50,000 Words Later

This was my third NaNoWriMo, and my third time winning.

Which sounds like a brag, and I suppose it is, a bit; but I should clarify.

In some ways, NaNo is a cheat for me. My writing style is verbose. Hitting a particular word count is not generally my problem. If I get stuck on a scene, or if my plot is going sideways, I just drop into a character’s head and write a paragraph or two of navel-gazing. For NaNo, quality isn’t the point, and although I think parts of what I’ve written don’t read too badly, as a whole it’s a pretty mushy, amorphous mass.

The hardest part for me these last several weeks has been moving forward without going back and rewriting, or editing, or throwing out large chunks that I know are going to have to go if the story is ever going to work as it is. This is a first draft, right? All that stuff is expected. It’s OK at this stage. Maybe it’s even necessary.

And that, more than anything, has made me look back and realize how much I have changed as a writer since I first took on this challenge in 2010.

In 2010, I wanted to write an entire story. I had finished a book-length story once, long ago, but it took me years. I was successful, in 2010…almost. There were a few scenes I had outlined rather than written, but I did have a beginning-to-end idea. I flirted with it for a while, but in the end, there wasn’t enough to the story to support a book – or maybe the problem was I didn’t love it enough. I liked it a lot, but I had other characters in my head that I liked better. I just hadn’t figured out how I could use them yet.

I wasn’t even sure I was going to do NaNo in 2011, but in October, I got an idea. It involved one of the characters in my head, and some of the ideas that I had used in 2010. This one, as it turned out, I loved better than the last, and over the last year, I’ve gone from writing to editing to sending it out for other people to read.

It was only as I started this year’s NaNo novel that I realized what a drastic change I’ve undergone. I was writing – for fun, for the first time in a while, which was lovely – but I could not quite get out of my head everything that I’ve learned while editing the last book.

So here’s what I’ve learned about my own process:

  • My first draft is really just an outline. I was so happy when I finished the first draft of Alibi…until I started reading it over. There were parts of it that were inconsistent, glossed over, or just plain missing. There were parts that moved the story from A to B, but in the wrong way. Despite the fact that the first draft came out at around 80,000 words, it was really just a sketch of what I wanted to do.
  • Editing means writing the whole thing all over again. Well, nearly. It certainly means combing over every scene, every sentence, and checking not just for style, but for plot. All that hand-waving done while pushing to get the idea on paper has to be fixed at some point…and that would be during the edits.
  • Editing means changing the story. I threw out and rewrote the entire third act of Alibi during the edits. It did not change the main whodunit plot, or the final resolution; but it did change some of my characters, and some of the tone. That means – among other things – that blind alleys and red herrings are perfectly fine in a first draft; but they mean there’s a lot of work ahead.
  • Editing is never finished. Shortly after I sent my book out to beta readers, I had a bunch of ideas of things I ought to change. I made notes, but I’ve let it be for now. I expect some feedback (I’ve already had a little, and it’s not what I’ve expected, which makes it really useful), so there will be other changes as well; but I’m aware it’s never going to seem perfect to me. At some point, whether I sell it or publish it myself, I’m going to have to cut the cord – but to me, it’s never really going to be done.

I knocked off 50,000 words in 21 days, and I’m nowhere near finished. I’ve barely reached the first big plot twist. I’ve got a lot of backstory, and a lot of navel-gazing; and although it’s good stuff for me to know about my characters, a lot of it – maybe most of it – is going to get tossed when I edit. It feels odd, actually, taking credit for words I know I’m going to throw away; but I try to remember that this is my process. I write what is basically a 50,000 – 80,000 word sketch, and then I go back and fill in the real thing.

I’m slow. It took me 13 months to take Alibi from an idea to a book I was willing to send out to some sympathetic readers for feedback. Longer, if you consider that some of the ideas came from 2010, and some have been percolating for years and years. I look at authors who churn out multiple books in a year, and I’m stunned by the sheer amount of hard, slogging grunt work that those books represent. It’s possible I’ll get faster with practice – I hope so.

It’s moot, I suppose, if I don’t ever publish; but I will admit there are satisfactions to editing and finishing a novel that have nothing to do with whether or not anyone will ever pay me. I seem to have enough friends who are curious, too. I may never move beyond emailing some PDFs to a few people; but that’s pretty fun in and of itself. Hooking a reader or two – even if they’re friends, and they have to be nice to me – is a great feeling.

It occurs to me I should have called this post “150,000 Words Later,” because it’s taken me three NaNos to learn all this. I wonder where I’ll be next year?

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