Two thousand words a day (or: How To Write A Mediocre Novel)

Starting novels is easy. Finishing them is hard. Consequently, perhaps a lot of writers advise setting yourself daily word count target. You see that Word Count Is All advice all over the place, including here, here and (gosh) even here.

And I get that, sort of. Without some sense of forward momentum, it’s easy to lose faith. A manuscript that grows. Characters who do stuff. Battles that happen, romances that do or don’t find their happy endings. And in the end, you can always revise the hell out of your manuscript. The basic philosophy of NaNoWriMo is: write a crap manuscript, then (at your leisure) revise it into a good one.

The trouble is, forward momentum is a tricky thing to ascertain. Right now, I’m writing my fourth Fiona Griffiths novel. (This was #1, Number two came out this year, number three is written but won’t be out till next year.) I’m about 25,000 words into the book, whose eventual length will be about 120,000 words. I’ve essentially completed the set-up phase of the plotting and I know the story arc of the book. Because this a crime story, the basic story arc always revolves around the investigation of a crime, so for me the thing that matters is (i) figuring out what the crime is and (ii) why it looks one way to ordinary coppers and quite another way to my own super-sleuth. Alongside that arc, I also need to figure out the dramas that will unfold in my character’s personal life. And all this, pretty much, I have to hand.

But as our own Gary Gibson has brilliantly noted, this is a point in the novel where it’s common to hit a wall. Or actually, that’s not really a helpful image. It’s not a wall, it’s a decision point. There’s just a whole new set of choices at this point where the set-up phase emerges into the development/crisis/resolution ones. I may have my broad strategy all set out, but there’s a host of tactical choices which will make a huge difference to the feel and overall success of the book. And I don’t know what to do next. I don’t know what the next chapter needs to be, or the one after that, or the one after that. I’m at a point where the ready forward flow of the first 20-something thousand words has pretty much dried up.

Now, I suppose that one route out of my current predicament could simply be to blast through it. Write those words. A thousand every day. In three months, and I’d have a usable first draft.

What’s more, I have on my side something that most of those NaNoWriMoers don’t have, which is the benefit of a book contract and a pile of experience. The first thing enables me to spend time on my project without embarrassment. I can say ‘Hey, honey, I’m earning money,’ instead of the more truthful, ‘Hey, honey, I’m indulging my private passion which, yes, borders on the obsessive.’ The second thing enables me to have a fair degree of confidence that I won’t completely arse things up – and of course I’ve learned a thing or two about plotting over the years.

But I still won’t go near those word targets. If I set them, and met them, I would be 100% confident of having a mediocre novel written on schedule – a disastrous outcome. Even if my publisher accepted a mediocre novel, their faith in me would be abruptly diminished and I’d have to work very hard to regain it. And even if I really attacked that mediocre draft with my full array of self-editing skills (the sort lucky people can find here), I’d still have to figure out the issues that are currently bamboozling me … only I’d be doing so with the weight of all those damn words round my neck. Every time I had a radical thought about a possible direction for the story, an inner voice would be murmuring, ‘Yes, but that would require a lot of rewriting …’

So what do I do? Well, I don’t have any word count target. And I don’t do what Gary does and write a long synopsis of my whole MS – that’s just not a way of working that suits my style. Instead, I just sit in my work room and puzzle out my plot issues. I often tinker with the stuff I’ve already written as a way of getting myself into the right mindset. I play music. I distract myself, then come back to the problems at hand. I don’t take many notes – I’m not a notey kind of guy – but I will if I need to. I play with radical ideas, and keep the ones that seem interesting.

Over the last two weeks, I’ve put in a reasonable number of working hours on my book and I’d say I’ve written about -2000 words. (That’s a minus sign right there in front of the two, by the way, not just some decorative hyphen.) It’s felt like damned hard work.

And I’m pretty chuffed with the results. I think I’ve been pretty productive. I haven’t solved all my issues, but I’ve got a much better grasp on where I need to go next. I’d say that if I write nothing for another week, I’ll be where I need to be. That’s good going. Not progress in the NaNoWriMo sense, but progress in the writing-a-good-book-in-an-efficient-way sense. And really, if writers had more self-confidence that doing nothing visible is still doing something useful, all those word target thingies would just drop away.
Writing books ain’t just about the words, y’know.

This entry was posted in How to write a book. Bookmark the permalink.