Wednesday, July 20, 2011

How I Wrote My Novel, True Story of John 11

As I wrote the rough draft of my current novel, a lot of people inquired as to my process. I kept a log and some notes along the way, primarily to keep myself honest about productivity. But recently some friends have had issues with their own work and began asking again. Putting this up may seem like supreme self-indulgence, but it’s dedicated to anyone whose work has ever struggled with their beloved medium.

In October of 2010, I realized I’d gone three years without a serious attempt at a novel. I had a dozen ideas and procrastinated on all of them in favor of paid articles, short stories, networking, catching up on reading, girlfriends, health, and plenty of other excuses that sound good at the time. These things also leave you going three years without a novel.

By November, I whittled down to the one idea I’d follow. By December, I had the outline. On January 2nd, the family was finally out of my house. I bought a pizza and locked my door.

January 2: 1300 words
There are at least four alternative drafts of the opening of Nobody’s House from January 2nd. I second-guessed myself so frequently that it was dusk before I realized I didn’t have to get it right. I could go back and change what stunk; all I needed was a launch. The one I settled for was still too passive, yet it set up enough of the big opening chapter that I know I could return to and correct it later. It was strewn with bold notes to myself on what I’d probably need to fix later. Recognizing what things I can fix now is essential to getting the work done.

Afterward I went looking for people to high-five; I was writing the damned novel!

January 3: ??? (about +1000)
January 4: ??? (about +1000)
Got carried away writing for a few days. Hit my word minimums but forgot to record the actual progress. I stuck to a minimum of 1,000 words, because while they’re crude, word counts are the most reliable evidence of getting the work done. Sentences, paragraphs, actions and plot points hit are much easier to fudge when you want a day off.

January 5: 5200
January 6: 6349
January 7: 7745
From my notes: “Feeling gleeful that I can routinely exceed my word minimum. I’m already a day ahead of schedule. I won’t use it to take a day off, but it does mean on a tough day I can fall a little short. Just have to hit that next round number. Tough days will come.”

January 8: 8687
January 9: 10,338
January 10: 11,675
January 11: 12,596
January 12: 14,534 (+1,059 existing words imported; edited them in)
I’d had the idea for Nobody’s House years in advance. I actually had a folder with many tidbits of documents. Today’s chapter was the first of several I was able to supplement with existing material. Same went the next day. I made sure to give the day’s work another Passover that night so everything fit together.

January 13: 16,381 (+992 existing words imported; edited them)
January 14 17,562
January 15 18,912
January 16 20,222
January 17 21,540
January 18 No writing, very sick, bed early
Knew tough days would come. The whole week was a fight to get out of bed. My syndrome picked up in this period. Tuesday was the worst day. My mind simply refused to focus, and sitting up was its own fight. A fight for another day.

January 19 23,622
January 20 24,732
January 21 25,920
Made plans to help my grandfather in Connecticut on the 24th. That would be a mandatory day off, because even at my healthiest, such a drive would wipe me out. I shot for 29,000 words before the 24th, to sure up any feelings of manuscript neglect.

January 22 27,277
January 23 29,103
January 24 Day out with Grandpa
From my notes: “Took the day off from writing. My maternal grandmother died of cancer a few months ago, leaving my grandfather alone in a nursing home. Though senile, he’s one of the most astute patients they have. He doesn’t see family often enough. I call him every night to ensure he has some sort of family contact. Today I actually got to take him out, for pizza and chatter. It’s a long drive to Connecticut. Good thing I padded the schedule.”

January 25 30,299
January 26 31,532
January 27 33,457
January 28 34,586
January 29 35,720 (mostly additions to old chapters)
Ted Hoagland used to tell me the answer to writer’s block is editing. Can’t create something new? Fix the old. In this case I had a lot of lingering gaps in early chapters I wanted to back-fill, and continuity to correct.
This is also the point at which I worried Writer’s Exhaustion was setting in. It was a hardcore month by my standards. Vacation loomed a week away, too – I was visiting some friends in Boston. So I made another declaration: if I could hit 42,000 words by February 8th, then in honor of Douglas Adams’s bad numerology I’d call it quits until I returned.

January 30 No writing, sick in bed
As though to confirm my Writer’s Exhaustion fears, stress feedback got so bad in my syndrome that I was stuck on my back for another day. May have snuck to the computer that night to add a little dialogue anyway.

January 31 37,437
February 1 38,685
February 2 40,185
February 3 41,221
February 4 None
February 5 42,648
And so my little vacation began. Then it began growing.

March 3 Return home
From my notes: “Well. That was humiliating. What was supposed to be a two-week vacation exploded into nearly a month of no productivity. I also gained about ten pounds. I know where every pound came from. Think I’m getting more shameless about junk food. That needs to cut out soon. We kept pushing back the end of my vacation. It was a lot of fun, but good God was that a long period of no productivity. Kicking my butt into gear tomorrow. I hope “tomorrow” doesn’t turn out to be a lie.”

