Sunday, October 14, 2012

How I Wrote My Novel - (The Last House in the Sky)

This is a follow-up to the journal of how I wrote The House That Nobody Built. Many people found the day-by-day transparency refreshing or useful, so I'm pulling back the curtain on how I wrote the follow-up novel this year, The Last House in the Sky. I'm still afraid this sort of thing appears self-indulgent. If there’s anything you’d like clarified about the below, please hit me up in the Comments.

The Last House in the Sky was a much choppier trek. I knew it would get interrupted. Production would run into the summer when I had many travels planned, and my grandfather’s health was poor, which might necessitate emergency visits. I was still waiting on beta readers for my previous novel to get back to me, I had a new idea that I loved, and increasingly felt like a vacation was a waste of time. Thus, off I went.

May 21: 2,554 words (counting the outline I made that morning; am deleting bits from outline as they are written)
May 22 4,307 words
May 23 5,624 words
May 24 7,568 words
May 25 9,564 words (this may be the most productive five days I’ve ever had)
May 26 11,429 words
May 27 13,024 words

13,000 words in seven days was about as fast fiction production as I’ve ever had in my adult life. It was exciting, but towards the end of the week I found it very taxing. My syndrome started kicking back around May 25. This got worse daily, and by May 28th, the syndrome pain was much worse than usual and interfered in my ability to focus on anything. Bitterly ironic, then, that I was constantly desiring to exceed my 1,000-word minimum. Perhaps if I just stopped at 1,000 it wouldn’t be as bad.

May 28 14,325 words
May 29 16,413 words
May 30 Decide Wednesdays will resume as the weekly day off

On my first “day off” I found it difficult to shake wanting to write notes and dialogue in the morning, but quickly found enough errands that my whole day was consumed until about 10:00 at night.

May 31 18,000 words
June 1 19,334 words
June 2 21,395 words (high anxiety mid-afternoon; returned on a whim at 9 that night to double the day’s word count; considered leveraging it to take tomorrow off)
June 3 22,522 words
June 4 24,110 words
June 5 26,235 (high anxiety returns, is 4:30 PM before word minimum is hit, lots of shaking; broke, got a pizza, wound up finishing a scene and blew through the word count)
June 6 27,554 (Wednesday, but have company coming this weekend, and at 9:30 that night had nothing pressing to do; banged out a short chapter from the perspective of a minor but funny character, exploring prosthetic tentacles)

June 7 Family and friends visit, no progress
June 8 Family and friends visit, no progress

June 9 Get free at 9:00 that night; write a little, and reorganize the novel into individual chapter .docs so it will be easier to navigate.
June 10 29,608 words
June 11 31,118 words
June 12 32,396 words
June 13 35,377 words
June 14 36,539 words (Ahead of schedule, but skipped the Wednesday off because of previous weekend; agreed if I hit 40,000 words by Saturday, I could take Sunday off)
June 15 38,036 words
June 16 40,099 words
June 17 Sunday - Day off, as planned
June 18 41,728 words
June 19 43,024 words
June 20 Wednesday, typical day off. Also the week when it became apparent my cousin Will was in fatal need of a liver transplant and I began organizing a donor drive online. Used most of my free time on that this day.
June 21 45,075 words (begin hammering out unusually long chapter I’d avoided for a few days)
June 22 46,426 words (hopped to a concurrent, shorter chapter; wrote whole thing in one day; still takes excruciatingly long)
June 23 48,304 (past three days have been very slow processes; today I could not get a flow before 3:00 PM; questioning if this is the first stretch of days where my foggy head and dragging the work out is actually hurting the material, as this period’s stuff doesn’t feel as punchy and the chapter-in-progress is the longest to date; counter-arguments are that a lot happens in the chapter, including setting changes)
June 24 50,016 words
June 25 51,695 words (thought it went well, but found my limbs shaking for hours afterward; neuromuscular syndrome worsening?)

Normally I’d question if I was bound for Writer’s Exhaustion at this point. However, I was two chapters away from the end of an arc in the novel, and expected the last of my test-readers to return her copy of my previous novel by July 1st. Mid-July was the point at which ChiCon7/WorldCon was rumbling their submissions for novel workshops would open, so I wanted a final draft by then. I decided to aim to finish the two chapters, then break from all writing-based work until July 1st, at which point I’d start the final draft of the other novel. It had always been my plan to pause or postpone this work-in-progress, though I felt particular angst giving the characters up just as something tremendous was about to land on them.

