A Million Words by Juliet Kincaid
One of my former colleagues used to tell his writing students that, in order to become writers, they had to produce and throw away a million words.
That sounds daunting, doesn’t it?
Another piece of advice goes, write a page a day and in a year you could write a novel. In these terms and calculating that each page contains about two hundred and fifty words, you need nearly eleven years to produce a million words.
But why don’t we look at the math a little differently?
Let’s say that you decide to use journaling to practice the craft of writing. Sprint writing, that is, non-stop writing done for a short while, can produce about two hundred and fifty words in a typical ten-minute session. Twenty minutes a day of journaling would produce five hundred words which means you could crank out your million words in five and a half years. Forty minutes a day would get you your expendable million words in two and three-quarters years.
On the other hand, twenty to forty minutes a day practicing an art form you aspire to master is very little time, especially compared to the work put in by a budding pianist who probably practices a minimum of an hour a day or a dancer who may put in several hours a day. And twenty to forty minutes of practice a day is far below the standard eight-hour work day.
So just for the sake of argument, let’s boost our writing practice to an hour a day. (And do notice that unlike the dancer who must frame the practice session with a warm up and cool down, the future writer can practice writing in several short sessions every day.) If you write an hour a day, you will produce about 1,500 words a day which translates into 667 days or 1.8 years. Compared to the other arts we’ve mentioned, this is a very brief apprenticeship.
And chances are you will notice what I noticed after less than a year of journal-keeping: that it primes the pump for other writing like stories, poems, and articles that you won’t have to throw away because the words you’ve written on the way to your million have given you fresh ideas and fluency.
So speaking as a multi-millionaire of throwaway words, I advise you to start writing–now.
“A Million Words” received a Special Honorable Mention in the filler category of a ByLine Magazine writing contest in 1999. It was published in the September/October issue of Fiction Writers Guidelines.
HOW TO WRITE A NOVEL IN YOUR SPARE TIME
an essay by Juliet Kincaid
In 1986 I wrote two novels (that is, rough drafts, each about four hundred pages long), one during a sabbatical leave from the college where I work, but the other while teaching five writing courses. Between June 1992 and July 1993, while teaching full time, I drafted a four-hundred-page mystery novel.
I’m not the only person who has written novels on a part-time basis. P. D. James, for instance, had her first mystery published when she was 42, but she didn’t retire from full-time employment until she was 59. During those seventeen years she wrote about half a dozen more books, or about one every three years. She has said that actually she got more writing done when she worked because, for one reason, people respected her writing time more.
So why should I write a novel in my spare time? you ask.
Now, you might be saying to yourself that if P. D. James hadn’t also been working, she could have written much more. You might be right, but being a part-time writer does have its advantages, including pitting bread on the table and a roof over one’s head. Be aware of this dismal fact: only about fourteen percent of all writers manage to make a living at it, though there are the success stories we all like to hear: Raymond Feist, a fantasy writer, whose recent contract amounts to a quarter million; Stephen King, whose first advance was $200,000.
Still, few of us can count on being supported while we write and few of us can afford to quit our jobs. Also, being out and about in the workaday world gives us material and broader perspectives, besides the stimulation of social interaction. And before you endorse that check for a million and a quarter advance like Destiny brought, you have to write the book. If you’re like many other writers, you’ll start writing part-time.
Here’s one more thing to convince you, the psychological angle. You don’t want to end up saying on your deathbed, “I always wanted to write a novel.” Cheer up; it’s hardly ever too late. James was 42. I was 44 when I began my science fiction novel as a New Year’s resolution. Helen Santmyer Brown saw her first book published when she was in her eighties and living in a nursing home.
Tell yourself it’s now or never and start. You won’t regret it.
How long will it take to write a novel in my spare time?
A page a day for a year? This frequently heard piece of advice seems a little diffuse to me, but Robert J. Ray’s method for putting a novel through three drafts in a year that he presents in The Weekend Novelist and (with Jack Remick) The Weekend Novelist Writes a Mystery seems very workable. In Writing a Novel, John Braine suggests three or four writing sessions a week. As a part-time writer, I often work on Monday and Wednesday evenings for a couple of hours each plus Saturday and/or Sunday mornings for three to four hours. With this schedule and using some of the tips I’ll share with you soon, I averaged twenty pages a week and drafted a long science fiction novel in about six months.
What are some tips for maximizing my time?
