Category: Lab Book for a Novel

Lab Book for a Novel, Day 8: The Voice and POV Dance

It has been a few days since my last post. I’d been traveling for work, and spent much of the weekend working as well so writing the last few days has been minimal. Yesterday was Day 8, and through Day 8, I am 811 words ahead of pace. That sounds good, but things are a bit deceiving, and this is where setting a daily writing goal can be problematic.

Although I’ve written 4,800 words, only the most recent 1,700 are part of the novel now. The other 3,100 words have been tossed because they weren’t right. (They weren’t deleted, as I don’t delete, but they have been crossed out in the manuscript. So despite having averaged 600 words per day over the first 8 days of writing, I have only 1,700 words of acceptably story to show for it.

You see the flaw in a plan like this, right?

Fortunately, for me, this is fairly common at the beginning of a story. I stumble around a lot trying to find the right point of view from which to tell the story, and trying to find the right voices for that point of view. I started in first person, thinking that was how I wanted to tell it, but quickly realized that wouldn’t work, at least, not for the entire story. There are things the reader needs to know that the viewpoint character doesn’t know, and that is hard to do in first person without some kind of special talent, like telepathy, which this particular character does not have.

So I switched to third person, and rewrote. But I struggle more with voice in third person than I do in first. Moreover, I decided that I was going to move between characters, although never within a scene. So I needed to come up with distinct voices for each of the character viewpoints thus far.

Finally, I couldn’t figure out where best to start the story. I think I mentioned that it takes place in two distinct time periods separated by about 60 years. I tried starting at the beginning (in the earlier time period), but couldn’t seem to get to the heart of the matter quickly enough. The sense of overall urgency in the story was lacking. So I tried again, this time from the latter time period. That seemed to work better. Yesterday (my best day so far) I wrote 1,700 words covering the first two scenes, and I think I have things finally going the way I want them.

As one who does not outline (pantser instead of plotter), I also finally have a sense of the general direction the story is going. Right now it looks like there will be three overarching “parts” to the novel. The first and last will take place in the latter time period, with the middle part (a fairly big part, I think) taking place in the past.

I haven’t written yet today, but I know what comes next, and I am eager to write it, and that is always a good sign.

This difference between how much writing I do toward the first draft, and how much stays in the first draft is tricky, however. If I am aiming for a 90,000 word first draft, it is completely conceivable that I’d write 100,000 words or more, only 90,000 of which end up in the draft. To that end, I’ve added another element to my logbook for my novel. This is a green bar. Each day, that bar will indicate a cumulative count of how much of what I written is in the first draft. Stuff that I’ve cut won’t show up in this measurement. As of today, therefore, things look like this:

Introducing the green "draft total" bar.
Introducing the green “draft total” bar.

I expect to get in some decent writing this week, and over the weekend. Next week I am traveling again, so we’ll see how things go.

Lab Book for a Novel, Day 3: Reading While Writing

More than 24 hours passed between my second and third writing session, but still three days in a row. I wrote yesterday early in the morning, before 5 am. Today, I just finished my day’s writing at almost 7 pm. I managed 620 words, so that’s three days above my 500 words/day quota. Today’s writing felt a little choppy–I felt like I was throwing a little too much out there at once. But I resisted the temptation to go back and change anything,. Right now I just need to keep moving forward.

On the plane out to L.A. I finished re-reading On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft by Stephen King. I think I’ve read this book 7 times now. It is the only book on writing I have ever read and found value in. I re-read it now and then for inspiration, especially when starting something new.

Having finished it on the plane, I needed something else to read, so I started reading Mary Robinette Kowal‘s The Calculating Stars. I stopped reading science fiction several years back, not for any particular reason. I just wanted to read other things, mostly nonfiction, but other types of fiction as well. But I will be attending Capclave next month, and it seemed like I should have read something recent in the genre, especially since I will be on panels there.

The book, so far, is amazing. I’m always impressed when writers do a good job at something technical. One of the main characters in Mary’s book is a pilot, and as a former pilot myself, I was impressed with Mary’s descriptions of flying. But the story is very good, too, and therein lies a problem for me.