March 4 45,008
From my notes: “Wasn’t a lie! Over 2,000 words in one sitting. Even if that vacation was too long, feel energized. Love jumping into blank scenes.”

March 5 46,173
March 6 47,236
March 7 Argh
If you’ve followed the blog, you know what happened here. A severe ice storm hit New York. It took out our power for a week, and NYSEG pretty boldly lied to us about restoration times on an hourly basis. I was left very sick. No computer to type on for a week, and then a period of being too down under to compose. Then? A period of self-enabling bullcrap. No way should I have gone twenty days without writing.

March 27 48,136
Power and health in order, I got back in the saddle and forced myself to write. It was six hours to produce under 1,000 words. This was the kind of event writers are always afraid of after a break, and it made the post-February splurge look like a fluke.

March 28 ~49,000 words
March 29 50,000+ words, reassess layout
From my notes: “I’m back to daily writing and have steady electricity. But my main document is too chunky. At over 50,000 words, all the chapters and notes make it difficult to navigate. As much as I enjoy having a perpetual total word count, I’m dividing the book into chapter .doc’s. It’ll be easier to edit each individually at the end, and much easier to navigate the day’s work.”

PS: It really is ridiculously easier to edit individual chapter documents. I’m doing that now. One bulk document would be a mess at this stage.

March 30 +1433 words (~51,433 words)
March 31 new chapter: 1070 words (~52,503 words)
April 1 2303 words (~53,636 words)
April 2 new chapter: 1265 words (~54,901 words)
April 3 2,418 words (~56,054 words)
April 4  3,446 (~57,082 words)
April 5 Nothing, family visited and took up whole day
April 6 Nothing, family again
April 7 Nothing, lazy
From my notes: “Too easy to follow the suit of not writing. My guests were gone by the 7th and I still let myself not write. I slip easily.”

April 8 new chapter: 1,061
April 9 2,759 (~59,831 words)
April 10 new chapter 1,125 (~60,956 words)
April 11 2,221 words (62,052 words)
April 12 - a two-day vacation with a friend
April 13 – a two-day vacation with a friend
April 14 new chapter 1,115
April 15 2,385 (~64,437 words)
April 16 3,419 (guests coming on 19th; hope to finish two unfinished chapters before)
April 17 4,234 (finished chapter)
April 18 1400 words (finished spare chapter); ~500 words on new chapters (~67,000 words)
April 19 Visitor took up the day
April 20 Visitor took up the day
April 21 The end of a three-day vacation. A friend came in to town from California. Though I’d planned to sneak away to write, all I came away with was a page of notes for potential revisions. Once again, excuses make Johnny a lazy boy. However I’m now considering taking every Wednesday off. I’m concerned about burnout and think having a day off to look forward to might alter things.

April 22 1,107 words (new chapter)
April 23 2,537 words
April 24 3,170
April 24 Merely edited and shaped the chapter
Easter Sunday. I drove to Connecticut to spend the day with Grandpa. The roundtrip was so draining that I spent an hour misspelling every five or six words at the computer and nearly gave up entirely. Finally psyched myself up to hit a round number – 3,000 words between the 22-24th would average to 1,000 per day. Work was done. I backfilled a little hole in the existing chapter, expanding from the skeletal notes I’d left behind.

April 25 None, very sick
From my notes: “Whether the Easter exertion made my syndrome worsen, or it was all the smoke I inhaled from church incense, I was unable to rise today.”

April 26 4,371 words
April 27 5,833
April 28 Day off (forgot it was Wednesday previous day)
April 29 7,124 (finished scene) (~74,124 words)
April 30 1,081
May 1 2,552
May 2 3,707 (chapter done) (77,831 words)
May 3 1,105
May 4 2,240 (chapter done?) (80,071 words)
Some days you just can’t tell if that ending was the ending of the chapter. It turned out to be.

May 5 1,156
May 6 2,300 (chapter done) (82,371 words)
May 7 746 words (chapter done; weird one) (83,117 words)
May 8 1,195 words
This is the fourth day in recent weeks when I hit my word minimum, still wanted to write on but was pulled away by something, figured I’d come back later, and didn’t. I’m taking these incidents as conclusive evidence that if I break my flow then any outside business will preoccupy me. It’s too easy to get burned out. Writing this way is a lot like daily exercise; at twenty minutes in I can keep going, but if I stop then half an hour later I won’t be able to move. But I don’t enjoy exercise. I love this book. I wanted to get back to this chapter today and still got absorbed in conversations with friends and cleaning the house before the movers hit. There shouldn’t be guilt about stopping after the minimum is hit. There is.