1. Write in a journal everyday, for the practice creates fluency and speed. It also provides a place to store ideas, to work out ideas as you’re writing, and it’s a great stimulus. I wrote in my journal every day but one in 1985, thus priming the pump for the two novels I wrote in 1986.
2. Establish your work space and keep it ready at all times so that you can sit down to write with the minimum of fuss.
3. Practice a little time management. Make a chart of your weekly schedule and note which times are closed for writing and which are open. Be alert to unusual possibilities. One of my friends, for instance, got up early and wrote from 5 a.m. till 7 a.m. Another went to work early to write on the office computer from 7 a.m. till 8:30 a.m. Note: to a part-time writer often a big chunk of time, like four hours, is both a rarity and a luxury, but you can accomplish nearly as much in two two-hour sessions. One of my former students drafted her short stories during her lunch hour. I can read and mark changes on a printed out chapter in ten to fifteen minutes.
4. Analyze your energy patterns and try to write when you’re at your best. Some of us are owls, some larks. Try not to devote your best writing times to trivial matters. Wash the dishes at night when you’re winding down. Jog in the evening when you need to get the kinks out anyway. But don’t be inflexible. If you’re a lark, but have an eight to five job, write at night.
5. MAKE APPOINTMENTS TO WRITE AND KEEP THEM.
6. PRIORITIZE. If writing is the most important task to you, don’t let dust bunnies, a baseball game on t.v., or your sewing project get in your way. (An ironic aside about guilt: people who say they want to write but haven’t yet set their priorities and haven’t written much often feel guilty about taking time to write. People who have written a lot and who are hooked on writing, on the other hand, usually feel guilty when they don’t write.)
PRIORITIZE: if baking cookies with your grandson is more important to you than writing the third chapter of your novel, get out the baking tins and never look back. If, however, you long to write that wonderful novel based on the warm folks you knew when you were a kid in Arkansas and those characters keep walking into your mind and exhorting you to give them a world to live in, do it.
Do be aware that even after you’ve made a commitment to write, sometimes you’ll have to reaffirm that commitment against the interruptions of carpet cleaning salespersons at the door or on the phone (speaking of which, you can turn the ringer down while you write and let the answering machine take those calls), against the blandishments of moonlight dinners with your sweetie or even against family responsibilities. (Sometimes, Junior really doesn’t need all that attention.)
7. Solicit the cooperation of your family and loved ones. (One bribe is the promise of something dandy to read in a few weeks.) Do be willing to compromise from time to time and let them drag you off to the reunion. If you fuss too much, you’ll get too upset to write anyway. Do take along some chapters to revise. And just think: that old gal pouring coffee from the huge, blue-enamel pot may be just the character your novel needs to resolve the conflict.
8. DON’T WAIT FOR INSPIRATION. You can bet your socks that John Updike doesn’t. (Indeed, when Updike’s kids were young he went to an office every week day just like the other kids’ dads.) In other words, approach writing as a job, something eminently worth doing. Writers often see little or no difference of quality between what they write when they’re tired and cranky and a bit unwilling and what they write when they feel like they’ve got the world by the tail.
9. Make “contracts” with your friends. That is, tell them you’re working on a great idea for a book and that you plan on starting soon. Then you’ll be embarrassed if you don’t follow through.
By the way, it often works well to share the idea of the work with your friends because they can contribute useful information like reliable research resources or even a joke on your subject that the protagonist can tell. Do avoid telling the whole plot in detail to your friends as you run the danger of talking out the story and thus might not feel like writing the novel.
10. Writing the novel is your long-range goal. Set short-range goals, too. Be specific. Say, for example, you figure the book you want to write will turn out in the neighborhood of four hundred typed pages and you’d like to finish the first draft in five months. Set a goal of twenty pages a week or eighty pages a month. If you can’t keep to your schedule, you can always adjust it. And after all, you’re an amateur so no one sets deadlines except you. But chances are you can achieve the pace you set. Achieving your short term goals gives you feelings of control and accomplishment.
11. Give in to any idiosyncrasies you might have. If you truly believe that a writer has to starve in a garret, start your fast and rent an attic room. (Take your laptop.)
12. LEARN TO COMPOSE AT A KEYBOARD, preferably a computer or dedicated word processor. (Tip: You can learn by typing your journal.)
Now I can plunge right into writing my book, right?
Okay, if that’s the way you want to do it. That’s the way Lawrence Block in Writing the Novel from Plot to Print says he does it. He rarely does overall rewrites either. (But Block has admitted that he has several unfinished novels that he pushed to page one hundred and seventy, but no further.)