Also nervous to see how productivity on the novel works after what would be at least a two-week break, and quite possibly a lot longer given family obligations over the summer. Quite possible that I’d only have a spare week here or there to compose on it.

June 26 52,722 words
June 27 53,963 words Wednesday, allegedly my day off, and I was on the run until 3:00 PM. Came home utterly exhausted. But with only one chapter to go, and it seeming like a fun one, I took a crack at it. Nailed the chapter, finished the existing work, and moved to finishing the previous novel.

This break stunk. It hurt to be away from this book for so long. Many days I wanted to abandon the old nearly-perfected novel to complete a crappy rough draft of this one. Would only get back to it for a few days, though, before Otakon in late July and several more trips for family/business/health.

July 17 57,174 words (was incredibly excited to get back to it today; wrote two full chapters before 5:00)
July 18 59,446 words (another chapter in one sitting; then a second, very short one late that night – have actually finished the entire block of chapters I’d intended to write before Otakon in another week)
July 19 61,507 words (completed a longer chapter midday; have now completed the arc in the novel I’d desired to finish before Otakon in Maryland, which is a week from today)

Notes from self: “I’m not sure why the last three days have been so good. I’ve been overwhelmingly preoccupied with writing the events, the plot points, and most specifically, the little character moments in these chapters, seldom checking word count while intensely aware that I was producing a lot. While I’ve always been immersed in the novel, there’s something unique about this mindset. It is a genuine focus on narrative and character progression rather than getting the words down that you’d think would be easy to achieve, but for whatever reason, has simply not been. It certainly helps that this chunk of chapters is the most dire in the book. Greatly prefer this mindset over the word-count mindset.”

July 20 Impromptu day off; family invaded the house for the weekend. Saw Dark Knight Rises, recorded podcast and spent day helping sister move. With the house overrun and interruptions frequent, I’m falling back on diagramming and setting up how the rest of the book goes rather than writing the scenes; everything after this point is the rush to the climax, which I don’t want interrupted by family or a trip to a convention. Also using this time to apply copious notes for editing to the existing 60,000+ words.
July 21 62,297 – the word count now including outlines for the final 15 chapters
July 22 63,103 words; organized remaining notes once family left; feeling sicker and with family emergencies, decide to cave in and break until I return from Maryland August 3rd. Feeling supremely lazy despite rational thought. This is the summer I signed up for, I say.

After this break, I come back feeling emotionally and mentally exhausted, and it’s harder to pick up the project. Feels reasonable; any time I put down a work it’s a roll of the dice on how the return works. My hope is to hit a certain chapter-benchmark between August 4-14, after which I’m hosting a reunion that will halt any progress for about a week.

August 4 64,117 words (had interim chapter sketch from train ride home; wrote the chapter in one sitting today)
August 5 65,444 (all work on a new chapter; unfinished)
August 6 66,724 (was inspired, skipped to a new chapter, wrote in one sitting)
August 7 67,653 (finished August 5 chapter; sketched some of the next)
August 8 Wednesday – day off to do errands and dig the rain ditch in front of the house
August 9 69,265 (wrote first thousand words early, then broke, then wrote the rest across the afternoon and evening; coming up on plot precipice that might be a good pausing point)
August 10 70,421 words (very shaky health; wrote short chapter from heroine’s perspective; decided to write heroine’s chapters up to the plot threshold, then will break for travel/reunion on the 15th)
August 11 71,446 words (short chapter; set up tomorrow’s)
August 12 73,034 (last heroine chapter completed; shaky or busy all day, wrote it at 2:00 AM)

On August 15th people began arriving for my college reunion. Hosting it, I had little privacy and knew I’d get no writing done. Unfortunately family emergencies cropped up as soon as the reunion ended, sapping my time and energy, and soon I had no free days before ChiCon. Critiquing other manuscripts for the conference and reading up for panels consumed the time I had, along with my brother stopping in out of nowhere. Post-convention, I had publishing offers I had to follow-up on, making the break from the novel stretch through early September.

Being this close to the end of the book was alternately irritating and worrisome – worrisome because I feared I’d lose the passion and threads that had led me to such progress previously.

On September 10th I sent out queries for the first novel. That was the cut-off for excuses in the new book – figuratively and literally. On the evening of the 10h and afternoon of the 11th, I dove back into The Last House in the Sky. Both days were efforts on the same chapter, so I only have the final word count for the 11th.