May 9 1,195 words
May 10 3,128 words (chapter done) (~86,245 words)
May 11 Day off
Officially instituted a mid-week day off. Wednesday or Thursday seemed like a good one. It wasn’t enough to take the day off as needed. The “Friday effect” of knowing when I finished today I would enter the free-zone was just as important. Unwinding was essential or I’d crack up. So many days now I could feel the syndrome bubbling up, muscle pain and fatigue exaggerating based on anxiety from the manuscript.

May 12 1,600 words
May 13 No progress; errands left me wiped out.
May 14 2,896 words (chapter done) (~89,141 words)
May 15 3,042 (chapter done) (~92,183 words)
May 16 1,172 words
May 17 2,794 words (chapter done) (~94,977 words)
May 18 Day off
Had a massive furniture delivery from the closure of my grandmother’s old house. Had to clean it and move it. And despite being owed a day off, by the end I still mapped the final chapters. Was too darned excited about where these characters were going, which is a wonderful feeling.

May 19 1,512 words
May 20 2,638 words
May 21 “It’s Complicated” (~98,434 words)
A rare case in my writing. Realized the current chapter needed to be split into three smaller, more focused ones for the events to be comprehensible. Typically I get that in hindsight if I get it at all. Did this one on the spot. My final total included May 19-20’s productivity was 3,457 words total; 3,156 for the first chapter, and then moving onto the next, which I decided to add to Monday’s tally

May 22 Visiting Grandpa for the day
Returned home utterly exhausted and passing out in my room. Do not recommend doing this.

May 23 1,713 words
May 24 3,561 words (chapter done) (~101,995 words)
From my notes: “Only two chapters left in the novel. Very excited, probably won’t take a day off from writing this week. I just want to end it.”

May 25 1,157 words
From my notes: “I don’t know if I’ve ever felt anxiety like this over literature. It’s like when I graduated high school, and then college. I have this routine, and I’m used to it. I think I’m good at it. I’m glad to have succeeded, to have finished the cycle, yet I’m anxious over having to do something else. Editing, seeking critiquing, querying professionals and/or finding self-pub markets will all be mentally easier than this. I’ve sucked down hundreds of rejections for non-fiction and short fiction in the last two years. Getting this published will be a different kind of difficulty, and I’m not anxious about that in particular. This is pure anxiety of separation from the routine. It’s magnifying every doubt I have in every paragraph. As this week went on, the time it takes me to write anything has jumped up, and it appears my word count is halving. There is a very real tightness in my chest as I’m trying to form a climax that I have plotted thoroughly. I know what happens. There are no surprises. I only have to fill in a few pages of gaps, and these may be the hardest pages of the book to compose solely because of nonsense.”

May 26 3,025 (chapter done) (~105,020 words)
From my notes: “What’s funnier is that at around 5:30 PM, when I was shaking with stress-related syndrome issues, I opened the document up just one more time to arrange some paragraphs. Even though the pain kept intensifying, until it was too bad to hold up my head, I finished the chapter with my head resting on the desk. Then I opened the final chapter, to get the opening out of the way since I had a good idea for it. 1,183 words later, I wrote the closing paragraph on accident. I actually sat up in shock. I finished the book by accident in the middle of a miserable funk. I think it's my favorite chapter. Re-reading it actually cured the funk.”

So technically…

May 26 1,183 words (chapter done) (~106,203 words) (draft done)


  1. This is the best thing I've ever read on the process. Not self-indulgent in the least. It's funny, writers are forever offering tips and advice but this shows the meat of the work, the immense amount of work that is required to get something done. I'm jealous of the time you have to write and assume I'd be able to write a novel if I didn't work full time. Still, I know how easy it would be to find excuses. That's what I love about your post... the honesty about stopping the work. As well as the gruelling labour that's required. Bravo to you for finishing... I was actually holding my breath at the last bit, even though I knew you had gotten 'er done. Best of luck with the next stages.. and, by the way, I'm definitely going to be buying whatever magic you have to sell.

  2. I wish I could manage so many words in one day.

    It's always good to get an insight into the process of another writer, if only to let you see that writers don't just sit in a darkened room somewhere and birth a fully formed novel.

  3. Really enjoyed reading about your process. Agree with Cathy about how the writing process requires a lot of hard work, and your post reflects that. Congratulations on finishing the novel, and please don't fear the next steps. Good luck to you.

    Also, what a wonderful grandson you are.

  4. I enjoyed reading this, and writing everyday is a discipline. My first novel (my only complete one) took me a year to write and another year to edit, writing every day. (Although I broke it up by writing short stories when it all became to much just to give myself a break every now and again.) When it was finished I felt lost.

    Getting it published, well that's another story, one I'm still trying to bring about.

    Thanks for sharing how the process was for you.