I prefer some planning up front although there are always elements you can’t predict without writing the novel (like the dark shape Tony Hillerman put in the back seat of a car early in one of his novels that later turned out to be a vicious dog).
Okay, then, what are some things I need to know about my novel before I start writing?
(Warning: before going on, you should recognize that trying to write a kind of novel you never read will probably waste your time.)
1. Know your protagonist pretty well, especially what he wants, what his problem is, some basic character traits, where he comes from, where he’s headed.
2. Know the basics about your antagonist, too.
3. Have a fairly good notion of other major characters you’ll need and a little about them. (Tip: In most mysteries and other kinds of fiction, too, all the characters except “walk-ons” have secrets.)
4. Know the setting in time and place well.
5. Get acquainted with special information required by the work that might radically influence the plot. If for instance, you want to write a Regency romance, do most of your research before hand. (Never rely on other novelists, no matter how admired and learned, for historical fact. For instance, you’d be in trouble if you used Seven Trees as a resource for eastern Kansas geography in the mid-19th century because, in her postscript, Janice Young Brooks admitted that she’d altered the course of the Kaw River for the book.)
6. Figure out the point of view that you’ll write the book from. The point of view you choose should allow you to present most of the material most dramatically and with the greatest amount of immediacy. Write a rationale for the one you’ve selected. If you can’t decide, do trial drafts of a scene or chapter from a variety of viewpoints.
Note: the broader the market you aim for, the simpler you want to keep elements like point of view. Multiple first person narratives might work for a literary novel like Amy Tan’s The Joy Luck Club, for instance, but probably not for genre fiction like a mystery or romance.
7. Possibly do a plot outline, approximately chapter by chapter, of whatever details that suit you. Some writers do a very thorough outline up front and stick to it. Others do a briefer synopsis. Some refuse to outline at all because they say outlining kills the spontaneity of the work. Others start only with ideas for the beginning and the ending, plus two or three major scenes or set pieces. Nancy Pickard didn’t outline her first few mysteries. Now she does and says outlines save her time. She also, though, likes to sprint write the first forty pages or so of the book and then see what she has before she commits to an outline. I dove into writing a mystery and about a hundred pages in figured out who did it, why, etc. Then I wrote a fairly detailed outline which I promptly put away and didn’t refer to again. (It had served its purpose by jelling the plot in my mind.)
Note: again, keep it simple. A straightforward chronological order with minimal flashbacks is the usual choice of writers of commercial fiction.
8. In a single sentence express the theme of the work.
9. Don’t do so many preliminaries that you dissipate your energy and don’t write the novel.
So when do I start?
Peter Mathiessen says that writing a novel is simply a matter of accumulating bits of information. When you have enough bits, you start the book. My advice is to start writing the book when you’ll explode if you don’t.
What can I do to write with maximum efficiency?
1. Don’t start rewriting too soon because you’ll probably churn your wheels, miring yourself further and further in the same bog instead of making progress. In fact, John Braine in his book on writing novels suggests you finish the entire rough draft in as little time as possible and then take as long as you need to rewrite.
Basically go for the flow in your rough draft and try not to slow down for anything. Leave blanks for words you can’t spell or character names you haven’t devised yet. (In the first drafts of my fiction, I often have a character temporarily called “Whosit.”) Keep moving. If you do think of revisions and additions as you go along, make brief notes in the appropriate place in the margin of the draft. Or put your notes on Post-its and slap them on the page where the changes need to go. If, as you’re drafting, you notice places where you already know you’ll have to make changes like adding researched material, for instance, put a note like this: TK: EXOTIC-SOUNDING NAME FOR THIS CHARACTER. Later you can hit your “search and replace” command, type in TK, not a natural combination of letters in English, and the word processor will take you right to it. But in any case, DON’T WASTE TIME ENDLESSLY POLISHING PASSAGES THAT CHANGES LATER IN THE STORY MIGHT ELIMINATE TOTALLY.
2. To help you get started as quickly as possible every time you write, finish each writing session by making a plan or outline of what you want to write the next time. This is especially important if you’ve just completed a chapter because often new ones are hard to start. Although I don’t ascribe to Hemingway’s practice of ending each writing session in the middle of a sentence because I’m like Lawrence Block who says he forgets how he was going to finish the thought, leaving off in the middle of some action works well.
3. Start one day’s writing by reading the previous day’s writing, editing a bit and marking a few things you might want to change later. Warning: don’t rewrite passages over and over while you’re doing a draft. In other words, in every writing session, advance the plot at least a little.
