Lessons learned from writing a novel very slow.
Most of you know I write pretty fast – three months on a book (first draft) is slow – but most of you don’t know why I do it. Also, I’ve taken a year and a couple of months to write a book before Witchfinder but the process was completely different. Normally when a book takes me that long to write, it is because – like poor Noah’s Boy – it keeps getting interrupted by more urgent stuff. (In Noah’s Boy case, this was mostly health. It occurs to me, mostly because Stephen Green talked about his health issues and people thanked him that I must at some point do a post about the weird intersection of hormones and writing in me, because other female writers might have the same problems, or develop them as they age. But it wasn’t all health. In the middle there, after I got rights back to Draw One In The Dark and Gentleman Takes a Chance and before I’d done – or thought of doing – anything with them, Baen decided to re-issue them after all. This meant that I had a chance to do some revision (the first book badly needed it, just on wording. It was written while I was recovering from concussion, something that brings up all the English dialects I ever learned, so it went from British one paragraph, South African the next, [my grandfather spent 20 years in South Africa and he was one of the first people I practiced English with, when I started learning] then shaded to the Midwest, then settled in Colorad. It was unsettling for me to read) but it had a drop-dead in early December, so everything had to stop while I pursued that. BTW, that’s good news about DOITD and GTAC.)
That is a slightly different process and while it suffers from some of the same symptoms, like for instance plot skew, it’s not so much plot drift as picking up on it again and realizing I can’t do it as outlined. When I pick up months or years later, I’m not THAT writer, anymore.
So, first let’s dispose of the reason I try to write fast and without stopping once I’ve started a project – because I’m handicapped. Actually honest-to-goodness measurable brain issue.
For years I’ve told everyone that I test profoundly handicapped on visual IQ tests, and this is true, but the reason I test that way isn’t necessarily visual intelligence per se. I can visualize stuff and work from that visualization, as has been proven since I started doing art. No, my problem, which also affects word puzzles of the acrostic kind and definitely affects number puzzles is that I’m almost completely incapable of visualizing PATTERNS.
This is a very specific kind of intelligence, as we found when we had the younger kid tested, because he has no limit to it (as in, they ran out of sets.) He sees patterns and codes better than anything else. This is the sort of person they throw seeming senseless messages at and the person discerns the code.
Well, he has it, and I’m totally lacking in it. (Curiously, this is the reason he preferred non fiction to fiction for a long time. He saw the “pattern” very early, and could see how it would end. Now he’s learned to read for other reasons.)
This is why I came into the field with fully alive characters and had the hardest time in the world figuring plots. My first published novel, I stole the plot from Tam Lin and sprinkled it with Shakespeare, and hoped it would work. (Not coincidentally, what I’m trying to figure out in art right now is composition. This is not un-akin, in its first groping efforts to a blind man trying to figure color.)
Well, as we d*mn well know, even a deaf person can learn to sing, and after twenty years of groping and practicing – and a heck of a lot more time reading plots – I can see the “plot shape” of a book. It’s nothing as formal as an outline (though I outline, also, often the plot shape is cleaner than what I outline which tends to get pulled about by characters, which means I have to fix it in post.) It is more literally a pattern-shape in my mind.
The problem is that I lose that hard-won pattern if I get distracted (and this is why I hated selling on outline, when I had to, with a purple frothing passion.) or if it takes too long to complete.
For those of you who crochet or do some other handy work, imagine that you can see the work in your head, but not write it down, because THAT changes it – and you have to finish the project before the pattern in your head changes, which it will, very gradually.
Ideally, I write a first draft in three weeks, because then the pattern is set, and I can work around it to clean it and make it clearer.
Now, I might be completely wrong on this, but while I am handicapped (probably having to do with the circumstances of my birth) I don’t think I’m alone in struggling with patterns/plots. In fact, I know at least one other published author in the field who has almost exactly my issue. (I’ve never asked her about the circumstances of her birth, which could confirm or deny the brain-issue hypothesis.) And a lot of women writers in general have issues with the “plot thing” just like men have issues with the “character thing” – this is generalized and, yes, possibly sexist, but I could give you reasons both innate and training why it is so. However, like any other generalized statement, it applies only to statistics and not real people, so chill. There are outliers, on both ends. There are people like Dave Freer who are good at both plot AND characters. (We would hates him, my preshious, but he’s such a nice guy we can’tz.)
And, again, I might be completely wrong on this, since I’ve never been anyone else, but most writers seem to write novels more like I wrote Witchfinder (though usually not writing only Fridays – though some do) than like I write my normal novels, so a disquisition on what I learned from the experience might help someone, or at least make you stare in a kind of fascinated horror.
1- Plot. Oh. My.
I started out with a more detailed plot than I normally do, because I KNEW it was going to need to be there, to back me on the days I came up empty. Most of you have tweaked to the fact that Gabriel Penn stepped out of his role and took center stage.
What most of you don’t know is that almost every other character did too, and that the novel took a violent wrenching turn from where it had been meant to go.
While Nell was always meant to be the lost princess, this was not supposed to come out for five or six novels, during which time she and Seraphim would develop a partnership saving unfortunates in worlds where magic or shifting was deadly.
