Double and Something

Those not involved with writing books might be surprised to know that authors rarely talk about page count, but instead think in terms of how many words we have written. Editors want to know how many pages the published book will be, and this is easier to estimate with word count, since there are varying numbers of words on a page.

But it’s really a pretty simple calculation. I have now doubled the number of words I have written since my last post, when I reported reaching the 10,000 word mark. There are approximately 300 Times New Roman 12 words on a full page of text, meaning that at 20,000 words I am roughly on page 60. The same formula of about 300 words a page seems to carry over into a published book, so I have a good tactile sense of where the reader’s bookmark would be if he or she set down the book as published at this point.

What this means is that, assuming a target length of no more than 350 pages, the reader will be roughly one-sixth of the way through my new novel. That’s sobering. I know that as a reader I am either deeply into a book or losing interest by this point. But as I write, I am so involved in every scene that I know I may not be a terribly good judge of what it will be like for someone coming to it from the outside. someone who is, of course, going through the book far more quickly than I can write it.

Is enough happening, plot-wise at 60 pages? Have I developed at least the main character’s personality and story enough for a reader to want to stick with the book? Am I spending too much time on things that I don’t see going anywhere as far as the overall story is concerned?

It’s really hard to stay confident. Doubts creep in about many things. Am I taking too long establishing the background? How long will the reader wait for a big, pivotal event? Should I be hurrying up? Will the reader be able to see, hear, smell what I am sensing as I write? Should I be slowing down?

It’s always a good idea in the critical stage where I am still getting used to the characters and story myself, to stop writing new text and go back and read the old. Start to finish without stopping isn’t possible, for I find things to tinker with on every page, but I try to read as quickly as possible, to get an inkling of what the experience might be like for fresh eyes.

Fresh eyes are perhaps the most critical thing a novelist must write a book without. The words aren’t even completely fresh as they flow out of the keys onto the screen, because often we’ve spent a great deal of time thinking about where a scene needs to go or what a chapter has to accomplish. To a certain extent, it’s already written in our heads, and now it’s about showing up at work to do what we know is on our desk.

Often a scene doesn’t work out the way we thought, and that’s very exciting, but once the words are out in the world, we can never look at them for the first time again. That’s for our readers to do. But I have learned to have at least a little pity on myself and squelch my concerns about the quality of my first pass at a book. The sixty pages I re-read yesterday are nothing any reader will ever see. What they will see will be richer, more compelling, more vivid, more exciting because I will grow as I write. But do I have a story? Do I have an interesting heroine? Oh, you bet I do!


The Sixth Milestone

Yesterday I reached the thirty-page mark in my new novel, and this feels like a milestone. Though that’s just roughly 10,000 of the 130,000 words (or thereabouts) of the eventual finished product, it’s enough to establish momentum for the story and instill confidence that I’ve got something I can pull off over the long run.

This isn’t the first milestone in a historical novel. The first is deciding to write one. This is really most applicable the first time, for most authors I know always view themselves as between books if they aren’t writing at the moment. The second is setting aside all other ideas except one. The third is feeling I’ve got a story in my head, not just a lot of material about a place and time. That was the toughest one for me this time. The fourth is conquering the blank page, even if all I have is a few hundred words. The fifth is getting over doubts and despair about the next step. And then, I have my first really good spell of writing and I am on my way.

So I’ve reached and passed that sixth milestone: I have a chunk of text behind me. From here, the next huge milestone is finishing the first draft, but along the way there will be many other smaller ones. Every scene, every section of a chapter, every chapter, provides a sense of accomplishment, a place to take a moment of rest.

But by the same token, every upcoming scene, section, and chapter looms huge and daunting in front of me. The single thing that most keeps me going into what is still unwritten is the desire to know what happens next. Though I always have intentions for the plot, the characters can surprise me, and I never work out the details until they flow onto the monitor.

I promised myself I wouldn’t start writing until 2010, even if I got up at dawn on New Year’s Day to put my fingers to the keys. I didn’t keep that promise, though I did pretty well to take a break from writing for almost the entire fall semester. What I learned from that is that I am happiest when I am storytelling. I am happiest when I have words to play with. I guess I feel a little like a child might feel confronted with a room full of toys and storybooks. You want me to wait to go in? You have got to be kidding!

So the sixth milestone this time also included for me the realization that I’d rather write than do just about anything else with my discretionary time. Even if it makes me cranky and gives me an aching back and stiff neck after a long day, the places I’ve been in my own head, and the joy I get from reading something that flows both in words and meaning, is incomparable to other ways I might realistically have spent those hours.

So here I am, happily immersed in a new project, ignoring the fact that by the time it’s done I will once again be vowing that I will take a really LONG break next time. Working at my usual pace, I predict the novel will be finished to a polish by the end of 2010. But that’s plenty of time to settle on my next great idea for a novel. WIll I want to tear into that great playroom again? Does “dibs on the building blocks!” answer that question?


Waiting for the Muse

Often when I talk at writing conferences, book clubs, and other gatherings, someone will ask what the process is by which I get from the blank page to a finished manuscript. I stammer through something resembling an answer, but it always seems a bit lame and inadequate.  I wish it were as simple to describe as “first I do this, and then I do that,” but it isn’t, and the truth is I am hard pressed to explain how all the little inspirations that whiz around me like electrons join forces with the imagination that has to be coaxed out from under the bed.

I’m trying to use my new novel in progress as a means of understanding better for myself what happens when I write, so I can be more coherent in talking about it afterwards.  I think the best I can do at the moment is to say that I wait for the Muse to appear, but while I’m waiting I start writing anyway.  Is what I write in the absence of the Muse any good? Sometimes. I don’t go into it with the expectation that is will or won’t be good, but just that it will be.

I am only about 4000 words in to a manuscript that will probably end up being about 130,000 words (a fairly typical novel length–around the page count of THE FOUR SEASONS), and I have already unceremoniously deleted and started over on one passage of about a thousand words, because it just wasn’t a compelling enough opening to a novel.  I needed a voice that would draw the reader in and I didn’t have it the first time around.  The second time, I think I got something not only more vivid, but also sustainable over the course of the book.  On the other hand, one scene just seemed to spill out of my fingers onto the keys and is already polished to a level I wouldn’t mind seeing published.

It feels like a real gift to get something right the first time I write it down.  The other gift is just to be writing at all.  That’s why I don’t wait for full-on, mind-blowing inspiration.  I know that will come as I work my way into the story and get to know the characters and the settings.  At some point the plot will gather momentum from that knowledge.  What can and can’t happen will be clear, and I’ve learned to wait for that to reveal itself rather than getting committed to a plot going one way or another. The hard part at that point is that I want to write faster than is humanly possible.  I want to be a hundred pages ahead of where I am, and I know I’m months away from certain scenes I can’t wait to get to.

But once I’ve had my morning coffee and sit down at the keyboard, I’m usually happy to be just where I am. Though I usually know what’s going to transpire in a scene, I can’t wait to see just how it happens–who says what, does what, thinks what.  It’s a real privilege to be in the position of getting the breaking news before anyone else does.

Who is my heroine and what is she doing on the opening page of the book?  Dear reader, you’ll know in about two years when the book is (I hope) in your hands!  Until then, its just between me, my computer, and a Muse who often runs a little late.