When I am writing a story, I really can’t read fiction. I usually avoid it. But Mary’s book is so good that I just have to keep reading. And I suspect, by the time I finish it (maybe tomorrow on the plane home) that I’ll want to jump right into The Fated Sky, sequel to The Calculating Stars.

All of this is to say that Mary’s book is very, very good. So good, that I am breaking my own rule of avoiding reading fiction while I am writing fiction. The rule exists not so much because I am afraid what I am writing will be influenced by what I am reading. Instead, I worry that, given my limited time, I will choose to read her novel instead of work on my own. It’s fine to skip a day here or there, but if I start to skip too much, I start to lose the continuing of what I am writing.

In any case, three days into my own novel, I’ve got about 2,500 words written, and I think I might be closing in on the end of the first chapter. I don’t know how other writers think in terms of chapters. I generally write and number scenes, but as I go, I get sense that several scenes fit together in a collection that is properly called a chapter, and that is how I label them. I think chapter one will be done tomorrow or maybe Friday.

Lab Book for a Novel, Day 2: Early Concerns

I was so tired yesterday, after not sleeping much the night before and being up early for my flight to L.A., that as soon as I finished writing, I crawled into my hotel bed at about 6:45 pm and collapsed. That meant that I was up early, despite getting 9 hours of sleep. So before heading into the office, I took advantage of the time to get in some writing.

I added the second scene to the novel, just shy of 1,000 words. I jumped viewpoints in this scene, and am set to do so again in the next scene, before jumping back to the original view point in scene 4. As many of my stories are first person, third person is harder for me. As I write, I worry that the different view points are not distinct enough from one another. In other words, instead of having to find the right voice for the story–which is always the hard part for me at the beginning–I have to find the right voices. And those voices need to be distinct enough from one another so that they come across as different people.

My other worry is that the story is interesting enough to keep a reader’s attention. This is a slippery slope for me. In the past, I worry about this too much and end up going back and starting things over to find what I think is a more interesting approach. I do this again and again and write a lot but make little real progress. I am trying to learn from that here, and I keep reminding myself that this is the first draft, and until it is finished, no one but me is going to see it. Let me just get the story down and I can decide if it is interesting enough to hold a reader (and make it more interesting, if needed) in the second draft.

It did feel good to get in my quota (and then some) before my day even gets started. I’m eager to write the next couple of scenes, and that is always a good sign. There’s a chance I’ll get some more writing in this evening, but for now, after two days, the score is about 1,800 words written compared to 1,000 words of baseline. So I’m nearly 2 days ahead of schedule at this point. That’s a good way to start.

Lab Book for a Novel: Day 1

Today has been a long day. I was up at 4:30 am and caught an early flight to Los Angeles. I then spent my afternoon working, checked into my hotel, and had an early dinner with an eye toward getting to bed early.

After dinner, however, I took advantage of the large balcony my hotel room has, with a few that overlooks the Pacific Ocean a few blocks south. I sat on one of the recliners with my laptop on my lap, and wrote the first words of the new novel.

Santa Monica, CA: A nice place to start the novel.
Santa Monica, CA: A nice place to start the novel.

I wrote the first complete scene of the novel, which came in at a little over 850 words. Getting started is always a little tough for me. With respect to this story, I have a couple of challenges:

  • I’m never comfortable until I find the right voice. Many of my stories are first person and it is much easier for me to find a voice when writing first person. However, this story is not first person.
  • While I initially thought the story could be told in first person, I’ve come to think that the storyline is complicated enough to warrant a third person telling. This could change in the second draft. But for now, I am following Jack Reacher’s example: Never Go Back.

Before dozing off to sleep last night, I jotted down 4 things that I wanted to get through in the first part of the story. It’s possible that these four things (two or three words each) represent the first four chapters of the story. It’s possible they are the first four scenes. What matter for now is that my headlight is bright enough at the moment for me to see what amounts to four moves ahead. I’ll worry about what comes next as I learn more about these characters and their stories.

