Answering Writing Questions

Karen asked some questions that made me think, so here I go answering.

These answers are only related to my work, that is, my novel and the Young Adult (YA) category, that I’ve researched as I’ve been writing.  If you want more widely applicable (and experienced) advice related to writing fiction you need to check out Kaye Dacus’s blog: Write Place, Write Time.

1. How many words are you aiming for?

The number I’ve heard batted around (for YA) is 50,000 words.  I’m aiming at the high end of the age-range, so I think I’d be “allowed” a few more words than that, even being a new face, but I don’t know how far I’d be able to push it.

I can’t say what I’m aiming for or precisely “expecting” because I have no other experience in length to compare this one to.  This book is my classes 102-105 in writing for length, and I expect to know more when I’m done.

2. Are you an outlined or inspired writer? Or something in between? I’m sort of in between and I suspect that is the trouble I’m having in deciding exactly when my story will be finished.

The language I’ve heard is “Seat-of-the-Pants” rather than “inspired.”  I prefer this because I think we’re all inspired or we wouldn’t be writing. ;)

I did my 50,000 NaNo words mostly SotP, jumping to a new section when where I was stalled or got boring.  I had the basic structure of the folktale (without which I don’t think I could have written as fast as I did) and I had a list of names and “terms” I had researched in the month before I started, so I didn’t have to slow down and work our plot problems or stop to find the perfect name.

I discovered holes as I wrote, but November wasn’t the time to contemplate or fix them, so I just kept a document of questions to return to.

Since that time I’ve tried a number of times to make a list of activities and contents, but instead of helping me they seemed to be more draining of my creativity.

When I recognized that I tried for a while to quit with the lists, but then I felt like I was swimming without landmarks, and needed some kind of mile marker.  My most recent compromise is chapter breaks.  I’m not listing every interaction, but I’ve got a clear sense of where I am, and what has to happen before the next scene.

A time-line helped with this too.  It wasn’t until I mapped the actual days in the time-line that I realized this first section takes place over just Ten Days.  Crazy fast.

Designating chapters (and POV–point of view– characters) also helps me with deciding the sequence of events in order (as Sol Stein recommends in his On Writing) to maintain or increase suspense by delaying the return to each story line.

Especially if you expect to be writing a series you will need to have some measure of structure: enough that you know each book has an arc, and each new book has a solid beginning and satisfying end (Kaye recently did a series on series, so that’s as far as I’ll go).

If any of my jargon is confusing, you should read Kaye’s archives for a while or find a good novel-writing book.

Without the terms you can still have all the instincts of a good writer and storyteller, but having the language really streamlines the juggling and application of that knowledge.  It also helps you identify why particular elements of a good story were effective for you, which, in turn, will help you decide how (or whether) to use those elements in your own story.

3. What do you consider a “short” novel or “long novel” and how is that defined by the target audience (kids, adults, or something else)?

Definitely depends on the genre, and it’s the author’s responsibility to know his/her genre.  I won’t be much help there since all my research is tuned to my *narrow* focus.

4. Do you have a “sweet spot” for how many words you write a day? I started by telling myself I “only had to do 500? just to get going. Now I’m consistently higher than 1,000 but I can’t seem to break that threshold.

With NaNo I averaged more than 2,000 words a day.  Since then I feel very productive if I break 1200.  That seems to be an “average” length for a first draft scene (based on a very small sample size).

I’ll know better at the end of this week whether I’ve got a regular output, because this will be the first time in my writing “career” that I’ve had a regular writing time.  From everything I hear I’ll have a stronger output the longer I stick with this pattern.

If I were you, I’d see how much you’re creating in your chunk of words.  If it is a (relatively) complete scene, odds are good your brain’s just ready for a break.  If you’re a SotP writer, odds are you don’t have any way to keep going.  If you can give yourself just enough structure so you know some other starting points are, continuing will get easier.

One suggestion for starting again: don’t force yourself to work chronologically.

If you want to keep going despite *that* part of you being ready to be done for the night, I think two things help:

  1. a type of “focus-training” to stick with it for longer and longer periods of time (word-minimums and timers help with this)
  2. the peace that you’ll be able to get through this next section without being yanked around.

When I’m creating a scene I’m immersed in it:  I’m feeling the emotions, seeing the action, anticipating what’s coming next.  I’m effectively living in another world.  I learned the rough way I can’t handle well the extra “atmospheric pressure” of two worlds, so I am very careful to do this only when I may focus on one world.

To do my best (most coherent and complete) scenes, a solid 2-hours is perfect.  I don’t always spend that whole time writing, but there’s something about that chunk I might call a “sweet spot.”  I’ve read a couple places where 2-hours is a common length for other writers too.

Lee Wyndham, author of Writing for Children and Teenagers, actually makes it a rule; says you can’t be really productive in less than 2-hours.

I can blog in 5-minute chunks.  I can proof-read and do some editing in 15-30 minute chunks.  But I can’t produce a new scene piecemeal like that.  To me it’s like trying to understand a new movie 5-minutes at a time with sitcoms in between.

This is where I guess my own “limit” comes from.  I reach the end of a scene, some part of my brain knows I don’t have time to do the next one, and stalls.

Usually when I have 30-40 minutes left after writing a scene, I use that time to return to different sections that have consistency issues to try and iron those out.  I frequently find this easier to do after I’ve been writing on my novel already.  Since I’m already in the world (and especially now that I have my chapter-list on the wall in front of me) it feels almost intuitive to move certain sections around.

  • My novel seems to be consuming all my brain cells all day long (thinking about it, writing on tiny scraps of paper, deciding lingering questions)…

In my experience this is normal.  Non-writers don’t seem to understand this very much, and it might help to think of it as a “cultural” thing.  Writers are as different from non-writers as collies are from whippets (insert any two dog-breeds you’re familiar with).

We’re just *different.*

If you can find a few other writers to meet with occasionally you will probably find this very energizing.  I don’t get many chances myself but it never fails to validate my “experience” as a writer: not because I particularly learn something every time, but because I’m with people who “look” like me.  I’ve been affirmed in my cultural identity.

  • …but I can only squeeze out an hour or two to actually, you know, work on it!

Writing is like parenting: there are very few absolutes.

One of those is consistency.  Another is attentiveness.

As long as you sit down to work, and work when you sit down, the book will get written.  The attentiveness bit is the work you’re doing when you’re not physically writing.

You re-think what you’ve gone through, realize you’ve created three men to do the work one bigger character could do with more significance… discover you picked the wrong love-interest for the personality your MC (main character) has developed…

And you kick yourself because it means you have to rewrite that whole third section.  But it’s good because the story’s gotten better.

Sometimes I think we who love books forget that only one set of words are set in stone.

Everything else is negotiable.  Everything else is subject to the unending pursuit of perfection we are all subject to.

This entry was posted in Writing.

One thought on “Answering Writing Questions

  1. Thanks for the answers! Lots of food for thought here.

    The reason I said I was “in between” is that I have a timeline, a basic framework, calendar, and lots of notes about specific scenes that must be in the story. But when I actually sit down to write…(this is going to sound mystical and I’m not usually mystical!) it’s like the words pour out straight through my fingertips and I don’t really have to think about them.

    I try to edit 2-3 scenes a day (not what I’ve written that day). Sometimes (depending on what’s going on with my kids) I can write one “new” scene in the morning and one “new” scene at night. But that doesn’t happen often. I have to accept that I have three children, one of which is still very labor intensive (15 mo. old).

    Thanks again for your answers. I don’t “know” any writers in real life and I guess “finding” you (homeschooler, mom, Christian, etc.) has really encouraged me.

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