A Tale of Two Stories
Last week, while on one of my daily walks, I suddenly hit on why I was struggling with the novella on which I’ve been working, off and on, for the last year or so. The current working title is “Strays.” I was artificially constraining the story. I was making a mistake that I used to make, thinking I knew how long a story should be before it was finished. I had it in my head that the story was a novella, and I was trying to force that… and it wasn’t working. It occurred to me, as I turned the corner from Joyce Street onto Army-Navy Drive, that the story should be a novel. The thought was light a weight off my shoulders. I knew at once that it was the right thing to do, and I felt a sense of great relief. But also, a sense of trepidation. A novel is a big commitment.
At the same time, my friend Michael Sullivan has been trying to convince me for quite a while that I need to start writing novels. If I wanted to be able to write fulltime, novels was the only real pathway that I’d have. I’d smile and nod at Michael, and say, that yes, I knew that, but that I really enjoyed writing short stories, and wasn’t ready to give that up yet.
But when I realized that the story I was working on would work better as a novel than as a novella, I thought about what Michael said. I realized that I had another novella idea sitting around dormant, one I’ve been calling “Peacefield.” I’d planned to work on it after finishing the current one. It occurred to me that I was going to have the same problem with that one as with the current one. Maybe that one could also be a novel?
Add one final thing to the mix: I’ve been reading John Feinstein’s excellent book, Where Nobody Knows Your Name: Life in the Minor Leagues of Baseball as research for the novella. I often make comparisons between writing and baseball, and the life of a writer and that of a professional baseball player. Listening to the stories of the guys who spend a decade or more in the minor leagues, and those who try to up their game in order to make the jump to the majors, I realized that Michael was right: I needed to write novels if I was going to make it to the big leagues. In my entire writing career, I have written a single draft of a novel, which is not a lot of practice. I needed to get more experience and get it sooner rather than later.
So I decided to challenge myself. I set a goal for myself this year to try to average 1,000 words/day. In 2014, I averaged 850 words/day, so we’re really talking about adding an additional 150 words/day, which doesn’t sound like much. For me, 1,000 words/day is roughly 40 minutes of time each day.
I recall reading in Stephen King’s excellent book On Writing that he considers a season to be the perfect length of time to write a first draft of a novel. Granted, he would try to get in 2,000 words/day, which meant 180,000 words over the course of a season (3 months). But I saw some sense in that. It gives you a timeframe in which you have to focus on the task at hand. Also, I wasn’t planning on writing a Stephen King-length book. I’m looking to hit 90,000 word. It just so happens that at 1,000 words/day, 90,000 word take me 90 days–or just about 1 season.
But one novel draft does not a novelist make. I had to write dozens of short stories before I started to sell them. I don’t think I’d need to write dozens of novels before I could sell them, however. I like to think the experience I’ve gained as a writer applies broadly. But one novel draft would certainly not be enough.
However, I had this second idea for Peacefield, thematically related to Strays, but otherwise very different. I know that after finishing the draft of something long like a novella or a novel, I need some time away from before I start on the second draft. What if I wrote a first draft of Strays in the spring, and then spent the summer writing the first draft of Peacefield? That would give me three months away from the first novel to work on something different. And what happens when I finished the first draft of Peacefield? Well, I’d need some time away from that as well. So I could spend the fall working on the second draft of Strays. And when that was done, I could spend the winter working on the second draft of Peacefield. It would mean that by the end of March 2016, I would have completed 4 novel drafts, and have a lot more experience writing novels than I currently heave
So the challenge becomes: can I write four complete novel drafts in the next year? Given that I have had no trouble writing every day for the last 600+ days, I don’t see why not. The time commitment and my ability to write every day is not a factor. What is a factor is trying to learn how to write a novel. The only way to do that is to get started.
Here is the schedule I put together for myself. I’m using my birthday as a kind of rough starting point, simply because it’s coming and it is conveniently close to the beginning of spring:
- Strays (1st draft): March 27, 2015 – June 27, 2015 (90,000 words)
- Peacefield (1st draft): June 28, 2015 – September 28, 2015 (90,000 words)
- Strays (2nd draft): September 29, 2015 – December 29, 2015 (90,000 words)
- Peacefield (2nd draft): December 30, 2015 – March 30, 2016 (90,000 words)
360,000 words is not farfetched, considering I wrote 311,000 words in 2014, and I’m trying to up my daily goal by 150 words/day. But other things sometimes get in the way. So I am also scaling back on things that shorten the amount that I write each day. I plan on attending only a single science fiction convention in the next 12 months (RavenCon, coming up next month). I plan on strictly limiting the number of guest posts that I do, and anything that takes an usual amount of time to prepare for. Professionally, the next 12 months are all about learning how to write a novel by writing 4 novel drafts.
Any time I sit down to write, I am putting forth my best effort. The schedule allows me to send out the second draft of Strays to beta-readers while I spend 3 months working on the second draft of Peacefield. Still, at the end of the next 12 months, I expect to have two completed second drafts, one for Strays and one for Peacefield. After some time to work in suggestions from beta-readers and produce a clean final draft of each manuscript, I think the result will be 2 novels that I can look to sell (or for which I can seek representation).
Does this mean they will sell? Absolutely not. Just like a player who hits .350 in triple-A, there is no guarantee that a call-up will follow. Luck is always a factor (a guy gets injured, a guy gets traded), as is timing. Quality is a factor as well, and just because I’ve got two final drafts does not mean they meet the standards for publication.
However, right now, the only outcome I am seeking is to build experience writing novels. That is, as I see it, the only way to learn and improve. At the end of the next 12 months, I’ll be able to say, “Hey, I’ve written a total of 5 novel drafts for 3 different novels.”
And hey, what about the novel draft that I finished in 2013 and proposed to write the second draft this year? For now, I’ve given up on it. I still think that the idea is good, and I like the characters and the setting, but I don’t believe I have yet developed the tools to make it work the way I want it to work. In other words, I need more practice. I hope to get some by attempting four novel drafts in the next 12 months.
Of course, I’ll post updates along the way, and you can follow along with day-to-day progress over at open.jamierubin.net if you are interested.