I am interested in how this all evolves, so when I finish for the day, I’m putting the date (in square brackets) at the end of the last thing I wrote for the day. That gives me a little bit of history on the evolution of the first draft.

So, despite being tired, I feel good about this initial session. And it was nice to get in more than the quota for the day. I can build up a little savings for those days when I just can’t find the time to get in the full word count.

Me after my first day on the new novel
Me, after my first day on the new novel.

Lab Book for a Novel: My Toolkit

To complete the picture of where I am as I start out writing this novel, it’s probably useful to discuss the tools I plan on using.

Coming Full Circle

Back when I started to write and submit stories, I used Microsoft Word 5.5. for DOS. I was in college and using an IBM PC, and that was what was available. I loved it. I have been searching for a word processor as simple and useful as Word for DOS 5.5 ever since. I’ve tried just about every word processor out there. I’ve used Scrivener and Google Docs, I’ve used text editors like Atom and ViM.

Many of these have been incredibly useful—especially Scrivener and Google Docs. But I’ve also learned some lessons over the years, the most important of which is that I need a tool that doesn’t take a lot of care and feeding, one I can just open and start writing in. I spent enormous amounts of time with Google Docs and Scrivener tweaking them, customizing them to get them the way I wanted, and then continuing to tweak them. I created templates for them and added automations to make tasks easier. With text editors like Atom and ViM, I wrote using Markdown and wrote scripts that converted those documents to standard manuscript format. All of this took time, and that it was time that I should have been writing. I was putting the cart before the horse. Worry first about writing, and later about formatting.

Indeed, that is one of the things I really liked about the old Word for DOS. I didn’t worry much about formatting. I wrote and then printed and was done.

Well, I have come full circle. I am back to using Microsoft Word, although the latest model. I was struck by something I read in Reacher Said Nothing: Lee Child and the Making of Make Me by Andy Martin. Martin shadowed Lee Child during the writing of the Jack Reacher novel Make Me. On the day Child started the novel, Martin wrote:

So, I’m behind him. And [Child] is there in front of the computer. I’m trying to keep quiet. Like a mouse if not quite a fly on the wall.

“I’m opening a file here. Microsoft Word doc… Now I move it to the middle of the screen.”

He was talking me through it like some kind of surgical operation. “I always use Arial. To begin with, anyway. And ten point. I get more on the page. But I crank it up to 150 percent to save my eyes.”

Here is a bestselling writer of thrillers, and all he does is start up Word, and start writing. It occurred to me that many bestselling writers probably do it this way. They don’t worry about what other tools might be out there and how they can tweak them to make things easier. They just open a new document and start writing. They are professionals.

I took this to heart. I have been using Word in exactly this way for the last several months. Even this blog post was first written in Word. I open up a blank document and use the default template right out of the box. I worry about the formatting when all of the writing is done.

Other tools

Since I’m using Microsoft Word, I save all of my files in Office 365. That way they are accessible from anywhere. If I am away from my laptop, I can work on a document on my iPad or iPhone. I dump all of my files in a single Documents folder, but I use the file Tags feature on my Mac to tag files (“fiction”, “essays”, “letters”, “notes”) and have saved searches for each of these.

Of course, I always have a Field Notes notebook in my pocket, and when an idea strikes me, I try to scribble it down there as quickly as possible so that I don’t lose it. I might not use the idea, but I hate losing them. The Field Notes notebooks have been a big help there.

On a shelf behind my laptop in my office, I have Merriam Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (Eleventh Edition), Fowler’s Dictionary of Modern Usage, 2019 World Almanac, and The Elements of Style by Strunk and White.

Logbook for a Novel

As a way to track my progress, I have put together a “logbook for a novel,” a Google spreadsheet that I can manually update each day in order to chart my progress against my targets and goals. A version with some sample data (the blue line) is below.

Logbook for a novel
My Logbook for a novel

So, a word processor, a place to store files, a pocket notebook, a few reference books, and a spreadsheet—I think that’s all I really need to get started. Tomorrow, I have an early flight to L.A. for work, and so I plan to start actually writing this thing either at the airport or on the plane. I’ll post about how things go tomorrow once the writing is done for the day.