4. Try to write chapter by chapter in the order of the plot rather than haphazardly write parts you’re excited about (though keeping notes on what you want to do later is helpful). One advantage of writing in order of plot rather than in order of inspiration is, as Lawrence Block says, it’s easier to number the pages. Also, I’ve found that if I do climactic scenes first, I don’t want to go back and do the rising action and complications. Those exciting confrontations you long to write won’t get away from you anyway. If anything, they become more and more burnished in your mind for being put off. And in the meantime they’ve served as incentive to get the intervening sections done.
5. Try to foresee a problem in the plot enough in advance to “sleep on it.” Say, for instance, you know that in the next chapter you’ll get the hero into a snake pit, but you can’t see how he’ll escape. Relax. Set it up as a problem for your subconscious to work on and forget it while you work on getting your protagonist into the fix. Chances are you’ll wake up with the solution some morning soon.
6. If you run into problems that sleeping on it doesn’t solve, try writing about them in your journal.
7. For solutions to technical problems–like what does a character do when he’s thinking–look in a novel you’re currently reading that you consider well written. For example, when John D. MacDonald got to that inevitable point when Travis McGee had to start putting the facts together, often Travis would mix a large martini and put his feet up on the coffee table in the lounge of the Busted Flush. Such details keep the reader grounded in the fictive dream of the work.
8. What should you do if you do get blocked? Well, chances are you won’t get blocked if you’re doing everything I’ve suggested so far. Still, if you do, don’t panic. Maybe your mind needs a little more time to identify clearly some problems in the novel or to work them out. Maybe it’s time to get away from the book for a little while. Do make an appointment to return to the book in a couple of days, but allow yourself the weekend off to take the family to the zoo as you’ve been promising them. And do be aware that, if you try to stay away from the book too long, your characters very well might barge into your mind and demand that you get busy.
9. When in doubt about plot development, trust your characters to suggest something. It might be completely unworkable to let the antagonist murder the protagonist in the middle of the book, but in talking the villain out of it, you’ll probably come up with a good idea.
10. Or if you’re having trouble figuring out the next plot development, try this suggestion from What If? by Anne Bernays and Pamela Painter: list five things that might happen next.
11. Once you start, relax and enjoy the trip. There will be surprises.
Once I’ve finished the first draft, what next?
For a while do absolutely nothing.
Some experts suggest you take a week off and then start revising. Others prefer a little longer break, but don’t wait so long that the book has left your head and the characters have completely quit speaking to you because you might have trouble getting back into the work. John Braine in Writing a Novel says that between the first and second draft you should do character sketches and enough synopses that the plot is flawless, smooth, and divided into about twenty chapters. Once you’re satisfied with the synopsis, you can begin revising.
When you are ready, first think about what you intended to do in the work, maybe reread your preliminaries, including your statement of the theme, before you reread the work. Some say read the book without marking on it, though I prefer to edit and take notes as I read. You will find cruddy parts and wonderful parts, too.
Sometime soon start your second draft.
Once you have the plot about right, give a copy to a kind and experienced fellow writer. When you get the copy back, reread the whole book again, taking note of useful suggestions and ignoring the rest.
Eventually, you will have a finished version that you can send to agents and/or editors.
While you’re waiting to hear from them, start another book.
LIBRARY: THE PLOT THICKENS or how to build a story,
a brief overview by Juliet Kincaid
with additions made for a workshop with Nancy Pickard on mystery plotting held on 8/2/2008 and other notes on 3/14/2009.
Aristotle said that every story needs a beginning, middle, and end. This is excellent advice–as far as it goes. Syd Field in his Screenplay: The Foundations of Screenwriting and Robert J. Ray in The Weekend Novelist go farther than Aristotle by presenting six basic scenes every a plot needs. (Ray advises the novelist to write these six scenes first and build the rest of the book around them.)
First a definition: as the paragraph is the building block of the essay, so the scene is the building block of the story. In each scene, you show your protagonist in action, trying to accomplish a small goal on the way to accomplishing the major goal of the story. Each scene should be a mini-story with its own characters, setting, conflict and resolution (usually unsatisfactory for the protagonist). In scenes, you rely on dialogue, action, description, and maybe some thought. Save exposition or summary for the transitions that string the scenes together. Tip: think of your story as a series of scenes.
