Saturday, August 10, 2013

Lessons Learned For Book #2

Scott D. Parker

Most of y’all know that I passed a major milestone the last day of July: I finally completed my second novel. It took me so long between the first and the second—-seven years—that I never thought I would finish. As the years slogged on, I kept trying to recapture the magic of the time where I managed to do something for the first time. That first time is always something, isn’t it? You don’t really know what you’re doing but you just keep plugging away at the book until you reach The End.

For years, whenever I got stuck, I kept returning to the ways I got that first book finished. I mapped out the entire thing and then wrote it. Since I had success that way, I kept telling myself that that way was the only way.

The years of half completed novels proved otherwise. I finally came to a realization: if you got to The End one way and can’t seem to repeat the feat, create a new way of writing a novel and getting to The End.

Here are the lessons I learned this summer while writing and completing my second novel.


For each abandoned novel laying fallow on my Mac, I had extensive notes and an outline of sorts. I spent hours writing about writing the books and never actually doing the fictioneering. Moreover, I would brain dump on my wife. This always ended in disaster. There would be so much back story that she needed to know that I’d get “that look” that not only told me she lost me but that the story was probably too complicated or not good.

This summer, I told no one the plot of the story. I barely even acknowledged to the people I see everyday that I was writing a book—save the wife and child. Y’all regular readers of Do Some Damage knew more than just about anyone else. I think I had one or two Facebook posts, but that was it. If someone asked what I was writing, I’d say as little as possible. “A mystery.” “A PI story.” “My second novel.” Very rarely did I divulge the elevator pitch.

By keeping walls up, I was able to go at my own pace, think my own thoughts, and not be influenced by any outside forces. In the past, talking too much let out some of the air of my narrative. Those blinder/barriers kept me focused on one thing only: get to The End.


In just about every post this summer I dropped my writing statistics. The science fiction writer, Jamie Todd Rubin, actually spurred me on to this. I read on his blog where he had set up automatic word counting scripts. He showed a screen shot of one of his spreadsheets and I liked it and decided to give it a go. I don’t code, so I entered all my data manually.

There is something very powerful about adding up the daily writing. I was especially surprised when I had a good day and made great progress in the narrative and it ended up clocking in north of two grand. It was like a bonus, and that bonus spurred me on to try and match or top it the next day. It’s one of the reasons why, in the last month of writing, I ended on a 28-day streak of writing more than 1,000 words per day. One day I did it, the next day I repeated it, and so on. Then it became a thing.

My main analytic was consecutive days writing. Just write something every day. Period. I needed and gave myself a minimum of 500 words. Other than one day, I did. But even on that day (10 June), I wrote, so my then tentative 14-day streak remained alive. That day of sub-500 words was Day 15, officially more than two weeks. Writing on that night when I was dead tired put me over the hump of two consecutive weeks of writing.

The metrics I keep are this: date, what written, number of words, cumulative number of words, pace (i.e., 500 words minimum), amount off pace (i.e., if I write more/fewer words, what is the difference), novel accumulation (how many words written the book), and monthly accumulation. The latter two I added later as I wanted to see just how much I was pouring out of me. In my spreadsheet, if I match or exceed my daily pace, I get to highlight the difference in green. I have only one red entry, and the rest are green. I did bump the pace to 600 starting in July. Each day, entering the numbers was my reward. It was a powerful motivator and one I’m still using.


This may come as a shock but I have not read through my novel. Oh, I may have re-read the last paragraph from the day before, but I rarely did that. When I sat down to write, I had the scene more or less complete in my mind and I just wrote it down. I moved forward. I did not look back. I mentioned that to Joelle and she said she likes to edit a book only after it’s done because only then she knows the ending. I like that idea and it’s one that got me through. Yes, there were times when, in a later chapter, I wrote something that I knew contradicted something I’d already written. I made a note about it—mainly to see which version I might like better—but did not go back and fix the earlier section. That is, or will be, for later. Just get the words on the page. Just write. Don’t edit.


One of the things I didn’t do very much of when writing this novel was outlining. Well, not like the first time when I had all the scenes on color-coded notecards. It really surprised me how easily scenes flowed. There was a moment, in the dead middle, where I did map out the next dozen scenes to get me through that mushy part. Once I got past it, however, I just went with the flow so much so that, as soon as I reached the end of the big action sequence, I suddenly realized I had only three scenes left. That, my friends, was an awesome feeling. What lesson is that? It’s okay to keep it fast and loose.


Whatever it is, find it and stick to it. My daily routine of the summer was getting up at 6am, feeding the cat, getting dressed as quietly as possible so as not to wake the wife and boy, fill the cup full of coffee, and start writing. I can usually get an hour or so banged out before I have to go work and usually hit the thousand-word mark. It’s a nice feeling knowing I have achieved my writing goal at the start of the day. Every now and then I have to have a second session to get to a grand, but not usually. The school year will bring changes so I’ll have to see how to adjust.

Those are the main lessons I’ve taken from writing my second novel. And bear this in mind: all of this worked for me. I never would have thought of these things before this summer. What worked for me may not work for you. Find that thing that works for you and keep at it.


Brian said...

This is very real to me. I've got half a dozen beginnings of novels on my computer as well. I've stopped writing for the last few weeks. I think that I have a problem with beginning Act II.

I'll try your suggestions. Might just work for me.

Dana King said...

The money quote is at the end: find that thing that works for you and keep at it. As Stephen King said of routine, you write better when the Muse strikes, but the Muse strikes more often if it knows when and where to look for you.

My daily allotment when I'm getting the draft down is much like yours, though I measure pages, not words. I need to draft a page every day before I can stop. I can write more if I'm on a roll, but it's also nice to leave a scene slightly unresolved, as it makes things easier to pick up tomorrow. (I also read yesterday's page before starting anew.)

I don;t keep a spreadsheet with the word count, but I do mark on a calendar how far I have to be before I can stop each day. (35-38 means I can't stop until I've written at least as far as Page 35, Line 38.) This works for me, i think because it's encouraging to see I'm moving through the manuscript, instead of doing what I used to, which was to always be intimidated by how much remained.

Scott D. Parker said...

Brian - I look forward to hearing how these suggestions work for you, and it will make my day if they do. One thing that's been great about this blog and the folks that read it is all the encouragement. Earlier this summer, Joelle and Dana wrote things that, at the time, they didn't know made a huge difference in my thinking. You never know when you read that one thing that can put you over the hump. Glad I was able to do a small part.

Dana - I work in Scrivener and, as such, word count is the easiest thing to keep track of since the app doesn't show a 'page.' It's only after I have finished a session that I print it out to see how many pages I've written. And I don't do it every session either. I like to see chunks of pages being added, not slivers. Yesterday, I printed out the current book for the first time and was happily greeted with 78 pages. I also like your 35-38 example. I firmly believe that without at least a goal to strive for *beyond just writing something each day* that you can get a bit lazy. "Oh, I wrote a paragraph. Check!"

"How much remains" - Hmm, do you have an idea of end word count and you're just counting down?

Scenes - more often than not, some external force stops me from writing (time for work, family wakes up) so I do find myself ending the middle. But my preferred method is to end on a scene ending sentence. As a morning writer, I've often left the writing desk sooner than expected because I've ended a scene and I don't want to start the next one because I know I won't have time to finish it.

Dana King said...

""How much remains" - Hmm, do you have an idea of end word count and you're just counting down?"

No, but I have an outline for each scene, and I can see how much is left to be done if i look. So, i don't.