I gave up on a manuscript a few days ago. I was 26,057 words in. This is better than it sounds.
This year’s NaNo project turned out better than it had any right to. I wrote 80,000 words in 30 days, which is just stupid, and there’s a lot I don’t remember. But I do remember that I love those characters, and that it came together in a far more cohesive fashion than I should have hoped for. I’m damn proud of that thing. So I thought, Well, hell, since we’re here, we’ll just write the sequel. Worked the last time we did this.
And it did. Last year’s NaNo project went exceptionally well too (only 74,000 words), but I was able to launch more or less immediately into its sequel, which ended up being a hell of a lot better than the original. So much better, in fact, that that’s the one I’m going to pitch to agents and publishers, not the first one.
This time, however – ahem – I was less successful. Maybe I wrote too fast in November. Maybe I just don’t remember enough about the characters, the setting, the beginning, middle, ending, the whatthefuckever. I was so proud of myself, having plotted out a whole five (six?) book arc, the plots for each of the books in this inevitable series, the major climax at the end, everything.
And the book flopped. Every one of those 26,057 goddamn words was terrible. I hate them all. Every time I opened the document, I wanted to scream. Throw things. Delete files willy-nilly. And that’s stupid, because I knew – know – exactly where the thing is going. I know how it’s got to end to lead into the next one.
Then I thought, Huh. Maybe there’s more to this pantsing thing than I thought.
Turn on the tap at your kitchen sink. See how, when you leave it alone, it comes out just the way it’s supposed to? Now stick your finger against the spigot – and go change your shirt, because you’re soaked. When you start messing with it, shit goes wrong. It goes everywhere, spiralling out of control, doing what the fuck it wants and making you hate it.
At the beginning of NaNo, at one of the pre-November plotting sessions, someone asked me for my plot, and I laughed it off, saying, “I have characters and setting. I don’t need plot.” I was sort of joking, but not really. Here’s my writing process, when it’s working at optimal strength:
1.) Word vomit for approximately 40,000 words. (One 7000-word day last NaNo left me saying, “I think there was a car crash? I don’t know.”)
2.) Read through those words, ask questions readers would ask, draw logical conclusions.
3.) Write final 40,000 words. Make it work.
4.) Lo and behold! It works.
5.) Revise happily and stress-free.
The sequel? There was no word vomit. The whole thing was plotted out from the beginning. And I was so proud. It was divided up into acts, with summaries. With fucking plot points. Plot points, people, do you hear me? Three pages of this shit. Scenes, climaxes, resolutions, and a graph. A GRAPH. Like this is GraphJam or something.
Well, it isn’t. Don’t get me wrong: all the things laid out were good ones. Great ideas, if I might say so myself. And I do.
So I sat down to write. And it went fine for a while, then I went back and rewrote the opening. Then rewrote it again. Then moved on, writing some more stuff, never really satisfied. Always feeling a little weird about it. Always feeling like it fell flat, like there was nothing real there, no grit or stress, no panic in the characters or the reader (just the author), just some characters floating along on this prefabbed plotline.
A month passed, and I had 26,057 words written. In the 31 days of December, I’d written just over a quarter of what I’d written in the 30 days of November. Now, I’m no rocket surgeon, but that math doesn’t make sense.
Fine, I said. Fine. Manuscript, you and I are going to take separate vacations so we don’t end up getting a divorce. I’m going to see other manuscripts for a little while, take one out for a nice dinner, maybe some bowling or that new Sherlock Holmes movie, and if I’m lucky, maybe it’ll let me do some revisions on it. If you know what I’m saying.
So I put it away, and pulled out last year’s so-successful sequel. I ran through the first round of revisions in a week or so (what a slut!). This novel is awesome.
Let me repeat that: IT IS AWESOME. I have more confidence in this thing than I have in many things ever. It’s kind of niche, so I think I’ll have more luck with smaller publishers, but what the hell, right? That’s the plan, anyway: put revisions into digital copy (since I have to revisions with pen and paper), second draft on beta readers, receive their opinions, cry a little, fix them (or ignore them), and have this damn thing sent off to at least five publishers and five agents by the end of March.
And while I’m waiting for a response – because I’ll have to wait, and wait and wait and wait probably – I can compress those pages of Act outlines and goddamn plot points and graphs onto a few scraps of receipt paper, because apparently that’s how I work best. Maybe three quarters of a page in Pages, or a couple of index card. Because this plotting shit ain’t workin’ for me.
Moral of the story? Don’t be afraid to take breaks, to walk away. Lots of stuff gets dropped to the cutting room floor – and for good reason. Don’t be afraid of saying, it’s not you, it’s me. No, it’s you. Because I never would have gotten those revisions done if I hadn’t drawered a story that was making me insane.
**Mouse-over quote from Richard Kadrey’s KILL THE DEAD (Sandman Slim #2).