1. Opening: HOOK: For example, A is for Alibi begins, “The day before yesterday I killed someone and the fact weighs heavily on my mind.” (You know you’ll see this killing before the book is over; in fact, it’s on the next to the last page.) In the opening section, if not the first scene, you introduce the setting, or the time and place of the story, that is, the protagonist’s world, and your protagonist, star of the question, “WHO WANTS WHAT?” Typically in a mystery the detective wants to solve the case he’s taken on (that is, discover whodunit) for one of several reasons; for instance, it’s his job, or he wants to clear his name, or he needs to save his own life. This scene must hook the reader and create some sort of identification of the reader with the protagonist, preferably by winning the reader’s sympathy. The opening should also establish the tone, point of view, and genre of the story. Tip: don’t open a story with exposition or background. Open it with a scene showing the protagonist with the problem or about to get it. For example, the client arrives at the detective’s office. This is the day or time when change is about to happen. Tip: give the protagonist someone to talk to early in the story.
2. Plot Point 1: identified by Syd Field, this crucial part, at the end of the opening scene or in a separate scene near the end of the beginning of the book tells the reader what problem the protagonist will try to solve or goal he’ll try to reach in the rest of the story. Lots of time the detective accepts the case, or in the terms described by Christopher Vogler in The Writer’s Journey, the hero accepts the quest. In scripts, Plot Point One occurs no later than a quarter of the way through, but Kinsey Milhone accepts the case in A Is for Alibi considerably earlier than that (on page 18 of a 215-page novel).
Note: the opening scene and plot point one, along with other scenes as needed in between them, comprise what Field calls Act I or the set-up of the story. Indeed, the function of the beginning is to set up the middle of the story.
Act II, part 1:
In the section between Plot Point 1 and Midpoint we have the rising action. In mystery fiction, the detective goes around talking to people, some of whom are suspects, and gathering info, some false or red herrings, about the victim and the crime. Some say the writer needs to introduce all the suspects no later than a quarter to a third of the way through. Grafton introduces the last suspect almost exactly a third of the way through A Is for Alibi.
3. Midpoint: after some attempts of the protagonist to solve the problem in the first part of Act II, the story reaches its Midpoint, which marks a shift in the action. Perhaps the question posed at the start of the story has been answered, and a new question arises. Perhaps the protagonist has completed one stage in his journey and embarks on another. Or perhaps the protagonist has solved some problems, only to have the rug pulled out from under him at Midpoint, halfway through the story. Often in detective fiction, somebody dies or another death is discovered. For example, Kinsey Milhone finds Sharon Napier’s body at Midpoint of A Is for Alibi.
Act II, part 2:
More info, more complications, more at stake, more intensity.
4. Plot Point 2: having gone through one or more ordeals or trials after the Midpoint of the story, the protagonist needs to grit his teeth and say, “I’ll try one more time, do or die.” Often another dead body shows up in mystery fiction. In A Is for Alibi, Gwen is killed at Plot Point 2. This scene, near the end of Act II, leads the protagonist toward the climax.
Note: The scenes between Plot Points 1 and 2, including Midpoint, comprise what Syd Field calls Act II or the confrontation, that is, when the protagonist confronts the problem. Traditionally, Act II is called the rising action or complications. For the poor protagonist, things need to get worse and worse, as the stakes grow higher and higher, but with some hope that keeps him plugging along to plot point two. Field says that in a film Act II is about twice the length of Act I.
5. Catharsis: also called the climax or crisis, this scene presents the most intense point of the action. James Joyce called this scene “the epiphany” because here the protagonist has a moment of truth about himself or life or the universe. In this scene, the protagonist either wins or loses in his attempt to solve his problem or reach his goal. The detective confronts and conquers the antagonist. In A Is for Alibi, Charlie pursues and traps Kinsey Milhone and she kills him in self-defense.
6. Wrap-up: often very brief, this scene is classically called the denouement or resolution in which loose ends are tied up and remaining questions answered. Smart writers avoid dragging this part out. Sue Grafton wraps up A Is for Alibi in less than a page.
Note: parts 5 and 6 make up Act III or the Resolution and together usually run no longer than Act I. In film, Act III might be shorter than Act I.
Tip: if you know “Who wants what?” in your story and figure out your opening, wrap-up and possibly catharsis scenes, chances are good that you can actually write your story. Indeed, once you know “Who wants what?” in your story, the ending is easy to figure out. Basically, you have only four options. The hero succeeds in his quest to solve the problem presented in the story. The hero fails. The hero succeeds, but. . . . The hero fails, but. . . .