The Power of the Ugly Draft: How I Wrote a Novel in 22 Days

I just wrote 60K words in three weeks and no one is more surprised than me! We are 22 days into NaNoWriMo and this morning I typed “THE END” on the first draft of my third novel, Weirfall: The Timekeepers’ War Book 3.

Figuring out my process as a writer has taken years of fumbling and frustration. My first novel, The Timekeepers’ War took nearly ten years to get from concept to published manuscript. Not only is is the first book I have every published, it was the first book I ever wrote. There are not many authors who get to see their first novels published, and I am forever grateful to be one of them.

It wasn’t easy. My drafting process was painfully slow and I ended up having to cut 50K words from my first bloated over-written draft. I made a lot of mistakes. I am still making mistakes. And every time I make a mistake I learn something new.

So how did I go from writing one book in ten years to writing a book in less than a month? Here is what has worked for me:

  • Plan ahead
  • Study craft
  • Let go of perfectionism
  • Make time

Plan for Success

Whether or not you consider yourself a plotter, a pantser, or a something in between, having some kind of a plan is going to make your life easier.

I have always been a bit of a pantser. Drafting is like “flying by the seat of my pants.” One of the reasons my first book took so long from start to finish is that I didn’t really know what my story was about. I floated through plot ideas, exploring hundreds of possibilities, and struggling to connect the dots in a cohesive way.

Exploratory writing is great. Many people find a lot of joy in this process. But if you really want to finish a book, you will benefit from having a plan. It doesn’t have to be a detailed scene-by-scene breakdown with character backstories and 100K of world-building files cluttering up your desktop. At the very least, you should learn how to outline a novel.

I resisted planning and outlining for years before I finally read a book that made everything click. If you like to plan, you probably already have a favourite craft book. But for those of you who really don’t want to let go of the explosive creative joy of pantsering your way through a draft, I highly recommend K.M. Weiland’s Outlining Your Novel.

Weiland showed me how to put all my exploratory creative energy into the outlining process, so that the drafting process became faster and more organized. You won’t lose any of your creative mojo, I promise. You will save time and effort with a good plan.

Outlining Your Novel by K.M. Weiland is a life saver!

Study Your Craft

Learning how to outline is a great segue into learning the basics of story structure. I have always been a great lover of story. I read a lot, and I read widely. I have a good instinctual sense for when stories feel “right.” Many writers are like this.

Somehow, for me, this did not translate into a strong working knowledge of story structure. How to properly structure a novel is something that I have had to learn. I spent hours re-structuring my first book after realizing that I’d gotten the pacing all wrong.

I re-wrote my second book three different times before I realized I had messed up the overall structure of the trilogy and was trying to jump too far ahead of myself with book two.

Studying writing craft can be intimidating. There are thousands of books and courses available that purport to teach you how to write “the right way.” I recommend avoiding all of the nitty gritty details of line editing at first. Don’t worry too much about show vs. tell or grammar or fillers and filters. First, you have to get the structure and the character arc in the right place.

I recommend Save the Cat Writes a Novel by Jessica Brody and The Writer’s Journey by Christopher Vogler, both of which use screenwriting techniques to help writers understand universal principles of story telling, using examples from popular culture that are accessible and easy to understand.

K.M. Weiland’s Structuring your Novel and Creating Character Arcs were indispensable next steps in my own craft study. I find Weiland’s work extremely well organized and easy to cross reference. Creating Character Arcs saved my bacon when I got off track drafting book three. I read each relevant chapter as I was drafting and used the character arc to drive me through my plot points when I felt I was wandering. I am confident that my third book will be my best yet, simply because I put character development front and centre.

With a better understanding of structure, a solid outline in place, and a stronger sense of Ghost’s character arc, writing Weirfall has been a dream in comparison to my struggles with the first two books.

Let Go of Perfectionism

If you want to be a great writer, you have to stop trying to be a good writer. Let go of perfectionism. Let yourself be messy and make mistakes. Write badly. Dump all of your ideas on the page, even if they sound stupid.

A badly written but complete first draft will make your revisions faster and easier. It seems counter intuitive, I know. But all those poorly written sentences–rife with cliches and repetition and placeholders for words you couldn’t think of–act as a memory trigger when you come back to your second draft work. If you have stuck to your outline and have a decent macro-structure in place, revisions will be a piece of cake.

