This past weekend I finished the first draft of the novel I’ve been working on since last year: The Edge of the World. It currently clocks in at over 118,500 words (approx. 474.5 pages is what I ended up calculating – forgive the numbers, I’m an engineer by day – it’s kind of hardwired into my DNA).
Throughout the last year it has kind of become just this THING I’m working on. The answer to the epic question that writers tend to get asked (“Hey, what are you working on these days?”). But in some ways it also became this thing that I had to wonder if other people were thinking:
“Wow. He’s been working on that for a while. Is he really doing anything or is he playing XBOX?”
“Wow. He’s been working on that for a while. Is he ever going to finish it?”
“Wow. He’s been working on that for a while. I’ve put out 100 books in that amount of time. God he’s slack!”
Or something to that effect. I don’t know how others really judged it, or how long people really thought it might take (writing a book, I mean).
It certainly took longer than I expected. For comparison I’d say that the first drafts of the other books I’ve worked on went something like this:
The Dark That Follows – 65,000 words – 4 months
Hollow Empire – 45,000 words – 4 months
The White Effect – 95,000 words – 9 months
The Edge of the World – 118,500 – 16 months
Why did those extra 23,500 words take an extra 7 months?
We’ll get back to that in a second. Because I think I’ve learned something with each novel I’ve written. At least that’s the way my mind has tried to analyze each book.
What did I learn?
How to write a book.
It’s an extremely simple answer, but it’s the truth. I’m not saying I learned ever trick I need to know. I’m not saying its a perfect book by any stretch. BUT, it showed me that I had the ability to string words together in some kind of coherent way.
However, the biggest thing it taught me was that I could actually do it. I could sit down with a completely blank page and the barest of bones for a story and FINISH IT. I mean, how many people out there have that idea for a book floating around in their brains? How many of those have started the thing only to abandon it at some point later?
How many finish the damn thing?
The White Effect
What did I learn?
Though not out yet, I actually wrote this prior to Hollow Empire. But with it I think I took all the bits and pieces that came with my first book and put them to a better use. It was the difference between Kindergarden and Middle School.
And I proved that I could do it again. A small thing to some people, but an enormous thing to me. You see, if I really want to do this for the long haul, then one book was never going to cut it. One book had to be just that: ONE BOOK. And then there had to be a second, and a third, and so on.
What did I learn?
Collaboration. It’s a word that applies so very much to writing comics. You have so many people working on to bring those things to life. Writers need Pencillers who need Inkers who need Colorists who need Letterers who need Editors who need…
I think you get the point.
So I certainly knew how to collaborate, but to sit down with someone and build a world, a setting… to divide up and then write these characters’ stories. And to then see what the other guy was doing while you were doing your thing. To edit each other. To steal from each other. So many times during the writing there would be moments where I saw something J Edward Neill had written and though “That’s a really cool idea. I wonder if I can use/mention/address/etc it?” (And hopefully he had the same opinion on some of my ideas.)
The Edge of the World
What did I learn?
There is a big push pull among writers that I read about in a myriad of blogs week after week:
Are you a Pantser or are you a Plotter?
For those that don’t know what the hell I mean by those.
A Pantser is a person who “flies by the seat of their pants” when writing. They may only have the vaguest of ideas about what the book is about, where it is going, and how it is going to end. But they trust in their abilities to find the story somewhere deep within them.
A Plotter is someone who actually creates a road map. An outline. You know, that thing your teachers always wanted you to do before you wrote those papers and you hated? Yeah, one of those things. But there are benefits to having that road map in that it is very hard for things to go off the rails. In theory, you have done enough planning that you’ve figured out the bigger plot holes and know how to avoid them.
As to the debate, I say do what you want. What works for you? Then do that. The Dark That Follows was “pants’d”. The White Effect was “plotted”. Hollow Empire had probably a 60/40 split on pants vs plot. And The Edge of the World was very much plotted except in those places it wasn’t.
Which brings me back to those pesky 23,500 words that took an extra 7 months. Early in the draft I use my word count as a gauge on how things are going (told you – engineer). I strive for 1250 words a night (approx. 5 pages). I’ve found that if I hit that number often enough I feel good about the book, and more importantly I feel good about the progress I am making. But with this book I would hit sections that I hadn’t quite mapped out more than maybe a brief sentence. “A thing happens to get our heroes back together.” I figured I would have the answer to what the “thing” was by the time I got to that point.
And sometimes I did. But there were times I still didn’t know. So I skipped ahead and wrote the next scene. Or maybe I skipped two scenes and then wrote the next three after that. Regardless, by the end of this “run” I probably had 60,000 words in 6 months time, but I had so many gaps that suddenly it was affecting things later on.
You see when you leave a section blank and write something later you have to assume certain things. Things the characters might have experienced or learned from an episode. But without knowing what those lessons might be… well, it was almost like being hamstrung on it. Which would be an easy thing to address. Just stop skipping around and write those skipped chapters. No more proceeding until they are all done.
Yet, I didn’t realize that it was a problem until I had written everything else and then needed to go back and fill in. And suddenly the process bogged down. Granted, the book wasn’t the only thing I worked on during this time, but that matters little when you feel like you are getting nothing done on the book. Frustration led to more slowness… and the biggest thing was not Writer’s Block, but maybe the Beast’s cousin visited me. My word counts for the week slowed to a crawl.
Luckily, I made through the weeds and carved a path. I finally hit a groove again in the last couple of months. The words flowed and I kept churning them out. Finally this last week I realized how close I might be to the end.
And then it was done. Following Mr. King’s On Writing advice, I put these drafts in a drawer for a couple of months and work on other things in the meantime… it helps you be able to look at the thing with fresher eyes (always a good thing). Given the holidays, my guess is that the next time I really sit down to edit this book it will be 2016. And I already have some things I know will need to be added or subtracted… but for now…
John McGuire is the author of the supernatural thriller The Dark That Follows, the steampunk comic The Gilded Age, and the novella There’s Something About Mac through the Amazon Kindle Worlds program.
He also has a short story in the recently released anthology Beyond the Gate, which is free on most platforms!
He can also be found at www.johnrmcguire.com.