If you follow me on twitter, You might be aware that this week I completed my second book (the first draft of it, at least). This is a really exciting and important milestone for me. While completing that first one was in many ways more important in that I knew that I could finish a novel, I had been on and off planning and writing it for years, though it evolved quite a bit. This second one had a much faster turnaround, with the ideas maybe a couple of years old at most, and the writing from when I started in earnest to the finish being less than a year. I like knowing that I can write decent length novels at a good pace (this one clocked in at over 158,000 words), and it lets me know that that first one wasn’t doable only because it had been brewing in my head for so long.
However, as the overall process for this novel, currently called The Dragon King (the title will be changed eventually), differed in many ways from my previous book, I thought it might be useful to share some of my thoughts and observations on the process. As I go, I’ll mention what aspects of the process I felt worked well, and which worked less well–as well as what I am doing to improve my writing process as my third book is finishing its pre-writing and outlining phase.
I learned some interesting stuff regarding outlines through writing this book, which might seem almost contradictory at first but in the end they both are both important for my own writing future. The first is that a more detailed outline will make writing faster and make the story itself flow better (and probably need less revision). My outline for this book was kind of threadbare. For each planned chapter I had a line or four about what would happen and who the viewpoint character would be, but that’s about it. In retrospect, this was not the best way to go. Writing each chapter, particularly the chapters with less info in the outline, took much longer, as I really had to figure out exactly what happened as I went along. This also led to several sections where I felt the story was plodding along, and where I wasn’t sure how much time should be devoted to a particular section. This also led to a phenomenon I’ve started calling ‘chapter spawning’, where I realized as I was writing that I needed another chapter here and there. This was particularly noticeable near the climax, where several new chapters appeared. This is one of the main reasons why I know that I will have to do a fair amount of revision on the story; things will need to be cleaned up, things restructured, and things foreshadowed better. (The climax changed enough that I will have to add more things earlier so that it doesn’t feel like a kind of deus ex machina. It’s definitely salvageable, but it will take work.)
This is something I realized a while ago, and when I began outlining my next project I made a conscious effort to make my outline more detailed, and I have: This next outline (for a book that I plan to me shorter than this one) is more than twice as long and detailed, and not completely done yet. But that’s why many writers will say that the best way to improve as a writer is to write. As long as you consistently improve, past mistakes or missteps are less of an issue.
Something else I’ve come to realize after writing books now is that despite having a structured outline, I should leave some room for flexibility. Sticking stubbornly to an outline can be just as problematic as making a poor outline. Now I expect that I found more need to alter things on the fly this time due to the flawed outline, but even with my previous, better outline I found that there were times where it made sense to make slight changes to better the story. Particularly when it comes to character development I try to let them have some ‘free will’, and allow them to develop organically. This often will lead to slight changes in the general outline, but it’s for the betterment of the story. And as I said before that flexibility might have been what saved this story: had I stubbornly refused to deviate from the plan, the book would be a mess.
Regarding the actual writing:
I was very pleased with the pace at which I wrote the book. I started writing it in earnest last November, and finished it in September this year. And that’s with some sections taking longer than I would have liked because of my vague outline. Knowing that I can prep and write a book with a turnaround this quick is excellent. At this pace I’ll be able to write at least one book a year, and this is without writing being my full time occupation (I’m not yet published and therefore not getting paid, and I just started graduate school). Something else I’ve seen is that despite the problems with the outline and writing I never got bored or lazy in the writing. Every day I did something to further the story, whether it was reworking parts of the outline or writing a page or two by hand in class or on the train.
Alongside this I’ve been more actively planning my larger universe, and slowly adding story points and information tidbits to my WikidPad, so that when I write future installments of books or simply other stories set on those worlds I’ll have the information ready for use and easily accessible so I can maintain continuity. Also, as of now I’m very close to being in my perfect writing situation, with one book I’m revising/editing, one that I’m writing for the first time, and another (or several) that I am preparing. This is my goal for two main reasons: the first is simply to keep ‘the machine’ moving, to constantly be working on things so that I’m never stuck without a prepared book to write or edit, and the other reason is for mental health purposes. The editing process for The Dragon King will be much more difficult than it was for my previous novel, and having two other important writing projects I am also working on will allow me to take breaks from editing (or writing or planning) if I feel I need them, while still doing something writing related. This again ties into my planning my writing; there is always what to do.
Regarding the craft:
Unsurprisingly, I am a bad judge of my own technical skill as a writer (though I might get a better idea of it after reading my now complete book and comparing it to my first one), but the few people who have read The Dragon King (well, segments of it, as no one has read the whole thing quite yet) have mentioned that my writing has definitely improved. I still feel that at the moment at least there are many things about that first novel that are superior, primarily the plot and characters (partially due to how long that story was forming in my mind) but I would expect the writing to improve, and once I fix the story’s problems this one may well surpass its predecessor.
Something I have been noticing, however, is that I’m getting (slightly) better at being subtle and preparing things for future use, foreshadowing and all that. This was also my first time where I set a story on just one world ,and spent significant time worldbuilding for one specific setting (I even drew a map! Not a good one, but still.) The level of detail in the world is something I hope to increase in the revision, but I’m pleased with the world I’ve created for now.
In closing, those were my main thoughts and observations on myself as a writer and on my writing as of the completion of this book. When I compare myself now to myself after completing my first book, I can definitely see a forward progression, I can see that I’ve learned from writing that first book, and I’m actively working to improve on things I didn’t do as well when writing this one. Now the next step is to get a book sold, but also to continue to become a better writer, as that will only make my chances of finding a home for my writing better. Writing articles and understanding how things work is nice, but they’re meaningless if they aren’t applied to the writing. Because, after all, the goal is to make this a full time job, and like any job, you need practical experience.
I hope this was helpful, a loosely structured look back on my evolution as writer so far. As always, feel free to ask questions if you have any. I promise I’ll answer to the best of my (limited) ability.
Until next time, keep writing! (And I mean it! I most certainly will be.)