You didn’t waste time getting the imagery perfect in the first draft, but you didn’t lost any of your wonderful ideas, either. Now that you have time to play with the language, you can decide which images to keep and perfect, and which are no longer necessary. You can replace your telling with showing where you want the reader to linger and you can cut the over-written filler where you need to speed things up.

The best part is, you can do this without shedding any tears as you “kill your darlings,” because you haven’t spent hours and hours perfecting and getting emotionally attached to beautiful sentences that simply don’t fit.

Once your structure is in place and your draft is complete, you can add to your craft knowledge with books like Techniques of the Selling Writer by Dwight Swain. There are hundreds of great craft books out there. Swain’s Techniques is my favourite, even if it’s a little old-fashioned, particularly for the genre fiction writer. He taught me about the evils of simultaneity and how it killed my pacing in book one. The way he breaks down sentence and scene structure completely changed they way I write.

But you can’t edit a blank page, as they say. And you have to let go of you perfectionism if you want to finish that draft.

Make Time to Write

One of the most common complaints I hear from other writers is that it is impossible to find time to write. There is this idea that you have to sit down at your computer and slave for 8-12 hours a day in order to finish a book in any kind of reasonable time.

This is a lie!

I wrote a 60K novel in 22 days writing for 2 hours a day.

Finding an “extra” two hours a day isn’t necessarily easy. I wake up at 4am every day in order to get my hours in before the rest of the house wakes up. Then, for the rest of the day I am home-schooling three kids, bookkeeping for our trucking company, writing blog posts, updating social media, and doing my business writing (aka the “real job”). I am in bed by 9:30pm every day.

Whether you are an early bird or a night owl, finding time at the beginning or end of your day is usually the easiest. Be sure to either go to bed earlier, or let yourself sleep later, so that you aren’t sacrificing sleep. If that’s not possible, perhaps you have to write on your lunch break. Whatever works for you, what is important is sticking to it.

Have a schedule. Sit down and write whether you “feel like it” or not. You are not waiting for inspiration, you are writing because you have a plan. You will learn to make your muse come to you. The more frequently you write, the easier it gets.

Last year, when I did NaNoWriMo it was my first “win.” I spent 3-4 hrs every day fighting against my internal editor to get the necessary 1667 words a day to hit 50K in November. That draft, after two months of revisions and edits, become Ghostlights: The Timekeepers’ War Book Two.

This year, I wrote 2-3K a day in a 2hr window without breaking a sweat. The early morning quite probably helped. More than anything, though, keeping a regular schedule helped my brain jump into productivity mode that much faster each day. In the end, I was flying through my words faster than I’ve ever written before.

So, That’s How I Wrote a 60K Novel in Three Weeks

Is it pretty? No. But it has potential to be. In another 20 days I will have Weirfall revised and ready for beta readers. I will have finished Book Three before Ghostlights is even released. This is the publishing schedule I could only dream of when I started this journey more than a decade ago.

There are novelists who blow my productivity out of the water. I aspire to release 6 books a year some day. After my success with outlining and ugly drafting last year, and recreating that success this year, I’m ready to commit to a more rigorous writing schedule.

Doubtless I have more mistakes to make and hurdles to drag myself over, but I’m ready to handle it.

Conclusion

What is your biggest hurdle in drafting and revising your work? Do you think any of these tips could help you take your process to the next level? Let me know in the comments!

Interview: Uniweb Productions with S.C. Jensen

Last week I was interviewed by Matt Whiteside of the UniWeb Interview Show about my novel The Timekeepers’ War, my publishing journey (so far), and my own creative process. It was a really fun time, if you can’t tell from all of the laughing. We had some technical difficulties and had to re-do sections of the interview a bunch of times, but Matt did a great job editing it into something cohesive.

Please click the link to view the video in YouTube. For some reason videos embedded into WordPress pages don’t count toward the channels views, and it would help Matt launch his UniWeb Productions channel to have more action over there. Don’t forget to like, share, and comment, especially if you have read The Timekeepers’ War and want to leave me some feedback!

Matt also has a ton of amazing content on his blog Seeking Purpose Today. I highly recommend following him and seeing what he’s up to: from motivational writing and discussion of addiction and recovery, to author interviews, dramatic readings of his own and other’s work, and an experimental “Choose Your Own Adventure” story that anyone can contribute to!

