In the first part of this series, I talked about the struggles I had initially faced as a writer. In this part, I want to talk about how my writing process changed and what I am doing differently today.
When I put aside the project I had been working on (which reached an astounding 200k words and was not done), I knew I needed a different approach. I wanted to create something that was marketable, and for fantasy, that meant I needed to have a finished product between 80k and 120k words. In the supermarket format, that comes out to roughly 320 to 480 pages. Anything too small is not considered worth the investment to readers and anything too large has production costs that make it more risky to produce. For me, the goal was right in the middle, 100k words.
Writing on a budget
Because trying to discover the story as it unfolded sent me into an edit spiral, I decided to set up a scene budget, map out the high level events of the story, and assign a page/word count to those events. I had enough practice with developing the 200k word bad novel that I could estimate fairly well how many words or pages it would take me to convey a specific scene. Most of what I put into the budget was very high level, but I also kept in mind the pacing of the scene when I estimated the number of words to reserve (faster pacing would need fewer words). For example:
- Introduce Henton and initial encounter with Steph, 15 pages, build up, show cunning
- Stephenie learns more about her Mother’s plot, 3 pages, reveal into quick transition
I worked my way through the whole story, listing all of the important scenes needed to make the story work and put it into a spreadsheet. I kept my eye on the total number of words as each scene was added. Sometimes I went back and reconsidered pacing and made small adjustments to balance out the scenes, but once I reached the 100k word estimate, whatever had not made it into the budge was tossed out and I said to myself:
Nothing else slides in, this is the budget and I WILL stay with it.
(As a side note, I used a page count instead of word count when thinking about the scenes because it was easier for me to visualize. A standard rule of thumb is 250 words per page when using Courier New, 12pt font with 1 inch margins and double spacing, so I entered pages in whole numbers and let the spreadsheet do the math for me.)
Living with the budget
One of the obvious ways the budget helped me was when I sat down to write out a scene, I already knew what needed to happen and I could take a considered approach to writing the scene. It was like following a trail through the woods. However, my outline was general enough that I still had the enjoyment of discovering the specific details of each scene, like turning the bend and seeing the valley through a break in the trees. Most importantly, by staying to the budget, the overall plot did not change with new “and more brilliant” ideas, which meant I stayed on time and remained out of the edit vortex.
There were of course some minor adjustments during the writing, but for the most part, I kept each scene to about one thousand words of the estimate (which is effectively four pages). In the end, Mother’s Curse ended up around 96,500 words. Not too far off from the 100k estimate. When I looked at the 3,500 words difference (which is 14 or 15 pages), I had one brief moment when I considered adding a discarded scene, but that thought did not last long. The work was already a solid and I did not want to cram in another scene just to reach an arbitrary word count.
What I grew to have in common with Isaac Asimov
It was at that moment I realized I had grown. Many years earlier, I had read Isaac Asimov’s autobiography, I.Asimov, and something he mentioned always bothered me. He said he hardly ever edited anything. He wrote the stories and that was it. At the time, I had no understanding how that could be possible. I was stuck in the infinite edit loop and couldn’t get out. Here was this master (or at least very prolific writer), but he rarely edited his work? How was it possible?
When I changed my approach to writing, setting my scene budget and staying with the high level outline, I found I had very few go backs and edits. The scene order I envisioned before I started writing remained unchanged, no new characters sprang forth, and no changes to the story’s tone. I suddenly realized I had achieved something that Asimov claimed for himself. It felt liberating and wonderful. And more importantly, I discovered that I had the potential to start on the road to becoming a consistent writer.