging it is the other.  The wingers are the cool people, the outliner are the highly organized types that make squishy faces when someone spikes the punch at a party.  In life, I’m typically not an outliner.  I’m happy to start one place and see where it takes me.  But I realized early on that if I wanted to have any hope of diving off the blocks at point A and eventually finishing, I was damn well going to need to know the location of point B and all points beyond.  The thing was just too big for me to keep it in my head and not lose valuable good ideas.  So, I succumbed to the rule of control, and plotted out all the big steps and motivations ahead of time lest my story start with one guy and end up with a gaggle of coked-up ex-Nuns on the run for operating an illegal still.  Although, come to think of it, that sounds like it could be interesting.


  • The Outline will not club your delicate, whimsical muse – I worried that having an outline would prove stifling, that being shackled to framework would take the fun out of the process and make it seem like I was slaving away on an assigned project for Mrs. Bates, everyone’s prissy 8th grade English teacher.  But it turns out that wasn’t the case at all.  My outline was pretty loose and basically just set forth a bullet point or two for each chapter about what needed to go down within.  The specifics of how those events actually went down, though?  Yeah, that’s the writing part, and it’s still plenty creative.  In fact, many times when I actually wrote chapter n, something I hadn’t expected happened, making changes necessary to chapter n+1.  This led to the understanding that…


  • The Outline is not set in stone – My characters did what I told them; I filled their heads with plans and their mouths with words (well, and the occasional adult beverage).  Sometimes, though, what I ended up with was not what I’d intended.  Most the time, it was better.  I’ve read that this is the process by which life is breathed into a body of work, so I’m hoping it’s a good thing and I wasn’t just being fickle like a little girl at a tea party.  Hard to say for sure, of course, but the point is that sometimes you think character X is a throw away, to be used for a specific purpose one minute and tossed out on the street the next, only to have X do something really cool and then suddenly blossom with a complete, useful through-line.  When that happens, it’s okay to take an eraser to the Outline and make a few edits.


  • Each chapter is a first date – For me, the whitespace just below the text, “Chapter XX” is the very definition of tantalizing potential.  Anything could go there, anything could happen.  You might vomit 2000 words to rival Hemingway or perhaps, instead, struggle through 200 that sound like an infant sputtering gibberish at the bath time duckies.  In that way, it’s very much like a first date with someone you barely know: there’s an electric sense that it could lead to something profound, overwhelming, almost magical.  Then again, you could screw it up by dumping tomato bisque in your lap or calling your date an ogre, and thus find yourself with another 7 months of uninterrupted Friday night guild raids in World of Warcraft.  The start of every new chapter is a little scary because just like a date, you don’t ever really know if you’re going to get lucky or just get the shame.


  • Don’t ever stop – Did you have a good writing day today?  Excellent, then make sure you follow it up tomorrow.  Do NOT take a day off because you doubled your usual output, ever, ever.  Because that’s one day off and then maybe the next day you aren’t, you know, feeling it, and then the day after that little Susie’s got her first visit to the orthodontist.  Suddenly you’ll realize that June slipped past completely, you made absolutely no progress, and your protagonist is still in that Bangkok brothel where you left him—but now rife with all manner of unspeakable diseases.  I’ve got a full-time job and four kids, I don’t have to look for reasons not to write; they surround me, drooling gremlins waiting to rip me apart and destroy my dreams at the first glimmer of weakness.  In order to get this thing done, then, I had to have a schedule, and it had to be serious.  Honestly, it wasn’t until I hit 50k words that I finally found what worked for me: 500 words a day, everyday, after the kids were in bed, Sunday’s off.  No excuses, no catching up.  It might not work for everyone, but as long I made sure to follow yesterday’s progress with a tiny little bit more today, step by step the mountain top got closer.


  • Distractions spell certain doom – Is your mom on facebook wanting to chat?  Is someone live-tweeting the current I-hate-them/They-hate-me partisan political train wreck?  Do you suddenly feel the need to go find kitten pictures online?  Or maybe it’s time to finally send that email to cousin Ruth apologizing for the…um…incident at the family reunion.  Whatever it is, writing time is NOT the time for it.  Sitting down to write meant closing the twitter client, the web browser, the email program, everything that wasn’t novel-related.  Writing successfully requires either learning to ignore distractions, or removing everything shiny that could catch one’s eye and worse, attention from the writing environment.  Making that daily word count is….SQUIRREL! 


  • OMG, it’s hard – In all honesty, I had no real idea what I was getting myself into.  I have a dream, one that revolves around writing books. And, sure, people write books all the time.  You just make up some stuff and write it down and everyone loves it and fame and fortune are heaped upon you along with truckloads of free stuff, right?  Yeah, not quite.  Producing this draft was maybe the most difficult task I’ve ever set myself to.  Everything you read out there about the difficulties of writing a book are absolutely true.  Yes, self-doubt lies behind every single turn of a character’s head.  Absolutely, the middle of a book can be a groundless, directionless place, and writing through it is like sailing with nothing but a compass on a cloudy, moonless night.  Heck, the whole things feels like you’re crossing a 100 miles of desert on foot taking nothing but tiny baby steps.  But, you know, damn, it’s a beautiful stroll.  Like nothing you’ve ever seen before.  And there’s simply no substitute for the accomplishment I felt when I typed the words “THE END”, standing on that finish line, exhausted, elated, Emperor of All The Words.


    So, then, having reached the end, is this all I have to say?  Well, no, because I haven’t reached the end.  I’m not sure there is an end.  For the moment, there’s still revisions and many a read-through, query letters, begging for an agent, etc, etc.  Many many steps still stand before me here, even at this plateau.  And what’s even better is that now I get to apply my lessons again.  Because I’m not done writing books, oh, no.  Not by a long shot.  I plan to start the next one around the first of the year.  Will this one ever sell?  I don’t know.  Maybe.  But I’m not ever going to quit. 

    And that’s lesson #1.