Of course, I’d love to hear your thoughts right here on Sarah Does Sci-Fi, too!

Writing, Hair-pulling, and Rewriting

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No, this is not a sexy new sub-genre of erotica.

I am working on my second novel, Book 2 in The Timekeepers’ War trilogy. The manuscript has been 80% completed for ages, but I keep running into snags. I had a development editor look at it, and she pointed out a few things that were definitely bogging me down, so I went back and restructured and rewrote half of it and I was feeling much better about it. And yet, there was still something missing. I couldn’t seem to avoid big chunks of exposition, forced dialogue, and backstory crammed in all over the place, and it was seriously affecting the pacing.

Well, folks. I started reading Outlining Your Novel by K.M. Weiland, thinking it would help me tackle this problem in a new way. I have been a pantser, as in I write “by the seat of my pants,” for the entirety of my writing career. Every excuse for why plotting and planning wasn’t for me has probably passed my lips. But lets just have a look at the data…

I had to cut over 50K words from my MS and completely restructure it to address placing issues with Book One. Now, I’m going through something similar with Book Two. I have done a lot of work studying flash fiction and short story form and practicing the craft as well as the art of writing short form fiction, and my writing has improved exponentially with a little structure…

I’m starting to doubt the wisdom of my hippy-dippy muses.

Reading Weiland’s book triggered a horrific realization for me. I have been writing the wrong book. What I have been trying to write as Book 2 in my trilogy is actually Book 3. I tried to skip too far ahead in my own story and was using exposition and backstory to catch up the readers when really, I needed to “show not tell” what has happened between Book One and my current manuscript.

So I have set that MS aside and outlined an entirely new Book Two, and one that makes a whole lot more sense at this point in the trilogy. If you are new to outlining and want to give it a try, I highly recommend Weiland’s book! It is accessible, and it addresses all of those niggling fears we pantsers have about the rigidity of plotting. I’m still not the kind of writer who has spreadsheets full of every detail of their character’s lives right down to their favourite flavour of ice-cream. But Weiland’s techniques allowed me to build and organic outlining method that still lets me tap into the joys of discovery writing while making sure that I have a road map to follow as I write my story. Her method even makes room for exploration of theme and imagery, something that I always add into my writing anyway, and demonstrates how to use the outline to strengthen these aspects of your story.

So, sadly, I have put aside nearly 70K words and another 20K of rewrites to tackle a brand new book. That is both exciting and sad. The bright side is that much of what I have written will still be usable because I still need to tell that part of the story. And all of the time I spent immersed in the world of The Timekeepers has certainly not been wasted.

I have set a stretch goal for myself to write 1500 words a day on this MS until I get the first draft done. Ideally, I would like to have it ready for revisions in three months.

The other thing I’m struggling with is the urge to go back and apply what I have learned about outlining and structure to Book One. I haven’t had any negative feedback about it yet, but I can see how much stronger The Timekeepers’ War could be if I had known some of these things five years ago. But that’s a project for after Book Three is completed, I guess. I might rewrite Book One and release all three within a nine month period. Dream big!

For those of you who have read and loved The Timekeepers’ War, don’t worry. I won’t add anything new to the plot so you won’t need to reread it (unless you’re curious or just want a refresher!) But I might cut some of the excess–there is still a lot of excess even after my initial fat trimming job–and make those sub-stories into short stories, novellas, and other bonus material for fans.

I’m deep into writing mode, but I will try to keep up with my short story challenges and submissions, too. And I’m going to set aside one day a week to catch up on the other wordpress blogs I follow and my “Thoughts on reading and writing SF”

 

Moving Forward, Together

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So, I know you’re a just about as tired of my bi-annual “sorry I haven’t posted in a while” posts as I am. But I am sorry, and I am trying to figure out how I can make this better for you and for me.

I’m thinking that I’d like to split my posts between three topics I enjoy:

  1. Writing Craft – posts about how to improve your writing, posts about people who write well (and why) etc.
  2. Broadening Horizons – focusing on marginalized writers or characters through book recommendations, reviews, and literary analysis, especially regarding Sci-Fi and speculative fiction
  3. Flash Fiction spotlights – sharing my own and other’s flash fiction pieces (under 1500 words) to get people reading and share new writers with all of you

These regular topics will be peppered with posts on my personal publishing journey, hopefully with some insight that will help those of you who are hoping to embark on a similar path.