  5. Hurrah for you! As with the others, I love how you took notes of yourself and the process as you went.
    Writing in chapters is so much easier to work with!!!

  6. Very inspiring. Thanks for sharing.

  7. John, I want to thank you this post. I know we're all writers, and that, for a lot of us, the process is roughly the same. But that doesn't detract from my anger with myself when something comes up (painting a house, for example) and I stop writing for two or three days because of it.

    I guess what I'm trying to say is that I feel better knowing others go through the same trials - and still manage a finished novel draft. Best of luck with it, Wis. I know it'll be fantastic.

  8. Your process looks a lot like mine... off to a good start, then getting stalled by life, and having a hard time getting back into it again afterwards (poor word count days). I have to remind myself to take a break to avoid burnout, and you should too! Stick to those Wednesdays off ;) I know what it's like to just crash...

  9. This wasn't self-indulgent at all, John; it struck me as admirably candid and mature. I was surprised by the large gaps in productivity, but pleasantly so--when you dropped the ball for a month, you didn't give up, you just got back on the path as soon as you were mindful of it. I think many people (myself included) have a tendency to indulge in melodrama when faced with inconsistency of output; the energy it takes to self-flagellate exhausts us too much to get working again as quickly as we could. I am also very interested in the "buildup" to the novel (from idea to outline to execution); there is something fascinating happening there and I wish I could put a finger on what it was.

  10. Cathy, between this and your Tweet this morning, you've been about the kindest person alive to my creative process. Thank you so much for your response and support in this. The work can be less difficult as it goes along - momentum carries. Many days were very difficult for various reasons. I guess this post could have been ten times as long going into all of them. How did you feel about the very end? I felt like a right fool accidentally ending it.

    Icy, you've had a pretty busy life between romance, academics and the profession you just left. I can imagine being too drained to hit 1,000 or 2,000 words in a sitting, but it isn't as important as repeatedly doing the work.

    Marisa, I don't fear these next steps. It's been a while since May and I'm already halfway into the second draft. As expected, editorial and revision is challenging but much easier than composition. It almost always is.

    Helen, publishing is another story and an entirely different challenge to composition. I don't pretend that one will be easy on either of us. Wish you the best of luck in it, though.

    Laura, the chapter-documents are simply so much easier to handle. I can leave a list of necessary changes at the top of each document and scan through. Streamlines tinkering, as well as physically segmenting it.

    Shopgirl, and thank you for reading. Glad it gave you inspiration.

    Coda, have you ever read Stephen King's On Writing? He has a splendid little chapter on the spectrum of productivity, from James Joyce's inability to finish a sentence in a day to Anthony Trollope's strictly timed work. Life can always intervene. I'm still ashamed of what happened in February, even if I don't regret a single day. My hosts are among my favorite people alive.

    T.S., routine breaks are smart. I didn't realize their value until this novel project.

    Max, believe it or not I have entire separate post on the build up from idea generation to outline to Day 1 of writing. It's probably going to be an essay. I'm not sure if I'll post it here or attach it as an extra on the novel itself should I self-publish. The genesis of the whole thing was so darned long, and it's wonderful to reflect back on all the influences I had.

  11. I loved this post. I'm always fascinated by how others go about the business of writing. I keep a daily log of word count, but I don't have notes. I might do that next time. I look at the gaps in my dates and hate them.

    I would love to hit 1K/day, but sometimes I don't have time to write at all and I went an entire month without touching my WiP, too. It sucks. But, I'm back at it and happy about it again and that helps.

    I've written a novel using different docs for each chapter and while it's easier to manage in the beginning, I found that compiling it in the end for agents was a pain in the ass, so this one is one big doc. I do print each chapter as I go (for Carlos & the Monster to read) so I can flip through that if need be. I have notes on the hard copies & I leave notes to myself in the document as well by way of comment bubbles.

    And I actually love the way you ended it. It's always fun when you can surprise yourself.

    Thanks for sharing your journey with us.

  12. This is amazing!

    I wish I could write so many words in one day. Don't keep a log of daily word count - I know I wrote this many words so far this week and know I have this many words left to write this week.

    And I use scrivnor - it breaks up the scene and chapters so you can look at it as 1 big doc or piece by piece.

  13. John, what's important is that you stick with it in the long run and got it finished.

    And the ending? I did something similar when writing FAR Future: I was cruising along, finished up a scene, and went, "OK, what's next? … Oh. I'm done. I'm DONE???" I didn't finish with my head laying on the desk, but there was that same sense of surprise. I don't think there's anything wrong with that — I'd been working on the story for like two years, after all!

    Be loud, be proud, you got it done!

  14. Thanks for sharing this, John. I really enjoyed seeing the progression of your streaks (writing and not writing). I can't wait until you get the editing done.

  15. Your're a machine ... and a thorough one at that, John... Well done.


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