Lab Book for a Novel: Process, Targets and Goals

The Little Man is learning about the scientific method in school: making observations, asking a question, forming a hypothesis, making predictions, testing prediction, wash, rinse, repeat. Writing this novel, while not a perfect fit for the scientific method, certainly borrows from it. Observations I have made in the past when attempting to write at length have led to several questions. These include: Can I write well at length? Can I create a story that holds a reader through 100,000 words, and make them want more when it is all over?

I am generally a pantser—one who writes by the seat of his pants, without planning much beyong where I am in the story. Stephen King has likened this method of writing to digging up a fossil, revealing a bit at a time, until eventually, the whole thing is there for you to look at. I have also heard this described as a “headlight” method of writing: writing in the dark, with a headlight which allows you only to see a few steps ahead at any time.

This method has worked well for me with short fiction. In fact, I have sold every piece of short fiction I wrote using this method and sold exactly none of the pieces I plotted out in advance. That is well and good for short fiction, but I am becoming more skeptical that it works for me with longer fiction. My hypothesis, therefore, would be: If I blended my methods, mixing plotting and pantsing, I could write and finish a novel length story that keeps both me and readers interested throughout.

It is important to me to keep the story fresh for me. If it dulls on me while I write it, it certainly will dull on readers and that makes me losing interest in telling the story. Returning to the headlight analogy, perhaps if I set out waypoints, close enough that I know what direction they are in, but far enough away that I still need my headlight to find my way there, I’ll write a better story. This prediction is certainly testable, both in terms of the process and the output. Subsequent drafts allow me to iterate through this prediction and testing phase.

But what is the story? If you follow along with this lab book, it would be difficult to have the right context without knowing something about the story I am trying to write. And yet, I can’t talk about (or write about) the story specifics without losing the desire to write the story. In this regard, I am reminded of Ken Lui’s excellent novella, “The Man Who Ended History: A Documentary” In that story, it was possible to witness past events, but doing so consumed the ability to witness it again. Once I tell a story, whether describing it to a friend, or typing it into the keyboard, I seem to lose my desire and ability to tell that same story again.

What I can tell you is this:

  • Like the last several stories I sold, this novel features baseball as an important thread.
  • The story takes place across two distinct time periods separated by about 60 years.
  • Like “Gemma Barrows Comes to Cooperstown” (IGMS, May 2015), the story, while centered around professional baseball, is really not about baseball as much as the effect the game had over the course of one person’s life… and its potential effect on civilization as a whole.
  • There is an element of the fantastic to the story, but I won’t say any more than that right now.

This is how I think of the story, now, at least. I’ll try to come back to this when the first draft is finished and see how that matches up to what I said here. Often, the story finds its own path as I write.

I learned through a lot of trial an error that I need a good beginning and a good ending to get started. These provide anchoring points, and while they may change over the course of a story, I need them to get started to know where I am going. In this case, I have 9 “waypoints” that I’ve marked out along the way to help me across what I imagine will be at least 90,000 words of storytelling. I am hopeful that these waypoints will keep me on track. Unlike short stories, where I have a pretty good sense of ending when I start out, for this one, I have only a vague sense of the ending. This could be good or bad. I’m going to take it as good. 90,000 words is long way from beginning to end and a lot can happen. Better to keep some slack in the line.

It would be good to have a schedule. That’s tough. I can’t guarantee I’ll be able to write every day, given work and family obligations. I have no problem writing for 10 minutes here or there, but 10 minutes one day, no writing the next, and 2 hours the day after that makes it tough to come up with a schedule. So, I’m taking a page from my project management experience, and looking at past history. In 2013, when I wrote my first novel draft, I started at the end of the February and finished mid-September of that year. Call it six months, or 180 days. 95,000 words divided by 180 days comes to an average of 527 words/day. Let’s round it down to 500 words/day on average.

If I start in the next couple of days, I should finish in 180 days. Monday, September 23 is the first day of fall. Seems like as good a date as any to target as a start date. At 500 words/day that would give me an end date of March 21, 2020.

