The Canadian Writers' Collective

Writing, and writerly tangents

Tuesday, April 08, 2008

Workshop notes: V - Novel approaches

By Tamara Lee

(This is the fifth of a series of posts reflecting upon a writing workshop I'm taking with Nancy Lee. Part IV can be found here.)

A while ago, I wrote about my novel-in-a-month (NaNoWriMo) exploit that resulted in a solid 30,000 words of mediocrity.

In preparing for the challenge, I researched how to best approach such an intensive writing session; bought the co-creator’s book and studied it; and sought out others' suggestions for completing NaNoWriMo's recommended 50,000 words. Using a semi-structured outline, including revolving word count goals, I sporadically referred to to my 'map' throughout the month.

But falling short of the ultimate goal by 20, 000 words obviously meant something was sacrificed. And the other day, when I looked over the manuscript (MS), I noticed that the thread of the story I had essentially set out to write, the part of the story I spent the month getting to, was never written. What was supposed to be the ‘best part’ of the novel was meant to happen at its end, but the getting there got in the way.

I’d spent 30, 000 words, a full month, in pursuit of the Master’s Cup, only to give up and go home 20k from the finish line.

Obviously, I'm not alone in this, worrying about daily writing quotas and abandoned projects. Several others in the workshop have expressed their own frustrations. So last week, Nancy offered a few suggestions for getting the first draft of a novel done.

The finish line and the numbers game

The first suggestion’s rather straight-forward: Set a goal for when you want the MS to be done, and look at how much writing each day you need to do in order to meet the goal.

The important thing is, you don’t want to get stuck in the first draft because there will be more drafts to write. In setting a word count, it’s important to be concrete (i.e., words or pages, not hours at the desk).

If you impose an outside limit in terms of word count (say, a breezy 250-350/day), it can be increased every week or so. But better to set a goal closer to the max you can conceivably do, and be careful not to go past your word count, as there is a danger of being complacent the next day (“Oh, I wrote twice my quota yesterday, I can take a day off”), and inconsistency is a first draft’s death-knell. Also, by setting word counts this way, it dissuades you from going back and rewriting the same scenes, which only keeps you from generating new material.

But here’s the part that really perked up the group: The success, if this approach is followed, is marked by the completion of the goal, not by how good you think the quality of the writing. (And we writers are so inspired by the little successes, aren’t we?)

The outline and all the necessary parts
Throughout the workshop, we’ve discussed some of the more common approaches to writing a novel, such as just writing until it ends, or writing from a general outline. A process I’ve not used for any of my stories, a process I understand John Updike recommends, is what I’m calling the “ass-backwards approach.”

The ass-backwards approach goes a little something like this (and forgive me; I’m basing this on class notes and cannot find the original Updike source): Focusing on the last moment you want the reader to experience—the final emotional moment—imagine the feeling you want the reader to have as s/he closes the book. What is the event before that moment?

Then consider the same for each major emotional moment, working backwards, creating an inherent causality between the events and the emotions evoked. The outline, then, forces the writer to focus on the necessary parts of the story (“In order for the end to happen, such-and-such has to happen first.”)

After writing the first draft, consider the bits you wanted to happen that aren’t there, then incorporate them.

Success, with all the boring bits removed

The suggestion I loved hearing most, though, is perhaps the most obvious. And the most naughty of all the suggestions for getting the novel done. A suggestion so simple, yet so freeing, that following it might’ve meant I would’ve reached that ‘best part’ of my MS in the first draft.

The advice? Don’t write the parts people are going to skip.

When you get to a part that feels like it’s going to be drudgery to write—the part where you feel you need an explanation of where the idea is coming from—don’t write it. Because if it’s boring to you, it’s going to be boring to the reader.

So, by concentrating only on the energy, the joy and the thrill of the telling, crossing the finish line should be inevitable. No?


Blogger Anne C. said...

Stop writing when it's going well? Really?

Tue Apr 08, 12:09:00 pm GMT-4  
Blogger T. Lee said...

Yes, I wondered about that suggestion also, but then realised there are many times I said to myself, "Oh, I wrote twice my quota yesterday, I can take a day off." I figured that's what Nancy was cautioning against.

Tue Apr 08, 03:55:00 pm GMT-4  
Blogger Tricia Dower said...

This is just full of great suggestions, Tamara. Thanks so much for sharing them with us. (I feel I should send you part of your tuition.) Updike's advice is particularly intriguing. I think it would work for planning the book, but actually writing it that way would be more than challenging, because the writer gets to know the characters bit by bit over the course of the writing and may not know what they will do by the end of the novel.

Tue Apr 08, 08:12:00 pm GMT-4  
Blogger Chumplet said...

That's interesting. I've been stuck at the 32,000 mark on two of my WIPs for six months. I go back into them and fiddle with the parts already written. Gahhhhh!

My problem is I don't have an ending in mind. I should step back and visualize it.

Tue Apr 08, 10:11:00 pm GMT-4  
Blogger Jacqueline said...

That's really interesting, Tamara.

It sounds like your workshop has been far more useful than mine.

It would be nice if my workshop leader had the decency to say that it doesn't matter what the quality of the writing is the first time around.

Anyway, I'm glad you are being inspired.

Wed Apr 09, 09:01:00 am GMT-4  
Blogger T. Lee said...

Hey, thanks for stopping by, gals.

Tricia, I agree that the getting to know a character happens in a more linear manner. But it could work, if you've an idea and just need to hammer it out. There are so many (sigh) more drafts ahead.

Thu Apr 10, 06:23:00 pm GMT-4  
Blogger T. Lee said...

Chumplet, there's been rather a lot of discussion about writing without knowing the endings. Me, I can do that with a short piece, but I can't write a long piece without knowing where it's going. It may change, but I need goals, I think.

Thu Apr 10, 06:25:00 pm GMT-4  
Blogger T. Lee said...

Jacqueline, I am not sure she was saying to abandon quality writing, but, maybe, to put less emphasis on it in the first draft, especially if going over and over the first few paragraphs/chapters keeps you from getting to the end. I know I've been guilty of sticking to the beginnings. And then the rest of the story is flaked out on the couch get soft and uninspired.

Thu Apr 10, 06:27:00 pm GMT-4  
Blogger Denis Taillefer said...

I love this series of Blogs, Tamara. And like Tricia, I feel I owe you part of the tuition! Thanks.

I like the Updike idea of working a story ass-backwards. I'm thinking that could apply well to short stories, as well. And with those I usually have a clear beginning and fairly clear ending in mind (subject to change, of course) before putting pen to paper.

Very interesting!

Fri Apr 11, 09:35:00 am GMT-4  
Blogger T. Lee said...

Salut, Denis. Glad you're getting some value out of my mental meanderings. The project is helping me, also, especially when sorting through what may or may not work for me. I think the Updike approach is one I will definitely try.

Fri Apr 11, 01:39:00 pm GMT-4  
Blogger Peter Rinaldi said...

i have a really annoying Blogger question. i apologize in advance...
i really like the way you guys have it so that when i clicked on your name, i get a list of the postings that only YOU did in the blog. we have many contributors on our site as well, but we can't seem to find out where to do that. can you point me in the right direction?
thank you so much,

Wed Apr 30, 05:15:00 pm GMT-4  
Blogger T. Lee said...

Hi Peter. I sent you an email. Let me know if this answers your not-annoying-at-all question.

Sun May 04, 10:21:00 pm GMT-4  

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