Introduction: The Thirteen Weeks Novel Writing Program
Week 2: First You Catch Your Idea
Week 3: The Plot Wars
Week 4: How to Find the Time for Writing
It is becoming increasingly obvious to me that I’m not going to finish this by week thirteen. This is fine. It is fine because I did not start to write in week one, having first tried to lay the foundation for the writing program.
This should replicate your experience, particularly if this is your first novel, or if you are writing a novel that necessitates research – historical, scientific, or other. And there are very few novels that don’t.
For ease of calculation, let’s say you took the first three weeks either to brush up on writing craft – such as via Dwight Swain’s excellent Techniques of the Selling Writer – or to study up on the time of your novel, or even the theme of your novel. For instance, if you’re writing a novel involving space pirates it would behoove you to read novels about pirates past and present, so as to give your construction the necessary feel of heft and verisimilitude.
So, let’s say you took the first three weeks to research, study and plot. Depending on where you are on your writing development and how sure of yourself and this novel you are, it can of course take a much shorter time or a much longer one. Don’t be bound by my rules but by yours. Novels are an intensely individual endeavor, like any other art. While there are rules of writing and rules of craft, they don’t and can’t affect things such as how much preparation is enough for this particular writer or for this particular novel.
As I’ve said before, I’ve written novels in three days, and I’ve written novels in three years. All right, the one written in three years is near unreadable and never sold, but that might be a quality of my own, particular mind and lack of attention span – I have trouble carrying a theme coherently over a very long time. Or it could be the result of where I was at the time – that particular novel spanned the birth of both my sons, experiences that changed me profoundly so that the writer who finished the novel was not the one who started it.
Of course the conceit of the novel in thirteen weeks is that you’ll at least try to finish the novel in that time period. However, as has been noted in the past, this doesn’t mean you’ll manage it in a thirteen week period. It might very well take you two.
Two weeks ago I attended a writing seminar in Colorado Springs (something I intend to write about in a separate post.) During the seminar, Kevin J. Anderson quoted Jerry Pournelle on the subject of writing and finishing books. Apparently they were on a panel with a third writer at some point, and when the other writer asked what either of them did about writer’s block, Jerry Pournelle said, “There is no such thing as writer’s block.”
“But what do you do if you get stuck?”
“You write a sentence. And then you write another sentence. And then you keep going till the novel is done.”
“But what if it’s not any good?”
“Then you fix it so that it is.”
There is a good deal of horse sense in the above exchange and a truth that any writer who had made – or even aspires to make – a living in this field has run up against. Sometimes, for various reasons – but often because you’re under contract and you are broke and need the money – you don’t write the best novel you could possibly write. You write the best novel you could possibly write at that moment.
There are people who have spent ten, twenty years plotting a novel in their heads and researching every little detail and who have yet to write the first line.
They are a more extreme version of my friend whom I met nineteen years ago, when she had just won a contest with the first finished draft of her fantasy novel. I took second place in this same contest, and did not resent it, because I was still groping for how to plot, while her novel was finished and functional in all its parts.
It’s been 19 years. I’ve had over twenty books published since that day, as well as over a hundred short stories. My friend, arguably the better writer, has rewritten her novel something like 23 times. At one time she had an editor interested. I don’t know where things have proceeded since then, except that I know her book is not published.
Now some of you will be saying this is justifiable if she’s writing a masterpiece.
Perhaps. There are authors who wrote only one book, and that one book is a masterpiece.
They are very few, though. More common are writers like Jane Austen who – for her time and the age at which she died – was relatively prolific and whose books run the gamut from meh to masterful. Had she only ever written Mansfield Park she would not be one of my favorite novelists. Whether her work would still merit critical acclaim I don’t know, but I know that almost every one of her fans is a fan of Pride and Prejudice first and foremost, giving the other books more or less weight according to personality and inclination. Had she only written one of the other books, she could only count on a small portion of her fandom.
Besides that, given how the market works nowadays and how difficult it is to get something widely distributed enough to be noticed – let alone remember – if you labor your entire life at a book and never consider it good enough to publish, there is a good chance your children won’t know what to do with it and will let it sit forever in its dusty drawer.
On the other hand, if you have several books out, there is a chance one of them will catch the zeitgeist and become the defining book of the year or the decade and that as such it will go forward into immortality or as close to it as authors dare hope for.
So, let’s establish that the first duty of a writer is to finish something he or she won’t blush to have someone else see. This doesn’t mean it’s the best possible book, or even the best book that author could write – just the best book that could be finished by that author, at that time.
It’s perfectly logical and reasonable for you to sit down at the beginning of a 13 week novel program, allot three weeks for research, then decide that for a hundred and twenty thousand words novel, you’re going to have to write twelve thousand words a week.
Being myself, I am much more likely to procrastinate, get ill and take care of other things and then, with ten days to go, decide I have to write twelve thousand words a day. But no one ever said I was a normal writer, and it’s perfectly possible that I need the burst of adrenaline to get over my doubts about my writing ability.
Twelve thousand words a week is sane for most people. Say you take Sundays off – that leaves you roughly two thousand words a day – about four pages single spaced. I’ll give you that it’s a respectable clip, but it is not an unheard of amount for a professional writer.
The secret, of course, is to think what you’re going to write in advance, so when you sit down you can write two thousand words with a minimum of fuss.
In my case, with this novel, I knew this was going to be rough unless I took the thirteen weeks. This is because at this moment I have a lot of competing work not in the same world or in compatible worlds/styles to this novel. So, barring my doing my crazy burst of writing in the final ten days, I knew this one would be fraught with interruptions and might take me longer.
It probably will take me four extra weeks or so – its deadline is in August – and I’m willing to give it that.
However, if you know that it’s physically impossible for you, where you are in life and craft right now, to write two thousand words a day, plan on a thousand and two thirteen-week periods.
And then, at some point, work by the method of writing a sentence. Then writing another sentence, then writing another one, until the novel is finished. Even if you know the result will be bad, you can always revise afterwards.
Part of the decision on how to do this and how much time to set aside for it, depends on your self-knowledge. As I said, I’m the sort of writer who works best – sometimes only works – in a burst of panic fueled by the approaching deadline. (Before that I tend to be in search of some unattainable perfection.) I’m not unusual. About half of my colleagues function this way.
Meanwhile, there are those writers for whom seeing an approaching deadline completely shuts down the creative ability. There are other writers like my husband who can decide the word count and the matching plotline point in advance and hit it exactly every day.
There are also writers who, if they miss the deadline – even a self-imposed one – will decide it’s all for naught, they’re failures, and there’s no point trying again.
If you’re one of the latter type, please give yourself two thirteen week periods, then work as though you have only one. This means your chances of driving yourself to despondency are lower.
Part of the advantage of working for yourself is that you know how you work, and therefore can manage yourself better. The bad part is that you know yourself and tend to give yourself way too much slack.
Right now I’m running about four weeks behind deadline for the end of the thirteen weeks. Because I know myself, I’m not panicking – yet. My plan is to finish out the thirteen week posts, and then take on various aspects of craft such as exposition, character, etc, in these articles while continuing to work on my novel. For those of you following along or setting similar deadlines, I’ll have a note at the end of each post tracking my progress on Through Fire or the next novel, Darkship Revenge.
I will note that part of the reason for the slow progress on the novel is that I am writing more than two thousand words a day on other projects – even not counting my daily blog posts – because I have requests for short stories, as well as two novels I’m rewriting for publication. And trust me, some of those words are happening by the method of writing a sentence, then another sentence, then another sentence and fixing it all when it’s done.
Sometimes that’s the only thing you can do.