Got an email the other day from TKZ reader Gary Neal Hansen. With his permission, here’s a bit of it:
We’ve not met but I wanted to thank you for your help, so generously offered in the blogosphere. I stumbled across a post you made in 2015 on The Kill Zone about being a prolific writer. You drew the distinction you made between project ideas being on an “optioned” list, with a few moving forward to an “in development” category, and a single project being “greenlighted” as the WIP.
I wanted you to know that this has helped me see how to move toward clarity and self-organization in my newly independent writing life.
For 17 years I was a professor, where the demands of teaching and pursuit of tenure gave structure to my work. I recently left that position when my wife got her first faculty appointment to a really fine university.
Now I’m continuing to write non-fiction, but am (with the help of NaNoWriMo) adding fiction to the mix. Whether I become skilled enough as a storyteller to publish fiction is an open question, but I’m having fun. And your little book on short stories has also been very helpful — so thanks, very much, and I look forward to reading more of your craft books.
Grand! I love hearing about someone turning to fiction for the first time and having fun doing it. It’s also a nice nod toward NaNoWriMo, which has helped countless newbies over the years get into the habit of writing full-length fiction.
Gary then asked a question which he thought might make good fodder for a TKZ post:
Which of the following do you think would be a better strategy to jump start my skills in the craft?
- Pretend it is NaNoWriMo for five successive months and produce five 50,000 word drafts. Then set out to learn the process of editing the best one. Or,
- Edit my first NaNoWriMo for a month or two, then do another pretend NaNoWriMo, and keep repeating the cycle. Or,
- Draft new material in the mornings, and edit the previous manuscript in the afternoons (while, I suspect, quietly losing my mind). Or,
- Something else?
Here is my answer.
I like a combination of #2 and #3. I still recall finishing my first full-length novel. It was around 1990 or so. What I remember most is how much I learned by making myself complete a draft.
My education continued as I did my first self-edit, studying craft issues that came up. The novel was not ready for prime time, but I knew I’d made strides as a writer.
Which is why I’ve counseled new writers to finish that first novel, because it will reveal to you strengths and weaknesses in your craft. I’ve also advised they write first drafts “as fast as you comfortably can,” because it builds the discipline of completing a project.
Now, once finished, let the manuscript sit for three weeks or more. During that time, be at work on you next novel. This project should already have been “in development” as you worked on the previous book. That means you’ve done some thinking about the idea, some planning, some casting, even some writing.
When it comes time to self-edit the first MS, print out a hard copy and read it through, taking minimal notes. You want to experience it as a reader, or better yet as a harried editor or agent reading it on a commuter train, looking for a reason to set it aside!
After that, do a second draft, fixing what you can. Take note of problem areas in your craft so you can study those in more detail.
Show this new draft to beta readers, your critique group, perhaps a freelance editor. (All the while, you are keeping up a word quota on your next novel.) Take all that feedback and re-write once more.
Does that sound like a lot of work? Good. Because it is. And should be.
Now, one does not have to strive to write every novel in NaNo fashion. NaNo is a special speed-writing month, and once a year is quite enough. My guideline for “normal” times: figure out how many words per week you can comfortably write, then up that by 10%. Make that your quota and stick to it for the year. After a year assess and tweak the quota, then hop to it again.
That means that #3 is a good practice. Use your peak creativity time (morning, afternoon or evening, depending on your bio-preference) for the new stuff, and other times for editing. You won’t, as Gary wonders, lose your mind. Going from drafting to editing uses different parts of the brain, and many writers have done it just this way.
My caution: don’t do heavy editing of your WIP at the same time you’re writing it. Do a light edit on the previous day’s work, just to clean things up, then move on.
I’ll mention my “20k Step Back,” however. I found that if I pause to assess my characters and plot at the 20k point, I can save myself a lot of grief by making sure the stakes are truly high, the characters are rightly motivated, and the Lead is pushed through the Doorway of No Return.
Then I push on until I’m finished.
So that’s my advice to Gary an all others starting their the novel-writing journey. Let me offer a few notes on the other two suggestions:
- Pretend it is NaNoWriMo for five successive months and produce five 50,000 word drafts. Then set out to learn the process of editing the best one.
While I love the idea of this pulp-style prolificacy, those writers knew the craft of story first. If you write in this fashion I fear you’ll develop some bad habits that may be hard to break. It’s sort of like telling a new golfer just to go out and play eighteen holes every time without once taking a lesson.
There are better ways to choose what idea to develop (I’ll cover that in a future post). The steady quota, alongside directed craft study, is best.
- Something else?
Kerouac liked Benzedrine and a roll of butcher paper flowing through his typewriter. I don’t recommend this method.
Dean Koontz works on a single page, over and over, before moving on to the next page. That’s why he hasn’t found success yet. But if all you do is write 70 hours a week, I suppose you can do it this way. I’d go mad.
Balzac stimulated his imagination by drinking up to fifty cups of thick, black coffee every day. He was definitely prolific, but since he died at 51 of caffeine poisoning, I cannot give my imprimatur to this practice.
Countless unpublished writers wait for “inspiration” before they write. There’s a term for this: unprofessional.
Some writers steal. Don’t.
So I open it up to you, TKZ community. What’s your preferred practice? What other advice would you give the new novelist?
(I’m in travel mode today, so I’ll try to respond as best I can!)