I was in a really big hurry yesterday morning and not only did I miss that I have now done 200 posts for this blog, but I have finished one of the biggest, longest, most complicated novels I've attempted to date!
After spending ten months, using two different typewriters, as of January 4, 2016, weighing in at 534 pages, the first draft of my newest novel manuscript "The Sparrow's Fall" is finally FINALLY done!
This book had everything. It was fun to write, and torture. It was imaginative, and derivative. It was routine (being my fourth novel to date), and ground-breaking. It was fantastical, and boring. I thought it would be a lot of things before I wrote it. It turned into some of those things, and became a lot of things I didn't anticipate.
First conceived as a children's story based on a crazy dream I had a few years back, "The Sparrow's Fall" is the first of a projected four part series and is best summarized by saying Game of Thrones meets Redwall (minus all the sexual content). It takes place in a world where humans have disappeared and sentient animals societies have arisen to replace us. The main crux of the story follows a young cat as she helps a group of historians search for human ruins.
Like all my novels, I'm now going to cast it into a dark filing cabinet and do my best to forget about it until I can summon the courage to re-read it. If I still like it, I'll go ahead and try editing. If not, lesson learned.
Speaking of lessons, I learned a lot whilst writing this behemoth:
1. No Amount of Planning Can Make Things Easier
I spent who knows how much time on Google. Between writing character backstories and sketching maps of the continents, I wanted to know how others had done it. I found interviews with George RR Martin, Brandon Sanderson, JK Rowling, and others who'd spent decades writing a single story. I organized my thoughts about what each book would accomplish and which group of characters would be the main focus.
I started off pretty well on 2-14-15 and got through the first 200 or so pages with no problem. But after that, there were plenty of rough spots. Sometimes I'd only get two pages a day. Other times I'd go a whole week without writing at all. I've already said this project is much like "Game of Thrones" meets "Redwall," an unfortunately, I tried to emulate the former a bit too much. I went from naming chapters after characters to numbering them because I couldn't write enough from one person's perspective. One character appeared out of nowhere and rapidly became a main player. As a result, there were many situations I hadn't counted on and needed time to figure out.
This also relates to world-building. Westeros this ain't. Probably one of the biggest gripes I have about the book thus far is the lack of fantastical environments. This is supposed to be thousands of years after us two-feets vanish, but not much has changed on the planet itself. I kinda forgot to plan anything for that, I was too engrossed in characters and plot. All of the species portrayed in the novel are real species that exist today. On top of that, there aren't even any mythological or original creatures. Yet. I'll fix it!
So, planning doesn't make it easier and you can't prepare for every contingency. Life happens. I got sick. I got depressed. I got side-tracked. I wrote other stories. Planning is only useful to the point it helps you remember the basics.
On the other hand...
2. Too Much Planning Robs You of Interest in the Story
If you write thousands upon thousands of words about the character background, that's fine. World details? Great. Cultural differences? Awesome. But, you have already decided that one character is going to do this and that because you say so?
It's like reading a movie synopsis on Wikipedia. It gives you all the relevant stuff, all the surprises and twists, and robs you of any desire to actually see the movie. Why bother? The same thing can happen to a writer. Tell the story too much to yourself and you won't want to bother using the paper. This the most common form of writer's block I encounter in myself. I have to get excited about a project all over again. I started writing "Sparrow's Fall" because I felt that urge coming on. I knew everything that was going to happen from start to finish and was already, subconsciously, moving on to better, mysterious things.
That's the hard part about writing anything, let alone a novel. You have to go back and rewrite the book. I'm planning to edit and revamp a previous manuscript, "The Lightwitch Expedition," to better its chances of catching an agent. That means lots of research, drafting new material. Heck, I'll practically be rewriting the entire book from page one (not that I mind, once I get my SM7 back from Vern). Writers who produce professional level quality fiction (which I hope to be) have to do more than the fun, breezy first draft. The nuts and bolts come next.
3. Make Sure Your Typewriter is in Tip-Top Shape BEFORE STARTING!
The vast majority of pages for this draft were typed on my Olivetti 21. A $15 Goodwill purchase, it wasn't in terrible shape. It was, however, a bit dirty, rattled because a washed under one of the frame screws had melted, and hadn't received a deep cleaning in decades. I could have written the entire novel with it as it was, but finally decided have it serviced. I'm glad I had my Lettera 32 on hand to finish the job.
At the very least, make sure the type slugs are clean and you have a brand spanking new ribbon installed. You'll need as much ink as possible (assuming you want the print to be clean, concise, and easy to scan later).
One side note: it helps to have a second or even third machine with the exact same font, in case something bad happens to the one you start with.
On another side note: make sure you actually like the machine you're writing with. Spend some time getting acquainted with a typewriter before committing so much ink and paper. Writing typecasts and personal letters is a good way to see how the machine works and where your technique needs improvement.
4. Consistency is Better than Speed
This book took me a long time to finish. I'm not a full-time author. I don't have an agent or editor to ask for help. I'm not on a deadline. My livelihood doesn't depend on the words I bang out. Yet, I put myself under ridiculous constraints. Every time I couldn't write, or get as much done as I wanted, I was irritated. It didn't click right away, but I had to come to grips with the fact that I was now a full-time working man who had a newly wed wife to care for (and who will always be more important than the stories in my head). It wasn't like my grad school days when I could write for hours after class and then do homework and not have to pay for my food, lodging, or utilities (grandma will forever be in my debt for letting me live with her).
Sometimes I had to set the bar really low in order to compensate for a lack of free time. I often sat down at the typewriter and thought, "Ok, if I can just get one page, that'll be good enough for today." 1000 words (roughly four or five pages), was my preferred goal, but it wasn't always doable.
Consistency is better than speed. The former is writing at a reasonable pace to ensure you put thought and effort into the story. Sure, it's a first draft, but why not make it the best one you can and save some trouble later on? As long as you keep coming back, the book will get done. Speed is typing so fast that you run roughshod over important elements and end up with garbage. George Martin once said he can write 500 pages in a good year, yet fans still whine that the books aren't coming out fast enough.
I fell your pain, George...except the whole thing about having fans.
5. Search Yourself
If you're doing this for any other reason except a love of stories and the craft, stop and go do something else. Writing fiction (novels or otherwise) isn't always fun. There are plenty of fun elements, more so than any other calling. But there's still a grindstone and plenty of things that are not fun. The "wow" factor, the spark, the flame, the joy, the whatever that keeps you coming back to your favorite TV show, or favorite music has to be the same one driving you to the blank page. If it isn't, then your work won't be from the heart, and that means wasted time and energy.
Will "The Sparrow's Fall" ever make it to your bookshelf? Too early to say. Maybe. Hopefully. Right now, I'm just glad to be done and am enjoying the time to let my brain recover.
Power to the pen!