September 10: 73,034?
September 11 74,962 words
September 12 Syndrome bad, long day of errands, body crashed when returned home; only got up to write at 10:00 at night; no log of word count
September 13 77,070 words (finished two chapters)
September 14 79,071 words (one chapter in one day; shuffled listing of events in remaining climactic chapters)
September 15 81,030 words (one chapter in one day; sets up climax)
September 16 Impromptu day off; personal emergencies
September 17 84,107 words (one big chapter in one day; climactic events rolling)
September 18 85,624 words (most of a chapter over the course of a day, kept falling apart, feeling very ill)

The 18th was a very rough day for my syndrome, and I spent something like eight hours struggling to eke out 1,500 words, and left the chapter with many skeletal bits to fill in. I felt terribly guilt for not finishing it, particularly since company was coming the next day and I knew I wouldn’t be able to finish it immediately. This made me reflect on how shifting from words-per-day to chapters-per-day might affect my satisfaction levels. Will have to work on that.

September 19 Company
September 20 Company
September 21 Company

I think I remember the Sept. 10/11 resumption feeling much harder than the days that followed. Writing on Sept. 22, I know this resumption feels ridiculously hard to get into; by the 23rd, it was much easier. Have memories, but no records, that most resumptions after breaks have been irksome.

September 22 86,265 words (finished the chapter from the 18th and rewrote a few broken sections)
September 23 88,822 words (wrote first post-climax chapter; realized there was one pre-climax chapter had never written, from same perspective as post-climax, so wrote that too)
September 24 91,832 words (two chapters in one day; novel done)

And that’s how the beast was slain. It was awful on the 25th when I had nothing to do. No one wanted me for anything. If they could only have waited until now.


  1. Self-indulgent? I don't think so. One of the things I've always like about Stephen King's books is how he talks about the making of his stories. This is much the same thing, but with juicier details. Sure, it's a tour of the sausage factory, but that actually fascinates me instead of repulses me. It's a good reminder that real humans with read lives write the stories we read.

    1. I also appreciate King's transparency about his process, when he's willing to let us in. To be honest, all this sort of non-fiction about fiction has never felt like a sausage factory to me, though I appreciate that it does to some people. Maybe it's because I'm in love with this kind of sausage? But I relish in learning more about how different folks make it.

  2. I really appreciate this -- the blow-by-blow is both interesting and helpful.

    One thing I'm working on improving with myself is more basic than this -- you talk about short/long chapters and diagramming, but what are you doing to outline and/or plan ahead?

    1. That's a fair inquiry! All along I've been shadowier on the outlining because I was also so deep into it that I couldn't describe it without giving away the plot. Now that it's done, though, I can give it a crack.

      The world was already loosely set up from my previous book, though this took place in a different region with a lot of its own cultural issues that I got to play with. Three of my four protagonists were old characters of mine from shorter fiction, so I didn't have too much struggle there. I had Pixar's rule of knowing the ending and planning on how to get to it, and a few major plotting set-pieces that I thought I could connect. I took about a week thinking them through, how characters would interact, how to shape the antagonist faction and such, until I drew up my first proper outline. It was a bullet list that couldn't have been longer than two pages, and was probably only one - almost anemic. It was simply all the stuff that had to happen to get us to Point B, and then to C, unto the end. While I pondered on it for a lot longer, and freely revised my plan as promising stuff emerged during composition, that document didn't even take an evening to write down.

      My oldest surviving outline document breaks the plot into 14 chapters, even though I knew it'd never be that few. The final tally was about 46. Those fourteen were really clusters of events that I knew I'd split up as I came to them. Several of those 14 "chapters" are small plot arcs within the novel, in which something is setup, builds and pays off. I left it modular so that I could split up, delete or add to anything that felt right at the time.

      I have one last document floating around that "outlines" the final 9-10 chapters. It's half a page long because by then I was so into the work that I knew I'd pick up and run with any chapter-premise.

      Is any of that helpful?

    2. That is hugely helpful. Getting a longer plot going has been a real struggle for me, even though I have some ideas that deserve a longer story. That's one of the reasons why I started a Tuesday Serial -- to learn how to slow the hell down and concentrate on things like buildups and subplots (and just plain old complicating factors).

      Thank you so much for writing a detailed response!

  3. I think perhaps one does write these things for the self as much as for others. Still the experiences of another writer often help the reader to clarify where they are in their own work. I think what it does show though is the determination a writer has when they have a goal in mind. ^_^

  4. I enjoyed reading this and admire your work ethic. Thanks for sharing, John!


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