This is the follow up on my new year’s challenge: to write 8,000 words a day for ten days. I was inspired to do this after reading Rachel Aaron’s post of how she upped her word count from 2,000 words a day to 10,000 words a day. I had been keeping track of my writing progress and found that I could produce between 1,200 and 1,500 at each 30 minute writing session, so I thought, why not push myself. 8,000 felt like a good round number and I set aside the ten days and looked forward to having an 80,000 word first draft at the end of the exercise.
Before I began I gathered up all the prep work, the character sketches, the plot information I had already created. This book is a murder mystery that takes place in Hawaii. I knew who the victim was, why she was killed and who did it. This book is actually a major overhaul of my manuscript of “Deadly Hula Hands.” This would be the first book in what I hoped would become a trilogy of murder mysteries. I’d done as much planning as I felt I needed and then stocked up the fridge and to work.
Here’s how I did it. I set up my egg timer for 30 minutes and wrote what ever showed up. The scenes came in what ever order they chose, I knew it was a murder mystery, I knew who did it, who was killed and why. The first day I produced 8,700 and it was a breeze. The second day was also easy. When I got to the 3,000-word mark, something really amazing would happen, a scene that I had no idea had never had a glimpse of, and with new characters I’d never even conceived, showed up out of nowhere. It was like watching a new movie for the first time. I did my best not to ask questions about what was happening, but to just get it all down.
The best metaphor I have been able to come up with for this process is like I opened up my outstretched hands to the gods of writing and each scene that showed up was like a unique jewel. Granted, there were slugging days, when the writing didn’t come quite so quickly and the jewels looked a little duller than the others, but I kept on going.
The scenes kept coming, but they did not unfold in chronological order, and my left-brain started to itch, and by Day Four, that’s when I hit the wall. That’s when I asked “oh please, can I stop and make a timeline, I don’t know how this all fits together?” But it was clear that there was more to come, that I needed to trust the process. Day five, I was so sluggish, the words were slower and slower. I had to go to see my mom and hadn’t made my quota. I ended up writing my 8,031 words at 11:14 at night.
Then came the bargaining. I told myself that Sunday was going to be my day of rest, so that if I took part of Saturday, to review what I had written and only write 4,000, then I could write 4,000 on Sunday and be caught up. So, I printed out everything that I had done so far, which was 44,950 words and started to sift through it. But I didn’t have enough time to read it all and digest it all, so I still couldn’t figure it out. I did get 4,000 words on Saturday. I thought I was ready to go on Sunday. But then I set the timer and the scene that came out made no sense, they were talking about a character that in one scene had been in a coma and now in this scene he was dead? When did he die? Why did he die? I didn’t know. It was 730 of the worst measly words, and I had to stop. I had to admit that I was written out, the well was dry, and anything else would just be gibberish. I added that to the total and the result was 45, 680 words. Not the 80,000 that I had hoped for.
I did take the rest of Sunday to spend with my husband and my mother. We took her to see “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy” and then the miracle happened. While I was driving home, the crux of the book became crystal clear in my head. I could see a way to take what I’d done and expand into the trilogy that I had hoped to create. The two “warring” factions revealed themselves to me and I could see how to expand their skirmishes over three books. I began to see the backstories of some of these characters that had just “shown up” it was thrilling. So, the result is that I don’t have 80,000 words, but the 45,680 that I do have, are brilliant little jewels and when you put them side by side, you begin to see how they create new sparks, and each facet of each jewel is worth exploring.
For me, the experiment failed, but it was a big personal success. Here then are a few things that worked:
1. An egg timer that ticks. The sound of the ticking clock, spurred me on to write quickly and to race down the page. There are many writing gurus, who recommend this form of writing, and I agree, it doesn’t give your left-brain time to criticize what’s going on, it’s just holding on and enjoying the ride.
2. A bed. Yes, after each session, I would take ten to fifteen minutes to lie down. This helped me to “re-dream” my story. It also took pressure off my lower back and allowed the cerebral spinal fluid to get back to my brain where it would be needed for the next session.
3. Music. I have picked out a couple of “theme” songs for my book and when I feel the need, I’d play even a few bars and that would help to kick-start the process.
4. No Internet. I have my computer set up so when I start it in the morning, the only program that opens is Scrivener, the program I use for my writing. That’s it. No email, No browser. I don’t even read the morning paper on these working days.
What’s this process taught me is that this first draft is for me. I am lucky enough to have a front row seat at the “big bang” of creation for this project. This is why I love being a writer. Now, now the fun starts, because the second draft is for the READER. I get to bust out the toolkit and get to work. How am I going to present these lovely baubles to my readers? There is an idea I learned from Dramatica that talks about plotting in a unique way. That the plot points are for the writer, knowing the inciting incident, the first plot point, the climax. What the reader will experience and what I have to craft the journey from signpost to signpost.
To do that, I get to bust out my big sketchpad and my colored pens and post-it notes to map out the journey my protagonist will take. I get to examine my bunch of jewels and look for which ones naturally go together. Which ones make the most interesting contrast? Do I tell the story in chronological order with at ticking clock? Or, do I jump around the timeline, creating questions for the reader, hoping they will want to keep turning the pages to get those questions answered. This is where the writers’ toolbox comes in and I get to craft the best version of the story. As I wrote the scenes they showed up as a movie in my mind. I didn’t write details about the clothes they wore or the colors that surrounded, them or the rooms they were in. I saw them in my mind’s eye, but didn’t write out the details. That will come in the polishing draft, where I get to add the sights, smells, sounds, and tastes that are essential to ground the reader in the story world. Damn, I just can’t wait to get started.
For me, this experiment was a resounding success and it had boosted my confidence in enormous ways. I recently came across this quote from E. M. Forester, which says it all:
What about the creative state? In it a man is taken out of himself. He lets down as it were a bucket into his subconscious, and draws up something which is normally beyond his reach. He mixes this thing with his normal experiences, and out of the mixture he makes a work of art…. And when the process is over, when the picture or symphony or lyric or novel (or whatever it is) is complete, the artist, looking back on it, will wonder how on earth he did it. And indeed he did not do it on earth. [E. M. Forster, The Raison d’Etre of Criticism in the Arts] James, P.D. (2009-11-20). Talking About Detective Fiction (p. 158). Vintage. Kindle Edition.
It has proved to me that beyond a shadow of a doubt that I can dip my bucket at anytime and there will always be new material. That the only boundaries on creativity are the ones I place on myself. This is my version of the writer’s life and I am so, so happy to have the opportunity to share it with all of you. I’d love to hear your questions and your comments. If you want to give this experiment a try, please feel free to get in touch with me, I’ll answer any questions you may have.