Hello everyone! I may not have posted since October, but I’m alive. Things have been hectic, what with settling into a new job and new apartment, getting used to the flow of a new lifestyle, finishing a first draft in three months–and oh boy, do I wanna talk about that draft.
I’ve learned a lot about myself and my relationship with writing in the last few months, largely because of this new project. Some backstory first: I’ve now been seriously writing novels for *calculates* ten years, yeesh. I was 14 when I started the first novel I’d ever finish. Since 2007, not a single year has passed where I haven’t put at least a few months into writing a novel. Most of those years, I was also revising a novel. So, starting new projects should seem like old hat for me, right? Discounting my pre-2007 attempts, my current project is the sixth novel I’ve started, and the fourth novel I’ve finished the first draft of. What makes this one special?
Well, uh. Every other novel I’ve written has been part of the same series.
Now, there are a lot of reasons not to start off writing a series. If you don’t sell the first one, you might consider it a wasted effort. If you do sell the first one, your agent and/or editor might want to change so much of it that the later books will need to be rewritten, or require a lot of editing. Also, a series isn’t easy to write. It’s a giant monster. Does a new, young writer really wanna put themself through that?
I did indeed.
In 2007, I vowed to write a four-book YA fantasy series. I didn’t learn why it might not be the best idea until I was partway into writing book three, circa 2012. By that point, there was no turning back. I was already attached, and I wanted to see the thing through to the end, damn it. Plus, it didn’t feel like wasted effort, because of how much I learned and grew while writing it. I don’t regret it at all, even now.
I could write a million posts about my journey with that series, what it taught me, how much it still means to me personally and professionally, etc., but that’s not what this post is about. I imagine I’ll write about it at some point–probably when I finish drafting book four, the final in the series. Which is 75% done. And which I interrupted to write my current project, because it was calling to me. And which I’m pretty sure at least one of the characters from the series will never forgive me for *side-eyes him as he continues to shun me*
(Side note: if you’ve been counting, I said the series had four books, and that my current project was my sixth. What happened to book number five? Let’s…not count that one for now. It was an experiment–a contemporary adult novel I wrote for a class. It wasn’t bad, but I rushed the 100 pages I wrote of it, and once I was done with the class, I wanted to get back to my YA. So…ignore it for now.)
Anyway! This new book excited me, but also scared me. For one thing, I was interrupting my precious series to write it, holy shit. This felt like tampering with something sacred. For another, it was the first time I was faced with new characters, new world building, a new plot, etc. since I was 14 years old. Oh sure, I added characters and subplots and stuff to that series throughout the years, but at 14, I had the bare bones of each book’s plot pretty mapped out. It felt weird to start fresh.
Here are three things I’ve learned during my journey with this new book.
1) Yes, the characters will feel different this time–and that’s okay.
When I started writing my series, I was in a pretty dark place. I was incredibly lonely. I was going through some life stuff that I won’t get into. As a result, the series evolved into something more than a story for me. It took over my life. The characters became surrogate friends, to some degree. I refused to listen to or buy new music that I couldn’t somehow connect to them, or to their story. There was a period where I couldn’t get through a conversation without somehow working them in. I celebrated their birthdays, sometimes with actual cake. I turned to them when things got really bad–or in other words, I focused on my characters’ pain to distract myself from my own.
There is nothing wrong with writing to survive. But it is important to cope in ways besides writing, especially if you want to develop your craft beyond its existence as a coping mechanism, and especially if you want to be a healthy person. I eventually grew out of many of these behaviors, somewhere between books two and three, which may be why book three feels like the best and most ambitious book of the series so far. As a result, I’m able to hone my craft without the added pressure of “if I can’t write tonight I don’t know how I’ll sleep.”
Survival is still a component–writing is always the first thing I turn to in times of hardship, and there is still something valuable to me about channeling your own pain into that of a character’s. And I can’t forget that writing to survive led to some excellent habits, like disciplining myself into writing even when I didn’t feel like it. I am forever thankful to writing, to this series, for getting me through such a dark period of my life. As much as I feel like my methods are healthier now, I wouldn’t trade that history for anything.
It’s understandable why this new book would feel daunting, in the wake of all this. I’d spent almost a decade getting to know the other characters, and they’d come about because I’d needed them emotionally. Did I only know how to create good characters during times of strife? What if I didn’t have any real character-creation techniques and all the new ones felt flat?
So, I did something I know I’m good at–I took the useful parts of my “write-to-survive” philosophy and merged them with my current, more mature outlook. The series characters felt so real to me because I followed their pain. I figured out their worst fears. I discovered what was important to them, both on a grand scale (e.g. wanting to achieve self-love) and on a small one (e.g. indulging in a mug of their favorite green tea every morning). I also realized, however, that many of the greatest parts of my series characters happened by accident, and often reflected things I was going through without realizing. For example, it took me years to figure out why I set my series in a war-neutral town that feared it would be sucked into a conflict two more powerful territories were involved in. I was trying to make sense of my parents’ divorce–duh.
