#AmWriting — off the screen, onto the page

Writing is hard work.

That probably won’t surprise anyone reading this blog post, but it constantly surprises me.

Take my current novel project: I started the first draft of it back in 2013. It was my NaNoWriMo project that year, and while I had a pretty strong idea of what the book would be, I had no idea how to write it, and I only managed about 36,000 words before the clock ran out on NaNoWriMo.

I kept plugging away at it, though, adding another 4,000 words, but eventually I trashed all 40,000 words of that first draft to come at the book from a completely different perspective. By the time I took the second draft to workshop at the 2015 Sewanee Writers’ Conference, I’d pulled together nearly 80,000 new words. And that workshop went great, with some strong feedback on the work so far.

But the feedback also showed me that I was writing a different novel than I had thought, so come NaNoWriMo 2016, I trashed the second and third drafts and wrote a fourth.

By then, I’d been through this story a few times and knew the characters and the most significant plot points quite well, and for the fourth draft, I finally had an outline — a vision for where the book needed to go — so I raced through November 2016 and wound up with 60,000 brand new words. Things were going great!

But NaNoWriMo is a rushed, messy process, and when I started reviewing what I’d written, I realized what a spaghetti bowl I’d created. Threads all over the place, many of them leading nowhere and many others contradicting each other. I knew to straighten it all out, I’d need to break the whole thing down and get my notes in order. So I set to work.

And in the meantime, I was teaching, and tutoring, and editing. I also revised and finished a novella and pulled together a new story collection — There Is No Other Way to Worship Them, which should hit shelves in a couple of months! — and I even (stupidly) started yet another novel.

So, as you can imagine, I had a lot to distract me from straightening out my book, and the more I worked on it, the more new ideas I turned up, taking notes in my notebook and on my phone and on my laptop. And I was still doing research along the way, checking maps and reading more background material.

All of that became hard to keep track of, so I set about transcribing everything — and I mean EVERYTHING — into my Scrivener program. And that’s when I realized how huge this project had become. What started five years ago as a 36,000-word draft had evolved into a massive collection of notes, character sketches, outlines, scenes, and chapters totaling nearly 160,000 words. The whole document is so large that even with notecards or outlines in Scrivener, I can’t see the whole book at once in a way that lets me wrap my head around the whole story.

20180822_152455And in my Aeon timeline app, I have the same problem: I have so many plot points across such a long time frame that I can’t see the whole scope of the story on one screen, even when I zoom all the way out.


So I’ve printed out my whole timeline, across several sheets of paper, and taped it together into one long outline. And I’ve collated all my notes into sections (plot points, scenes, character backgrounds, chapters, ideas, reference material) and printed all that out as well. All 360 pages of it.



This way, I can spread the whole book out on the floor and begin rearranging the elements, matching scenes to plot points, character backgrounds to chapters, reference materials to the ideas they generated. And from there, I can match everything to the overall timeline and my narrative outline, and then — back on my laptop — I can bring all those rearranged notes back together into what will become the first nearly-complete draft of the novel.

I’ll still have a lot of work to do filling in gaps and writing connective material to make the story work as story. But for the first time in five years, I’ll be able to see the gaps — I’ll know what is left to write and how everything is connected and where the whole story is going to wind up.

This is not at all how I wrote Hagridden (which, by the way, is FREE on Kindle today). It’s also not how I wrote my new book, There Is No Other Way to Worship Them — though there are some similarities in terms of making connections and arranging the overall narrative(s). But this book is different.

As it should be.

There are a lot of “truisms” in craft lingo, like write what you know or write every day, that I don’t put too much stock in. But I am definitely living by the axiom that with each new book, you have to learn how to write all over again.

Which makes for a lot of surprises, a lot of reconfiguring and reworking and relearning — a lot of hard work.

Which is one of the things I love about writing.

Published by Samuel Snoek-Brown

I write fiction and teach college writing and literature. I'm the author of the story collection There Is No Other Way to Worship Them, the novel Hagridden, and the flash fiction chapbooks Box Cutters and Where There Is Ruin.

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