In project management, there is usually some contingency built in. Let’s call it 10%, or 9,000 words. 9,000/500 = 18 days of contingency. There may be some days I am not able to write at all. There are also vacations, busy work scheduled, etc. Of course, on other days I may write more than 500 words, but let’s factor in the contingency to plan for the unexpected. Adding 18 days to March 21, 2020 we get April 8, 2020.

I will aim to have the first draft of this novel finished on Wednesday, April 8, 2020.

Again, this is a baseline that we can come back to in April and see how things are going. If I am off, we can investigate why.

We now have the baselines for this experiment of mine:

  • Target length: 90,000 words
  • Target start date: Monday, September 23, 2019
  • Daily goal: 500 words
  • Contingency: 10% (9,000 words, or 18 days)
  • Target completion date: Wednesday, April 8, 2020

And yes, all of these stats are tracked and captured in a Google Spreadsheet (called my “Logbook for a Novel”) which I will talk about tomorrow when I talk about my tools for this project.

Of course, the first draft of a novel is only one part. What about after? Well, I’m not ready to plan that far ahead. One step at time, as the saying goes. I’ll worry about the second draft after I have a completed first draft.

Lab Book for a Novel: My Credentials

As I start on this novel, I think it is important to know where I am in my writing career. What follows is a brief summary.

  • I started writing and submitting stories to magazines while a junior in college in early 1993.
  • After 14 years of writing stories and submitting them to (mostly) science fiction magazines, I made my first sale to Orson Scott Card’s Intergalactic Medicine Show in late 2006, with the story appearing in July 2007.
  • After that, story sales came more readily. I sold stories to Apex, Analog, and an Italian e-book publisher, 40K Books. I also sold stories to some original anthologies.
  • I also started writing some nonfiction. Thanks in large part to this blog (on which I have been writing since late 2005) I honed my skills and in particular, my voice at nonfiction writing. I was asked to write two editorials for Analog. I’ve written nonfiction articles for Lightspeed and Clarkesworld. I wrote a book review column for Intergalactic Medicine Show. I had a technology column for The Daily Beast and I’ve written for 99U, Fatherly, and other magazines.

Just about all of this writing, I should emphasize, has been professional writing, in that I was paid professional rates for both the fiction and nonfiction.

My last published story, “Gemma Barrows Comes to Cooperstown,” was published in IGMS in 2015. Not long after that, my third child was born, and my time and ability to write dwindled down to nothing for a while.

In 2013, at the peak of my writing, I wrote my first novel. I wrote it for two reasons: I had a story I liked, and I wanted to see if I could do it. I’d always thought of myself as a short fiction writer, and I’ve always been impressed by colleagues and friends who have written many novels, published or not. To be completely honest, I wanted to be able to say that I had written a novel, even if it was an exercise. After all, that’s how I learned to tell a story: by doing.

I started writing the novel on February 28, 2013 and finished on September 14, 2013. The novel was 95,000 words long. It was a messy process, and though I started a second draft, it never got far, and I abandoned the story as several useful months of practice.

I joined the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of American (SFWA) after selling my first story and became a full active member after selling my third. I am still an active member today, although I don’t participate in either the mechanics or the voting for Nebulas. I just don’t have time, and I only read science fiction very rarely these days, so it wouldn’t be fair for me to vote on things that I haven’t read. I have done almost no fiction writing since 2015, save one short story in first draft form. I really like the story, but I’ve set it aside for a time because sometimes, I need to do that. This is where things stand for me as I start this new novel. I include this preface because everyone is at a different place in their writing career. Some people start writing a novel having never written fiction in their lives before. Others are writing their 40th bestseller. My progress, failures, and successes along the way are at least somewhat influenced by where I am in my writing career today. This should be taken into consideration for those readers following along: you may be at a different point in your career than I am, so your mileage may vary.

Lab Book for a Novel

I recently mentioned on Twitter that I have started writing again. I stopped writing for several reasons, but the most important one was that I wasn’t sure what I wanted to write anymore. Moreover, with all of the good writing out there today, I wasn’t sure if what I wrote would make much of an impact. But my desire to write was stronger than my concern over impact, so here I am, writing again.