So. I will be working on a series of posts of my own that fit within this framework. But I will also be seeking guest posts from book reviewers, authors, enthusiasts, and critics from all stages in their career. If you have something you’d like to share with “Sarah Does Sci-Fi” please do (you can comment here, message me on FB, or email me at scj3ns3n@gmail.com)

I’d like this page to operate as a cooperative of writers moreso than just a space for my own thoughts. Please don’t hesitate to suggest post ideas, too, even if you don’t feel qualified to write them! What do you want to see in this space?

 

Update: Children of Bathora

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Ahhh, editing. That wonderful time in your novel’s life when you must juggle wild elation and crippling self-doubt while trying to stay sane…

I’m excited to report that the editing of The Children of Bathora is going well. After discussions with my development editor, I’ve decided to completely restructure the thing.

Yes, that is as awful as it sounds.

Considering I thought I was closer to the line edit stage, the initial epiphany felt more like a slap in the face than your standard choir-of-angels moment. But, after tearing it apart and putting it together again, I know this is the right decision and Book Two in The Timekeepers Trilogy is going to be much better for it. The pacing is better, the character development is stronger, and the stakes are higher. I’m happier.

I think this is one of those aspects of the writing process that writers don’t talk about as much as we should. I’ve often waited anxiously for the next title in a favourite series to be released, counting down the months and sometimes years until it is expected, and getting increasingly irritated as that date flies by and I’m still left waiting. Now I’m stuck on the other side of that battle. I want to make this sequel worthy of the readers who loved The Timekeepers’ War and I feel immense pressure to finish it before interest wanes.

So to those of you who are still waiting, thank you. It means a lot to me, and I’m not going to let you down. I’m going to be better about updating the page, too, so everyone knows where I’m at in the process.

Feel free to comment with suggestions for what you’d like to see on the page, as well. Flash Fiction? Book Reviews? Craft Articles? What are you interested in?

Take care out there. Happy reading and writing!

It has begun…

Writing of Book 2 in the Timekeepers' War trilogy has begun in earnest. The Children of Bathora will be finished before the end of the year!
Writing of Book 2 in the Timekeepers’ War trilogy has begun in earnest. The Children of Bathora will be finished before the end of the year!

Sometimes the hardest part of writing is actually just sitting down and doing it. Unless you are lucky enough to already be making a living off your trade, writing often takes a back seat to other obligations. Life tends to intrude on what precious time is left for writing. At least, that’s how it goes with me.

I have managed, in the year since The Timekeepers’ War was released (August 2014), to do some extensive planning for Book Two in the trilogy. I’ve told this story a hundred times, in a hundred different ways, without ever actually committing a word to paper. But I’m mentally much more prepared to write The Children of Bathora than I ever was it’s predecessor. The Timekeepers’ War evolved organically. I let the characters and the situations write themselves.

It was an interesting, if wasteful, process. I ended up cutting over 50K words from my first draft to the version that actually went to print. The trouble with free-writing and entire novel is that you end up spending a lot of time and energy on writing scenes for yourself, rather than your reader. A lot of thought and detail went into building the City and its History that never made it into the finished book. I needed it to write the rest but, as I learned in the editing process, the reader didn’t need it to understand the story. All those details that were so necessary to my writing process simply bogged the reader down, and robbed them of their own vision.

This time I’m trying a different tack. Last week I completed a point form summary of the entire plot. Yes, and even wrote it down! I’ve honestly never written with an outline in mind. This is new to me. Even in my university days, I wrote long research papers without a concrete idea of where I was going with my thesis until I got there. Then I used the editing process to make the whole thing coherent. It usually worked.

The trouble is, I don’t have ten years to write my next novel. Not if I actually want to be a writer of any prolificacy (is that a real word?) So I need to do things differently this time around.

I wrote the first 100 pages of The Children of Bathora before I even found a publisher for The Timekeepers’ War. I needed something else to do besides hounding agents and publishers, and I knew the story wasn’t finished yet. I was still on a roll. But after those initial ideas ran their course, I realized I didn’t really know where I was going with Book Two yet. I didn’t want to have to cut 50K words from another novel. As cathartic as the process was, it would be better to have not wasted all that time and energy in the first place.