This meant I had something I didn’t have before: intentionality. I could more explicitly ask myself: where is my pain? What are my fears? What are my joys? I did some soul-searching. Then I spliced up my answers and handed each character a fragment. Here, Character A, you get self-loathing and an artist’s heart. Character B, here are some abandonment issues as well as fierce ambition. Character C, here’s an aversion to people touching you, but also great empathy. This is a good place to start, meaning I didn’t stop here. I then took from elsewhere–first people I knew, then people I’d read about. The result was not only fleshed-out characters, but fleshed-out characters that meant something. They started to become as vivid as the characters I’d spent so long with, but in a different way.
Again, started to, because you also learn more about the characters as you write them. This was another hurdle I had to get over: expecting to love the characters as much as my last ones, immediately. Somehow, I’d forgotten that I’d straight up hated one of the characters from my series until I wrote her first scene, and began to adore her.
I was so worried. Nothing could replace my series characters. But the point is, the new ones weren’t supposed to–they were supposed to mean something different to me. And they do. They will never be the characters that helped me survive my teenage years, but they are characters that helped me explore parts of myself I’d never explored in fiction before. For instance, my MC in this new one is an artist, whereas my last MC wasn’t. It was amazing to write from that perspective, from a different part of my heart/brain.
2) I’m better at plotting than I used to be.
Remember how I said I’d had the basic plot lines of each of the books in my series mapped out by age 14? 14-year-olds can be brilliant, and some of the stuff I came up with was great. Some of it really, really wasn’t.
Much of my time drafting the series was spent re-working old plot lines that I’d since realized were stupid. When 18-year-old me sat down to write book three, I glanced over my old notes and thought, “Why would my MC run into her long-lost grandma at such a convenient time? Or at all?” I threw it out and invented something else. As I grew older and studied more and more fiction, I found clichés and tropes that I’d rather not use. Sometimes, I realized something didn’t work midway through writing a scene. I once literally had a character veto something in-scene (the same character who’s shunning me), and only then did I go, “Oh god he’s right.”
Because the thing was, I was still learning the basics while writing this series. The bright side of this is that the series also taught me how to revise, which requires a whole different set of skills than drafting does. In a way, I’m thankful for all the mistakes I made, because going back and fixing them developed abilities that became valuable later (like right now, as I revise my current project).
But man, plotting my current project was so much easier in comparison. I had so much more in my creative arsenal. I caught potential plot holes more quickly, often long before the relevant scene or scenes were written (this didn’t always happen, but still). I was much better about locking down character motives before it was too late, which was something I didn’t think hard enough about at age 14 (so many characters in original outlines just…did stuff for no justifiable reason, or for weak reasons). Also, it helped that I was reading more YA fantasy, which can be a great teacher for plot. When I started my series, I was reading almost exclusively classics. This made me more intentional about prose, but my plots (and pacing) suffered for it.
I haven’t had other eyes look at my current project yet, since I’m still doing first revisions. There’s a chance there’s something off about the plot that I’m not seeing, a chance that I’ll have to rip the thing apart after all. But I’m sending this book off with a lot more confidence, which counts for something.
3) Yes, it is possible to write a first draft that’s under 150,000 words.
I’m literally not kidding. Before my current project, I’d never written a first draft less than 150,000 words. And I’d never taken less than a year to write a first draft.
When I started writing novels, I didn’t put any thought into word count. After finishing book one, I glanced at the word count and thought, “That looks long enough to be a real book!” I had no idea that it was almost as long as Harry Potter and the Half Blood Freaking Prince. Or how ridiculous that was for a debut novelist.
In 2012, when I looked into querying for the first time, I had a full-on existential crisis centered around word counts. “Holy shit,” I thought, “some agents won’t even look at a first-time novelist’s work if it’s over 100,000 words! 100,000! How do you write anything less than that??”
I actually thought it was impossible. Or at least, I thought it was impossible for my writing style, which is extremely sensory, cinematic, inwardly-exploratory, and, of course, fantasy, which requires extra words for world building. Even when I queried book one, I only managed to get it down to 110,000 words. I squeezed that book within an inch of its freaking life, and still, 10,000 pesky words remained.
When I set out to write my current project, I vowed it wouldn’t get past 100,000 words. Or, if it did, it wouldn’t get past it by much. I was meticulous about it. Before I wrote any scene, I asked myself several questions: how necessary is this? What does this scene accomplish? Could it be bundled into another scene? Will it slow the pacing? Is [x] aspect of the story taking too long? Yet still, I worried I wouldn’t be able to do it. A few times, I panicked, thinking I’d miscalculated and that I’d push past 100,000 words despite my painstaking efforts.
I almost cried with joy when I saw the first draft’s final word count.
I DID IT. WITH A LITTLE OVER 6,000 WORDS TO SPARE.
More than that, I’d learned something about myself: I took so freaking long to draft my novels because the novels themselves were…well, so freaking long. I wasn’t a “slow drafter” after all. I was and am very capable of writing a novel in the span of three months. It’s a wonderful thing to discover, especially in such a fast-paced world.
Now, I’m knee-deep in revisions, and I’m so excited about this book. I have a really good feeling about it. Even if it ends up going nowhere, I did some important stuff with it. I grew and learned. I evolved as an artist in so many ways.
I hope someday, I get to share this book with the world. If that happens, you’ll most certainly hear it from me, because I probably won’t shut up about it. Here’s hoping I don’t revert back to my teenage self and try to work it into every conversation…but I can’t make any promises.
*Avatar by Charlavail