Thursday, May 11, 2006

Getting to The End, Part 2

Yesterday I discussed the pros and cons of measuring a novel's progress by word count vs. page count. Then I hinted that they can both be hazardous, based on my experience.

With Eyes of Crow, I got in trouble by keeping to a page count. I padded some sentences and paragraphs just to fill out the volume, which made extra editing work for me in later drafts.

But even worse, by the time I reached the halfway point pagewise, I hadn't told half the story. Oops. Not only did it take a few weeks longer than planned to complete the novel, several of the scenes near the end were rushed and shallowly* written. Again, more work in the rewrites.

Now that I'm trying to write two books a year, for different series, I can't afford a bloated first draft. So I've decided this time around that a better way to get from beginning to end is to write the story. Radical notion, that.

What I mean is that each day, rather than writing X number of pages or words, I'll write one scene. The scene may be 5, 10 or 15 pages, or somewhere in between. It doesn't matter as long as the story gets told.

So here's what I figured out:

As a rough estimate, in a 600-page first draft, there will be 75 scenes of approximately 8 pages each. I'm sketching the scenes on index cards, making sure that each point-of-view character gets his or her allotted amount of "camera time:"
  • Rhia, main female character: 40% (after all, it's her book)
  • Marek, main male character: 25%
  • Alanka, secondary chick, 17.5%
  • Filip, secondary dude, 17.5%
But Jeri, one might gasp, how can you quantify creativity? How can you shove a sweeping epic fantasy story into little 3x5 boxes?

Screenwriters do it all the time. It's how I wrote my original screenplay. I knew what would happen in each scene, though sometimes only vaguely. A few scenes got shifted around, but the original outline stood. The first draft was only 120 pages--I hardly had to cut any length to fit the industry standard (average screenplay length is 120 pages, but comedies tend to run shorter).

The larger the story, the greater the need for outlining and planning. Outlines impose discipline, keep the story from wandering off into side alleys. With four POV characters, Voice of Crow could easily end up 800 pages long, at which point bricks would clog the toilets at my publisher's office.

The later scene descriptions are a bit nebulous (e.g., something happens here to make Rhia change her mind about X), but they all point toward the resolution of the story.

I hope this focus will not only result in a cleaner first draft, but also make the work more fun. Less aww, I gotta fill pages, more Hey, let's tell a story!

Each novel requires a different method. Never let anyone tell you that you have to do it a certain way, or that you have to write your next book the way you wrote your last one. Keep searching for what works for the book in front of you.

*Yes, it's a word. Now.



While writing an essay is hardly the same as writing a novel, I tell my students to, at first, just write, freewrite if you will. I also suggest other techniques they may--or may not--use to help the writing flow, and empahsize that there's no rule for using them. Each writing experience is different. I assign page counts, say 4-6, depending on the assignment and class, and while I won't read say a 3 pp paper if the assignment calls for 4-6, I tell them I'm looking for a well done paper above all. Now in a way they have a contractual obligation to fullfill if they want to get a good grade. Not quite anagolous, but somewhat.


Posted by: Anonymous Anonymous at 5/11/2006 9:29 AM

Writing a novel might be more akin to writing a master's thesis or dissertation. An essay is probably analogous to a short story.

When you've got a long road to travel, a map really helps. If you want to drive to California (which I simply must do someday), you could just head off in the direction of the sunset, but you could find yourself hitting a dead end in northern Wisconsin.

Then again, depending what you find there, northern Wisconsin might be more interesting.

Which reminds me: PACKUUUURRS!

Posted by: Blogger Jeri at 5/11/2006 9:48 AM

This method looks like a really useful way of working. Thanks for sharing it, Jer.

Posted by: Blogger Rob S. at 5/11/2006 9:52 AM

Good luck, Rob.

An interesting addendum: I noticed last night that I'm ahead of schedule on my page count but behind schedule on writing scenes. That means my scenes are probably too long.

But as long the two counts stay pretty close, I feel okay about it. If the pages start plunging more than 10% ahead of the scene marks, I'm in trouble. Then I've got a 660-page first draft on my hands, just like last time. Urgh.

Posted by: Blogger Jeri at 5/11/2006 9:59 AM

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