Yes, ladies and gentlemen, what I’d meant the plot to be was one of those that could be easily serialized under “adventure and rescue” with a set of characters who changed/grew/revealed SLOWLY over time. A type of series more like Nero Wolfe than like my Magical British Empire set. Seraphim was supposed to take center stage in this, and the adventure was supposed to solve the mystery of his father’s death and set him fully as Witchfinder for the future. In the end, Nell was supposed to return to Earth, but they would have a tentative thing going. Yeah. That worked. Head>desk.
How it happened – faced with writing this under the gun, and while busy with other books/stories, or plodding through health issues, I found that I had to write what I could write that week. This forced me to be way more pantser than I normally am. The pattern dissolved and I had to go with whatever thread of feeling/character was strongest at the time, because that’s what speaks to me most clearly. So the d*mn thing because a group-novel with all hands in, Gabriel Penn revealed supernatural origins (to be honest I THINK this would have happened over an episodic scene, anyway, and Nell took the bit between her teeth, and Seraphim’s family… well… you saw.)
2 – Perseverance
I think in fifteen months, I missed ten “regular posts.” This in a year that was worse than usual for hormonal oscillation and just several rounds of “crud.” Posts got done through cons, vacations, illnesses and minor (or a couple of major) personal disasters.
I’m not absolutely sure what this means, except to tell you that it can be done, no matter how busy you are or how insane things get.
I was writing Fridays only and often managed less than a thousand words (though sometimes seven thousand would just flow. And sometimes I wrote another day of the week.)
The final count comes to 150 thousand words, which is not at all shabby output for a pro writer per year, and this was my VERY part time work.
You can do it. Full time job is NOT an excuse. Block off Saturday afternoons or something. If you want to do it, it’s possible.
3 – Plodding
One of the things I know I’m going to have to correct is that the novel would fall in these iterative loops. I’ve observed this before in things like fan fic that are posted episodically. You have an episode due, and you’re simply NOT up to a great effort, you post a chapter in which something happens, but not something that will majorly affect the plot. This can give an effect of loop-de-loops, though I later used some of those as foreshadowing for major stuff.
If you’re forced to write like that, don’t worry. First, it might not be as iterative as you think (I don’t know. I haven’t read it yet, might prove far less so than I thought) and if it is you can fix it in post. It’s more important to keep your date with writing than to make sure you baked it a cake (as it were.)
Now, where do I from here, now the first version of the novels is finished, “in the public eye” as it were?
The first thing is to let it sit for a couple of weeks – which is easy, because I have a ton and a half of stuff I need to catch up on, including a short story for Baen, a couple of novellas for Goldport, and some other commitments, as well as reconnecting with my family (the problem having been Noah’s Boy, btw, not WF.)
I’d really like to get a day or two for bothering dinos in there too – but we’ll see how money is since driving to Denver involves gas and then there’s at least one meal at Pete’s, of course.
I have already entered the difficult-book-is-finished cleaning phase and it’s about half done.
This is good too, because it creates a mental distance. Until I do other stuff and fill my brain with other characters, WF will be there, in the background. I want it gone, so I can read it with fresh eyes.
I’m guessing I’ll find a lot of iterative loops in the book that will need to either be removed or smoothed out. I know I’ll find a lot of “pointers” at things that ended up no happening. For instance, in the beginning, I was going to give a lot of weight to his rescues, so… They will still be there, in the sequels (though not all – or perhaps most) sequels are from Seraphim’s or Nell’s POV, so there still needs to be a hint of other worlds. Besides, this is set in the same universe as the Magical British Empire which legally is now in my hands (getting the company to GET that they must cease and desist might take a little longer) which means I can now give hints of that, and integrate the two “world builds” – which probably means I need a new name for the d*mn thing too (the universe, not the novel.)
The thing is, I DON’T KNOW if I’ll find iterative loops. When I’ve had to re-read my work years later, I’ve often found that what was in there was not at all what I thought was in there. Like, in the YA, I THOUGHT I’d kept my politics under wraps. That worked. Not.
But that’s one of the things I MIGHT have to do. The other thing is to foreshadow the stepping-forward of minor characters. The Honorable Jonathan Blythe will need foreshadowing since I think the next book in this world is his. Gabriel will need foreshadowing. So will the prophecy. His mother might have to make a couple other appearances. The rest will need to get smoothed out.
Basically, I’ll have to add foreshadowing, remove foreshadowing, and then go in and weigh events properly, to draw the eye to the right points. I might leave in stuff that won’t come to fruition till later in the series, but it needs to recede to the background.
This is not so different from what I do in normal books – only in those I have the guidance of the original plot, which in this case has been well and truly trampled and can’t be counted on at all. (Or to quote RES in a different contest, I got it drunk, took it out in the woods, and I shived that b*tch good and proper. The original plot is DEAD and buried. So I need to reconstruct a plot from what I do have. I don’t know how much will be grave digging and Frankenstein and how much is a little baby plot under all that.)
I’ll note with amusement that this is one of the problems they warn you might run into when you do the National Novel Writing Month (which I stopped doing because it seems to be a jinx thing) hence one of the normal encouragements in those circumstances “no plot, no problem.” I.e., you can fix it in post.
For now these are all the thoughts I have, and they’ve rambled as much as that poor zombie plot. I’ll keep you posted as I dig the grave and hook up the electrodes.
In the end, I’ll have a functional novel — I promised it, so it will happen — but in between there will be a ton of learning. Maybe we should all change our process now and then, if nothing else — like learning a foreign language to help with your own — to see our own process more clearly.