Monday, October 20, 2014

Five Years and 300,000 Words Later

My book is coming along pretty well so far. I'm actually right where I planned to be in terms of the date I was hoping to finish by and how much I've written so far. It's going way better than my first novel, not just in terms of the writing itself, but in terms of how I'm feeling about it. Here's why:

I set a realistic goal for when I want to be finished this time, and that has made all the difference. When I was working on my first novel, I set a completely unrealistic goal and literally spent the whole time I was working on it feeling like I was failing horribly because I wasn't where I wanted to be. It's hard to know your writing pace before you've written anything so long before. Writing a whole book is not a gradual task that you work up to. You don't go from writing 10-page papers to 20-page papers to 30-page papers and so forth. You are going from 20, maybe 30 pages to trying to reach 300, with absolutely no stepping stones in between. (The longest story I had ever written before my first novel was 34 pages). So, it's not exactly easy to know what your normal pace would be.

I tried to guess my book-writing pace from my short story pace, but I didn't realize just how different these paces were. When it came to short stories, I was able to write 10 pages in one sitting - sometimes even 15 - so I assumed that I would do the same thing when working on a bigger project. When I was in college and I had to read or study a certain number of pages or complete a problem set, I would automatically divide the pages or problems by the number of days that I had to do them so I'd have less work to do each day. But whenever I have a paper to write, I always dedicate a certain number of days for research, write most of the paper (usually 8 out of 10 pages) in one sitting, then finish the last few pages and edit the next day. It has never worked for me to divide those 10 pages over the course of 5 days the way that I would divide other homework assignments. I'm really used to writing the bulk of papers, essays, and short stories in one sitting, and my novel was the first time I had worked on something so long that I couldn't physically do that, that I actually needed to pace myself over a long period of time. But it wasn't until after I had finished my novel that I really accepted this. I kept having these nights where I'd drink lots of soda and stay up late thinking I could write 50 or even 100 pages in one night, and I'd feel really bad every time it didn't work. It was after I finished the book when I really accepted just how different this process was, and that there was nothing wrong with me if I couldn't write it all in one night.

My writing pace has to do with whether or not I can get a firm grip on an entire project all at once. When I wrote short stories for fiction writing class, I could write them pretty fast because they were short enough that I could have them mapped out entirely in my head. There was one story I spent so much time daydreaming about, that when I went to write it down, I felt like I was just typing it from the draft I had written in my head. When an entire story is contained in only 15 pages, it's easy enough to have it mapped out before I've written anything down, if I have enough time to think about it. But it's impossible to have 300 pages mapped out like that. I can have a firm grip on the general premise of the book, and on individual parts at a time, but for the most part, I'm not going to have 15 pages in a row smoothed out in my head, to the point that I can write them all in one sitting. That was something I had to learn from writing my first novel - I needed to accept that I was not going to have one night where I finished the bulk of it in one sitting, and that it is a long process.

When I wrote "The Unencrypted Truth," I didn't set a deadline for myself, and that was how I learned what my normal pace is for a big project. I based my goal date for my current book on this pace. And ever since I started, I've felt good about where I was. I spent most of my first novel feeling behind, putting a lot of pressure on myself to be fast, and comparing myself to where I "should" be based on what other writers do. This time I've actually managed to feel good about what I've accomplished each day.

I've also established that I do not like structure of any kind, so I've stopped trying to impose a daily word count on myself. I instead have a general idea of where I should be based on when I want to finish, and I've managed to keep the pace that I wanted to keep. I have a lot of leeway built into my end time in that I know I could finish the book faster if that I was all I wanted to do, but I've allowed time to slow down my writing pace when I want to focus on other things like spending time with friends and planning parties. When I was working on my first novel, I used to feel guilty for doing other fun things in my free time when I felt like I hadn't gotten enough work done on my book, and this is not a way that I ever want to feel again. I would not consider these six months to be successful if my book prevented me from fully enjoying everything else I like to do.

The other thing that's different this time is that I'm not a student anymore. I don't have to worry about going back to school or having midterms or finals or anything that would inhibit my ability to write. Even if we have a busy time at work, I'm only doing that during work hours. I am truly free to set whatever date I want as a deadline because I don't have to factor in times when I would like to write but won't be able to. The main reason I set such an unrealistic goal for my first novel was because I knew that I had to finish during summer vacation because I wouldn't have enough time once the school year began. I didn't stop and think about my writing pace because I really felt that I had no other option but to finish over the summer.

