A Novel Approach to Finishing a Novel September 18, 2013 – Posted in: A Picture's Worth, Blog, Featured Columns – Tags: Mike Pascale, writing
All written content ©2013 Mike Pascale. Visual content ©2013 its respective owner(s).
Hello! Please excuse the late post…I was out of town celebrating a loved one’s birthday (yes, I still have some priorities outside of comics). This is a bit off the normal path of this column, as it’s not about the “picture” but the thousand words it describes.
I want to share with all of you a personal accomplishment and encourage you to achieve your own goal, whatever it is. Around March of last year I finally began writing my first novel. (After having my first two short stories published last century, I figured it was time to get more out there.) I’d written a few short tales in the last couple years, but when I hit upon the concept for my novel, I really wanted to focus on just that. I’ve had so many grand ideas over the decades that began and fizzled or were never begun at all, and I vowed not to have that happen this time.
My original goal was to finish the first draft by the end of the year (2012). Didn’t happen. Then it was one full year after my start date. Then June 30th (first half of the year). Then by Comic-Con. Then August 31st. Finally, it was Friday, September 13th–before my wife’s birthday the following week and before leaving for a weekend trip. FINALLY made that one.
I can’t go into much detail at this point as it’s just a first draft and there’s a ton of work to go–proofing, rewriting, polishing, refining…then submitting, rejections, re-submitting and so on. But I will say it’s a fantasy novel of over 60,000 words that I’d never thought I’d write. And since I’ve heard from many others who’ve had similar goals, I figure I’ll just share what worked for me and you can perhaps find something to work for you.
1. PLAN IT
I’ve learned there are two basic camps here: outliners and “pantsers.” The first prefer to craft a formal outline of the story from start to finish, complete with chapter-by-chapter descriptions of a sentence to a paragraph about what happens in each. These folks also often produce complete profiles of each main character, which can take form of descriptions, “interviews” or lists.
The other group, which has nothing to do with attire, prefers to play it loose (by the seats of their “pants”). That was me. I found it easier to state my basic premise and a couple main characters in a notebook first, and then dive into my first chapter. These tend to be the easiest to begin because every source I’ve seen says the first chapter needs to be the “hook” to grab the reader right away, even in the first sentence. So I chose to start with a fight scene. Harlan Ellison’s advice for writers was to make each chapter a kind of mini-short story, with a beginning, middle and conclusion of its own; so with that in mind, I ended my first chapter with a cliffhanger which led to the second. And so on.
After a bit, I made a list of chapter numbers with a brief phrase or sentence describing what I wanted (or needed) to happen in each (along with many question marks). That gave me the comic-book equivalent of a thumbnail layout of the book so I had an idea what was going to occur, but was open-ended enough to allow for myriad changes with little effort. Again, this worked for me because in my comics, I never, ever typed out a full script, preferring the “Marvel method” even when working alone. But it really depends on the writer.
2. CHOP IT UP
I never created a file for the whole book. I wrote and saved each chapter as a separate file inside a folder for the book. This was much less daunting than saying, “Shoot, I’m only at chapter three with 38 more to go!” Instead, I could feel a sense of accomplishment every time I finished a chapter. “Another one done!” Gradually, my book “folder” filled up with chapters and before I knew it, I surprised myself by hitting 10, 20, and so on.
A caveat: I soon found out I needed some structure for reference. When re-using character names, spellings, events and such, I realized it was taking me too long to find them, forgetting what happened when. So I bought a spiral 3×5 card pad at the dollar or office supply store, and wrote the following on each page:
1. Title initials and chapter number
2. Opening sentence
3. Brief description of primary events/revelations for the chapter; circling any character or other important introductions/appearances. (For example, “Third meeting with villain,”, “Visits comic shop.”)
4. Ending sentence
5. Approximate word count of chapter
This worked well because I could rip pages out or change things easily, yet it was easy to refer to get my bearings and keep track of the plot. You could also use a card file (better to add and subtract), colored post-it notes on a wall board or of course any digital equivalent (many software programs like Final Draft and such have various notes capabilities). I just didn’t want to take the time getting bogged down with having to learn software at the same time. If you’re more tech-savvy or have a younger brain, that’s probably a more efficient route–although I did like being able to take my card pad anywhere anytime to go over and think about the plot and such.
3. PROGRESS, NOT PERFECTION
This was vital for my achievement, as it is for anything I do creatively. The idea is to JUST WRITE SOMETHING. Don’t worry about the perfect phrase or term or structure or even spelling. What matters is getting the story from your head to the page. Other than minor tweaks, doing research and doing a spellcheck when completing a chapter, I promised myself I’d focus on getting the draft done NOW and could always go over everything later to make sure it tracks, makes sense and sounds good. So yes, I did do some research when needed. Examples: my story takes place in Detroit so I looked up landmarks, buildings and streets to be accurate (found a great used book on the history of the city, with an extensive index). I had various dictionaries, encyclopedias and a thesaurus on the floor next to my chair to refer to for names, dates, spellings and such.
4. WRITE A LITTLE EVERY DAY VS. A LOT EVERY NOW AND THEN
If I’d stuck to my schedule better, I would have easily finished the book in six months; I just spent too much time finding excuses to NOT write. It was late, I was tired, I had to take out the garbage, I only had 20 minutes, I didn’t feel “into it”, blah, blah, blah. It’s no different than the strategy I used when writing/drawing my comics in the ‘90s–do something EVERY day, even Monday thru Friday, even if it’s just 15 minutes. Why? Because you’ll be 15 minutes further than you were the previous day. And after four days, even those quarter-hours will add up to over an hour! Throw in the days when you can put in a half hour and you’ll double your completion time. An hour, even better.
Some people prefer to write a complete sequence, scene or dialog exchange before stopping. That’s fine, as long as you don’t use it as an excuse to avoid writing. Personally, I preferred writing in pieces, leaving things incomplete, so that I couldn’t wait to continue the next day. (I later found out from mutual friend Cliff Meth that Harlan Ellison recommended and used the same technique, to an even greater extreme, often stopping in the middle of a sentence! I couldn’t do that, but I did prefer leaving things for the next session.)
Anyway, the clichés are correct: a journey of a thousand miles–or 60,000 words–begins with a single step…or a single word. Start now. Then let me know how you’re doing and soon I’ll celebrate with you!
P.S.: Time to get back to those pictures! If you’d like an original art commission of any character–yours, mine or someone else’s–I’m more than happy to create it for you at a very reasonable price. Just ask Craig here! [and for a limited time you can take 10% off Mike’s already crazy low rates! -Craig]