It’s funny that this was the post I had lined up for today. Last night I got a lovely mention by the venerable Cory Doctorow on BoingBoing, and after the obligatory commenters being angst-ridden about the fact that The Boneshaker shares a title with Boneshaker (hi, Cherie!), another commenter spoke up warning people away from backing authors on Kickstarter because he backed an author once and that author didn’t deliver for a long time. So here stand I to reassure you, world, that the manuscript for The Kairos Mechanism is done. I have plenty of editing left to do, but don’t you worry. It’ll be ready for you digitally sometime in July, and in print sometime in August. You may confidently back the project if it strikes you as worthy.
Want to know how I wrote it so fast (she asks, batting her eyelashes)? Sure you do. On to the post promised in the title.
For clarity, the title should really read: HOW TO WRITE A BOOK IN 30 DAYS, FROM FIRST VAGUE IDEA TO FIRST HORRENDOUS DRAFT; WHICH IT’S A PROGRAM IN FOUR PARTS, ESPECIALLY USEFUL FOR WRITERS WHO STRUGGLE TO WRITE ANYTHING IN UNDER 300 PAGES.
From my title, you may glean that finishing things isn’t my problem; my problem is keeping things short and simple.
Ready? Right. Here we go.
This is also where I should admit to you that 1) I only outline or write synopses when forced to, so outlining and synopsizing will not be major parts of this program; and 2) I don’t know the ending of a story until I’m halfway through it. Ever (unless I’ve written a synopsis; see #1). If you are reading this and you are one of the people who have at one point or another instructed me to write one (meaning, if you are either my agent or my editor), obviously you made me do it for a very good reason, and I’m sure I’m grateful now, even if I spent the entire time I was writing it quietly cursing and drinking too much rye. (Also, I’m sorry if getting me to do it was like making a child eat broccoli.)
I like to dive into an idea, write to find out where I’m headed, and discover the ending, like a buried treasure, somewhere along the way. And I do always find it, but not always within the first couple weeks of working on something. So the great thing about what I’m about to say is that you can do this even if you don’t know what you’re getting yourself into. Not everybody likes to write this way, and I totally respect outliners and planners even though I am not cut of that cloth. But I do think there’s merit in realizing that you can start writing even when you don’t have the whole story planned out yet.
The one thing you do have to have, obviously, is a place to start, a premise or character or simple what-if, something that galvanizes you enough that you simply cannot wait to start writing. Because any piece of writing you’re going to stick with long enough to see it through to becoming even the roughest of drafts, you have to love so much you can’t stand to be away from it for longer than a few hours. And God help you if your love starts to wane after that, because the transition from draft to finished book is a whole ‘nother ball of wax.
For me, that idea, that galvanizing thing was a note I found in a book of Civil War folktales about how sutlers (itinerant peddlers who followed army trains) would from time to time use dead bodies (and the soldiers who carried them) to smuggle goods in and out of prison camps. Because I have kind of a thing about itinerant peddlers, this was enough to set my brain going in like five directions. It doesn’t always happen this fast, but within two days I had twenty pages and a rough idea of where the story was going, and I was ready to start writing in earnest.
So, strategy number one, obviously: once you have your idea in place, start writing immediately, and keep writing.
When I’m trying to finish something, I automatically put myself on the “I’m on a deadline” word count quota. This means five days a week I expect to put a minimum of 3000 new words into the manuscript. Two days a week I get off easy with 1500ish. This is what I consider a moderate but not head-wreckingly challenging pace, and with those numbers, even assuming some false starts and bad days, I know I can clock around 150 pages in a month.
Last fall I discovered a magical hashtag on Twitter: #1k1hr, meaning a thousand words in an hour. It connected me with a ton of other writers trying to get through their daily wordcount goals one hour at a time. In this way, I found I could do my 3000-word days easily, and when I needed to really push through a tough spot or catch up after a tough day or two, I managed 6000-word days without breaking too much of a sweat.
The key, of course, is not to expect polished prose at this stage. The key is to keep the words coming, and keep the story progressing toward a climax. There will be false starts and crap pages, and that’s ok. The editing, of course, comes later, but that’s as it should be. If there’s no draft, there’s nothing to edit.
But Kate, I hear you ask, what about the part where you said this program was geared to keeping things under 300 pages? If you’re just writing for the sake of racking up a word count, isn’t that counter-productive?
Enter strategy number two: feel free to skip from important scene to important scene, and worry about the connective tissue afterwards.
Look for the simplest ways to get from point A to point B. This is not only a way of making sure I can keep churning out new words—let’s face it, many times the transitions are the tough bits—but it (theoretically) ensures I’m focusing only on set piece scenes that move the story forward. While writing these scenes, I keep in mind that thing my old boss Craig, who was one of my best writing teachers, told me once: enter the scene late, and get out of it early. This keeps the pace moving right along. And every scene must either advance the action or present a new obstacle the protagonist must overcome. In this way, you keep the plot moving right along.
Strategy number three: if it should happen that the ending materializes before you figure out how to get there from wherever you are, make a list of titles for the chapters in between.
This is as close as I willingly get to outlining, and as I was doing it for The Kairos Mechanism, I realized I acutally have written a novella before. It was about six years ago, and the only outline I used was a set of note cards with chapter titles written on them. It was really more of a short novel; it came in at about 145 pages, and I’m not sure what the wordcount was because back then I didn’t track that, but I wrote it in two weeks. It was the first draft of The Boneshaker, which at that point was called Gingerfoot.
Anyway, the benefit of the chapter-title strategy is that it allows one to create a path to follow to a finished draft that’s more like a bunch of rocks across a stream than an actual path: the title is just big enough to be something you can confidently jump toward, even if you have no idea what the waters around it are like until you get there. Is that taking the metaphor too far?
Strategy number four: don’t stop until you get to the end.
This is the tough part, I acknowledge. But by not being afraid to start just because you don’t know where you’ll wind up, by being willing to jump toward that next stone in the stream even though it’s a small target and even though it requires faith that, once you’re there, you’ll be able to see the next rock big enough to jump for–by having faith in yourself that if the story is there, you will find the pieces you need to be able to tell it, you can get to the end.
It might be a really crummy end. You might go back to read that first draft and be crushed at how much work is left to do. You might shake your fist at me and curse me because you realize after the fact that if you had just sat down and forced yourself to plan things out in the first place, you could’ve cut out a lot of retrofitting and a ton of work that you’ll now have to face. That’s fair. You’ve just figured out something about your process, which will necessarily be different than mine. Be happy. That will make people like your agent and your editor much happier with you than mine (bless them) tend to be with me when I start something new.
The day that I wrote the bulk of this post (minus the first paragraph, obviously) was the day I was ready to print out the first start-to-finish draft of The Kairos Mechanism. On that day, I wrote this to end my comments, and I think I’d like to leave it unedited, even though it’s now a month later:
Today I will print my new book out for the first time. I will be amazed at how little paper and ink it takes up. Then I’ll read through it and panic about how much there is to clean up, but then I’ll take a few calming breaths, remember that I knew that would be the case. After that I’ll make a list and realize it’s going to be less work than I expected. Or more work than I expected, but that it still won’t take more than a few long days, maybe as much as a week. Then I will send it to my critique group, and while I’m waiting for their comments, I will sharpen my colored pencils, get out my sticky paper flags and my set of special page-marker paperclip tags that are labeled CHAPTER ONE, CHAPTER TWO and so forth, and get going.
Office supplies make everything better.
A month later, I can tell you that this turned out to be exactly what happened. So if you take away nothing else from this post, just remember: start writing and trust that the ending will come; and office supplies fix what ails you.