In my social psych class, we learned that sometimes, giving yourself a reward for finishing something by an earlier deadline than when it is actually due decreases the chances that you will finish by the real deadline if you miss your personal deadline. We read a study on procrastination where students were offered bonus points for handing in a paper by an earlier date, but the actual due date was later. Most of the students handed it in by the earlier date and got the bonus points. But of the students who didn't make the earlier deadline, fewer of them turned in the assignment on time by the real due date than when no reward was offered and there was only one due date. So, some of the students who would normally turn in their work on time didn't have it finished on time when they missed the bonus points. These students who didn't finish on time when they normally would have increased as the bonus points increased. The idea here is that those bonus points have become your primary motivation, your reason for getting the assignment done. And once that reason is gone, you aren't motivated to get it done at all. I can definitely see this happening with my own behavior. When I try to get something done by an earlier deadline for a reason, like finishing homework before the weekend so I can go out with my friends, I find that when I don't make that deadline and have to stay home, I usually don't get all my work done because I have no reason to. My reason for getting it done was so I could go out and have fun on the weekend, and with that gone, I don't have any reason for getting the work done.

This was the problem I had with my first novel. I kept setting deadlines that had external rewards attached to them, like finishing by the end of the summer, by winter break, by the end of winter break, before graduation, etc. These dates all had either symbolic meaning or practical reasons why they would be good times to finish, (but no correlation to my actual writing pace), and when I missed my deadlines, I had a much harder time continuing.

My deadline right now is my birthday, which has a lot of symbolic meaning and has a practical reason behind it, but I understand how this could negatively effect me if I miss the deadline, so I have a backup plan. Basically, I want to celebrate finishing my book. When I do something like this that I'm really really proud of, I have an immediate urge to go out and celebrate it with my friends. I never really did that with my first novel, which left me feeling kind of empty inside, but I am doing it this time. It would be convenient if my birthday party could double as a "Yay I finished my book!" party, but I realize that this probably won't happen because the exact timing is just too difficult to work out, so I am planning to do something else with my friends to celebrate, either a party or some other get-together, even if it is really close to my birthday party. It will be sort of like having a cast party at the end of a show. And I'm not adhering to any kind of social standards that you're not supposed to throw yourself a congratulations party - I'm not expecting presents or anything and I'm not going to *call* it a congratulations party, but I absolutely want to celebrate right away as soon as I finish, and I'm going to. I'm not gonna let something this awesome go uncelebrated just because I don't live with a boyfriend who can take me out the night I finish. I have friends who will really, truly appreciate what I've done, and we are absolutely going to celebrate this together. And when I get published and get my first paycheck from the book, I'm treating my friends to a full two-hour jump session at the trampoline park.

Next, if you haven't already noticed, I've decided to go ahead and jump the gun and count my chickens before they hatch this time. Why? Because that's something I've always enjoyed doing. Daydreaming about how awesome something is going to be when it happens is FUN, and something I basically stopped doing in the college aftermath. Whenever I was in a play, I always loved to imagine the performance. I would imagine it over and over again constantly, and that was a big part of the fun. I think I held myself back with imagining how awesome my first book would be because I didn't want to count my chickens before they hatched. When you're in an organized activity like a play, there is a set show date, and that date is happening no matter what. It doesn't matter whether you've learned your lines or practiced enough - the show is going on. With a personal project it's different; if you decided to stop working on it, there will be no opening night, and that's what I was afraid of with my first book, I kept thinking that I shouldn't jump to conclusions and assume this was going to happen when it might not. But you know something? I have every right to assume that this will happen because it is under my control. I am absolutely going to finish this book and publish it (if I can't get an agent or publishing company then I will self-publish). And in the meantime, I'm going to daydream all I want about how awesome it's going to be because I like to do that, and it makes me way more interested in writing the book.

Finally, I think I'm also just better at writing now than I was 5 years ago. Which makes sense since I've written over 300,000 words since then (for real - I just glanced at my blog backup files :-) I've written fiction, poetry, quizzes, blog posts, sex blog posts, everything. I've had way more writing practice in the last five years than I ever have before. Practice writing things that I actually *want* to write about. I was holding back so much when I wrote my first book. I had become really self-conscious from my writing classes, and I was under the impression that I had some sort of an issue with clarity, like I wasn't capable of communicating clearly and that's why Colby kids didn't listen to me, I wasn't capable of writing relatable characters because my college classmates couldn't relate to them. I don't believe this anymore. I actually feel confident in my ability to do what I'm doing.

This is where I started after Colby:

And this is where I am now. Five years and 300,000 words later.

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