Sunday, November 6, 2016

Writing a million words of fiction in 2016

During National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo), I post about writing issues, rather than my typical posting on science, natural disasters, and emergency preparation.

One million new words of fiction per year?

I know there are a few people out there who write a million new words of fiction a year, but I worked my hardest in 2016 and discovered that I’m not going to be one of them.

I’ve navel-gazed about the question of whether or not I was just being whiny (something 99% of writers are tremendously skilled at, so I try to monitor myself for this), but I don’t think I am this time. People who write a million a year generally:

  1. Write every day or nearly so
  2. Sometimes dictate into Dragon Naturally Speaking
  3. Often write in a genre where there’s a formula, and they stick to it with each book
  4. Hire out all editing and proofreading
  5. Are capable of revising Book A in the afternoons while writing the first draft of Book B in the mornings
  1. I do write every day or nearly so, though I have a limit of three hours of creative work. After that, my creative brain just shuts off, and I seem capable of writing only the equivalent of “uhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh.” If I push it past four hours, I get a headache and might lose the following day to that. After this many years at it, periodically pushing myself for more production, I’m fairly certain this is a real limit of my imperfect brain.
  2. I’ve tried dictation, and even after training the VR program for weeks, it still introduced 70 new typos into every 1000 words, and about once every 1000 words I couldn’t even discern what I had meant, it had typed something so far away from what I’d said. As proofreading is difficult to trade for and/or expensive from a pro, I had to say “no, thanks,” as it seemed to me that I’d only bought myself more unpleasant hours of proofreading work later on.
  3. Every one of my stand-alone novels is a new creature altogether, and even the three novels of the Gray series are very much different from one another. I’ve tried coming up with a reusable outline, but it’s impossible for me and my genres. The best I can do for myself is a twelve point plan, but it’s vague and it doesn’t get me very far. (One bullet point is “a reversal,” as an example. Not a whole lot of help.) 
  4. I have proofreaders lined up, some volunteer and some paid, but I would feel bad about turning it over to them without doing any revision or proofing myself first. I have tried to talk myself into a lazier mindset, but I. Just. Can’t. It’s a mental quirk, I suppose, wanting to do the best work I can manage on my own, and I’m stuck with it. The most I’ve been able to do in this realm is write an editing macro for myself to speed up revision and trade in my former three revisions for the macro plus one this year. (Mumbling “the perfect is the enemy of the good” the whole while to force myself to not obsessively rewrite.)
  5. The eight-hour work day, divided into new words in the morning and revising/proofing a different novel in the afternoon, is something I tried, but it didn’t work for me. Seven days a week, eight hours a day of writing/revising work is exhausting, and then there’s a business to run, too. It’s also confusing to me to jump back and forth between projects every day.

And so I now work for my three hours every morning, but it is either new words or revision or proofreading, not all three. I also do an hour or two of business work daily: mailing list, blog, emails, social media, accounting, etc. And every day includes a couple hours of research/non-fiction reading for the next book in line. Seven hours a day, seven days a week, and very few days off: 49 hours of work per week. It’ll just have to do.

Because the other thing I fear million-word writers must do can be seen by looking at it through the lens of David Sedaris’s “four burners theory.” A friend of his says there are four burners in a life: work, friends, family, and health. Unlike on a stove, where you can crank them all up to high for a long while, in real life, you cannot. If you turn work up to high, friends, family, and health will suffer. To be really successful, she said, you have to turn off two burners.

I think she has a point. For any one person, there is no such thing as infinite time. Or infinite energy. Or an infinite number of days functioning on three hours sleep. We have limits, and if we don’t respect them--if we don’t keep an eye on all four burners--we might find ourselves with fifteen novels written this year, but have no friends, high blood pressure, and are being served with divorce papers or bailing a kid out of jail because he acted out just to get our attention for a few minutes.

I tried as hard as I can, and I turned friend and health burners down too low, but I don’t think I’ll quite crest a half-million new words by December 31. (If I get to count blog posts, yes, I will). Other people can write a million, and my hat is off to them. I did my best, yet I found I am not in that group.

Next year, I’ll aim for about 333,000 new words...and I will reconnect with some friends whose invitations I turned down too often in 2016.


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  2. Thanks for commenting. Every writer is different! As regards to their process, I can't begin to tell anyone to do. We all need to stumble towards our own best system.

    I know people do write a million words per year. I know of people who finish one draft and start the next an hour later and never revise. Eight novels written in 2016 was, I found, too many for me. I know writers for whom that would be a lazy year.


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