But what to write? For years now, I’ve had the idea for what I think is a novel-length story. The story has challenged me. I’ve started it many times, and it has always stymied me. I can’t quite figure out the right way to tell it. I can’t quite figure out the right voice for the narrator. But I think it is a good story, an entertaining one, one worth trying to tell.

I have only ever written one novel. In 2013, I wrote the first draft of a science fiction novel. It was the one and only novel have ever written. It never made it out of first draft. It was a kind of spring training. I needed to know if I could carry a story through 90,000 words, and I managed to that, although I’m not sure how interesting or entertaining the story really is. If nothing else, however, the experience taught me that I could write at length.

Earlier in my day job career as a programmer, I occasionally encountered tough coding problems. I’d pick around the edges of these problems for days or weeks, until finally, one day, I’d come into the office and say to myself, “I’m not budging from this chair until I’ve got this problem under control.” Something about the mental state that put me in almost always worked. With a high degree of focus, I was able to accomplish more than I thought I could.

That is what this lab book for a novel is all about.

I have decided to write this novel. I have decided to give it the kind of focus that has helped me solve problems in the past. And I have decided to write about the experience of writing a novel not just to add focus, but with the idea that it might be useful to other people who are trying to do the same thing. I call these posts my “Lab Book” for a novel because I think of them the way I think of my old lab books from science classes and labs. I had a science teacher who taught me that a good lab book records everything, successes as well as failures. By going through a lab book, another scientist should be able to reproduce the results. That may not work perfectly for writers, because writing is not an exact science, but maybe it will prove helpful.

This is not a “how-to” guide for writing a novel. I’d be wary of any such thing. Instead, this lab book is a description of how one writer—me—went about writing one particular novel, with all of the frustrations and successes therein. I think it is just as important to record mistakes and frustrations as it is progress.

Last night, at my writers’ group, I was talking with some other writers about how hard it is for me to explain the problems I run into when writing a story. First, it is very hard to complain to non-writers. I suspect to many non-writers, writing looks easy and it is anything but, at least for me. Second, it is almost as hard for me to talk with writers about the problems I have writing because I don’t like discussing what I am writing while I am writing it. For one thing, we all know writers who are eager to tell anyone within earshot all about the plot of the novel they are working on. I can’t do that because I don’t know the plot—only know a little more than what I have written. For another, rehashing my story dulls it in my mind, and makes me less excited to write about it.

It occurred to me last night, however, that one solution may be a lab book like this. I can write about problems I’m having with a story without writing about the story. Or I can just plain vent, and other writers will know that these things happen to all of us. I can write about good days and bad, and provide context to why they were good and bad. I can write about what happens after I finish, assuming, of course, I do finish.

Don’t expect a lab book post every day. That would be asking too much of myself. However, I will write them as frequently as I am able and try to identify situations in which I think the posts will be most illustrative of my process. I will include a “Day #” in each post title, so that those following along know how long I’ve been working on the novel. I’m sure it will evolve as I go along.

Expect a handful of baseline posts over the next few days. Any real lab book should set a baseline so that people referring to it know the conditions at the start of the experiment. To that end, I plan to post on the following baseline topics over the next few days:

  • My writing credentials and experience up to this point.
  • A very general description of the story I want to write, including some targets like length. This is won’t be a description of the plot, but a sentence or two that gives some context for the story.
  • The tools I plan to use to write the story.
  • A few words on my writing process so far. I may experiment from what I am used to as part of this process in order to make it a success, but I think it is important to know how I have worked in the past in order to see if any of the deviations I make this time around prove helpful or harmful.

With those prefatory posts out of the way, I’ll start writing, and the day I start I’ll mark as Day 1. We’ll go from there.

Comments and questions are encouraged along the way. I learn best through practical exercises. I learned how to tell short stories by writing a lot of them. I imagine the same is true for telling longer stories. Readers’ questions and comments not only help me, but may help others who stumble along this lab book.

All of these posts will be categorized under Lab Book for a Novel, so if you want to follow along with just these posts, and not have them cluttered by other things I write here, the category is available for that.