Since then, I’ve been mulling it over. I’ve been telling myself this story, and playing with alternative plot lines, and trying to get a feel for the next stage in Ghost and Lynch’s adventure. I even toyed with the idea of shifting the locus of the story from Ghost to someone new. Last week, something clicked. I found the piece that was missing to tie everything together, the thread I needed to pull to tighten everything up. That’s when I wrote the summary.

Today was my first full day of writing. 8:00am-4:30. A quick break for lunch and eight solid hours of work. It feels amazing!

Not only that, but I realize that much of my initial draft is usable. I’ve chopped, re-ordered, and re-written the first 25 pages. If I can keep up this pace with recycling the original draft, I should have the first third of the book done by the end of the week. The last two thirds will be a little slower going, since I will be doing new writing rather than reworking old. But knowing where the plot is going makes me confident that the process will be much smoother this time around.

My goal is to have a completed first draft by the end of November, with The Children of Bathora submitted to Bedlam Press at the beginning of the new year. My mother-in-law is kindly staying with us for a month (or more?) so that I can write full time, while she spends some quality time with the grandchildren and makes sure I don’t starve to death. It is an amazing gift! And it means I can’t procrastinate, which is just what I need.

So here’s to writing full-time. It’s been a couple of years, but the groove is still there. I am looking forward to this!

S.C. Jensen @ Goodreads’ “Ask the Author”

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Hello everyone!

I apologize for my absence the last few weeks. I had an unexpected hospital stay (don’t worry, everything is fine!) Now that I’m home again, and everything is settled, I am hoping to get back to business. I will be answering reader questions on Goodreads’ “Ask the Author” feature until the end of January. Please sign up or log in and fire away! Thanks!

Exciting News for The Timekeepers’ War

October was a great month for The Timekeepers’ War! It reached the #4 spot for Paperback sales at Necro Publications, the first time I’ve made the top ten list. Also, the Hallowe’en Goodreads Giveaway is complete and the books have been shipped! I’m looking forward to hearing from the winners once they’ve had a chance to read The Timekeepers’ War. I was slightly disappointed to find that nobody participated in the WordPress and Facebook versions of the contest, but I realize that I didn’t do a great job of publicizing the events. I will have to be better organized next time. This whole social media thing is a little overwhelming at times, but I’m learning!

Luckily, I’m about to get some help in that department. Necro Publications has recently announced the addition of a full time Marketing and PR Manager who will be working with each of Necro’s authors to develop a plan to get more reviews, interviews, and other fun stuff. She has some very interesting ideas for The Timekeepers’ War and I can’t wait to get started! I don’t want to spoil any surprises until we’ve got things finalized, but stay tuned for some exciting new developments.

On that note, if you are a reviewer interested in The Timekeepers’ War or if you would like to schedule an interview, please contact David Barnett [dave@necropublications.com] and he will forward your request to Kristie. Thanks for reading!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Hallowe’en Book Giveaway!

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Check it out on Amazon.com!
Check it out on Amazon.com!

Autumn is, hands down, my favourite time of year. Especially Hallowe’en. In honour of the season, I’m having another Goodreads Giveaway! Five copies of The Timekeepers’ War are up for grabs HERE. The Goodreads Giveaway will close at midnight on October 31, 2014, so get your entries in ASAP! Over 1200 people entered to win in the debut giveaway; let’s see how many entries we can round up this time!

Goodreads Giveaways are always fun. I’ve entered (and won!) my fair share. But I’d also like to offer something up to my fellow bloggers and blog followers. If you’d like to win a copy of The Timekeepers’ War, all you need to do is reblog this post and leave me a comment. If you are following me on Facebook, share and comment on this post. I’ll give away one copy for my WordPress bloggers and one for my Facebook fans. Contest closes at midnight on October 15th, 2014; that way you still have time to enter the Goodreads contest if you don’t win 😉 Good look, book lovers!

Hot Off the Press!

It's here!
It’s here!

It’s been many years in the making, but I’ve finally got a box of my very first published book! It’s actually starting to feel real now 🙂 I am still looking for reviewers, if you are interested. Please contact me through wordpress or at scatphillips@gmail.com if you’d like to give it a shot. Thanks for your interest!