Good Sex, Great Prayers: A Journey in Publication (Part 2: Writing the Novel)
Click HERE for Part 1 of the series
I’ve been writing seriously for about ten years now. Take note of how I didn’t use the term ‘writing professionally,’ as that would indicate the monetary value of my work has been substantial enough to live on, which is not the case. Only recently have I been able to lock down writer’s fees in the three-and-four figure arenas, but these are so few and far between that they essentially mean nothing more than a sizeable credit card payment or an extravagant dinner a la Ron Swanson, where steak and good scotch are consumed in excess. The paydays, at this point, are a supplemental form of income that only come every once in a while, but a welcome reminder that there’s money to be made in this industry if you simply stick to it and don’t yield to failure. For most ‘serious writers,’ this is when you know you’re starting to make some type of forward progress. You will start to see compensation for your work, but more importantly, you’ll notice that the process of approaching the novel or a short story becomes more refined. Like anything, it gets easier with practice and experience. So let’s address the question that most aspiring writers ask: how do you write a novel?
Let’s cut through the bullshit right away: if you’re one of those people that only writes when you ‘feel like it’ or when you’re ‘inspired,’ then you can look forward to many years of the project always going too slow, never completing anything, and ultimately, getting outworked by the people that understand the craft of writing isn’t a relationship based on impulses. Also, if you truly are one of those people that can only pen words when inspiration hits, I wouldn't make a publisher or any industry types aware of that. They'll automatically think you're flaky and incapable of hitting a deadline.
For me, there are no days off. I write when I don’t feel like it and when I’m not inspired. I write when I’m a little hung-over from the night before and would rather knock out a few shows on my DVR queue. I write the way Andy Dufresne tunnels out of Shawshank: every day, a little bit at a time. Make a schedule and stick to it. Repetition and routine are how good writing habits are formed. The sooner this is learned, the better. Although I’m not a subscriber to the NaNoWriMo method of reaching 50,000 words within the month at all costs (tends to yield an especially shitty first draft that’s almost impossible to edit; read more about that HERE), I will concede that it does make the writer write and do so with a sense of urgency. Deadlines have that effect on people.
Regarding Good Sex, Great Prayers, I’m sticking with the 500-1,000 word per day quota, using an Excel spreadsheet consisting of date, daily word count, and total word count to track my progress. Considering that I only have a vague idea as to how many words it’ll take before the project will be deemed complete, this pacing is more of an estimated guess. With the release date tentatively set for April 2013, it should (emphasis on ‘should’) be more than enough time to produce a draft ready for beta readers. The novel recently hit the 65K mark. This, like most other landmarks, was also documented and shared.
The mistake that a lot of writers make when they’re tackling a novel is that they have this tendency to want to sit down and ‘wing it.’ I too was guilty of this when I was first starting out. I’d come in with only a vague idea of my characters and setting, a foggy sense of direction for the plot, thinking that this was enough to get the words flowing and I could figure it out as I went along. What I learned is that this often led to a series of hiccups, either in a sense that I didn’t know what I wanted to do next or what I had already done wasn’t right. Uncertainty is the root of writer’s block, and the bane of many would-be authors.
With Good Sex, Great Prayers, I’ve become an outline junkie. I outline the lead characters, the setting, the major plot points. I’ll plant myself on the couch with a sketchpad and draw maps of the town (known as Pratt in the novel), naming streets and using symbols to indicate landmarks like gas stations and grocery stores. It has to be thorough, from the church’s leaky roof to the price of oranges at the farmer’s market. These are the details you need to sell the story and avoid sounding too generic. You need to know your characters so damn well their thought process becomes second-nature. Get to know these people you’re about to write: what they look like, what they eat, their skills and personal shortcomings. Define their personality, their morality. Create a world; play God. You’re never going to regret having too much information or familiarity, so don’t be afraid to spend some time fleshing these areas out. Bottom line: you’re going to have a hard time conveying your vision to the reader if you can’t even see it yourself.
Plot, on the other hand, lends to less improvisation than the areas of character or setting. It’s a different kind of outlining. The decision you make on page 24 could drastically affect what you can do on page 305, so it’s best to approach with a definitive plan to avoid getting stuck. The majority of the time, writer’s block is not knowing what to do next. You can avoid that problem by plotting the four or five major turns of your project.
For instance, Good Sex, Great Prayers employs the Marvel Team-Up plotline. For those not familiar with that particular comic, an example of this would be:
-Daredevil and Spider-Man cross paths
-They kick the shit out of each other a little (usually based on some minor disagreement)
-They spot a mutual enemy (like the Kingpin), opting to momentarily set their differences aside for the greater good
-Through the efforts of their teamwork, they are able to overcome their foe
Good Sex, Great Prayers roughly follows the same arc, but with conflicting faith/ideals/beliefs being used instead of superheroes (with a fair amount of erotica thrown in). Speculate however you want on how that will actually work. The point is that once that roadmap is established, it makes the actual writing of the novel less prone to the interruption of uncertainty. You’ll be able to hit those daily word quotas consistently and the big picture will be that much clearer.
To recap: know your setting, know your characters, know where the hell you’re going. The speed of a novel isn’t always determined by how much you get done in a day, but rather, how little you hit roadblocks and avoid having to retool entire sections.
I write every day. I plan what I’m going to do, then I execute.
I sit down in an oversized office chair, usually in pajamas and a tee shirt. Sometimes there’s music playing. I’m partial to tracks with no vocals, so there’s usually something by Hans Zimmer playing on repeat in iTunes. I write to one track on an infinite loop. At some point, it just becomes background noise. I check Facebook and Twitter. I write more. I’ve learned to scale down on posts and tweets during writing time because if my phone alerts me of a response, I’m compelled to check it. Same goes for an incoming text. If I can’t sit down and immediately start cranking out words, I’ll read the previous chapter to grease the wheels. That helps, as does copious amounts of coffee. I like to get wired while I’m in the chair. With one looping track and my power coffee and the outline to guide the way, this appears to be the environment conducive to my creativity. I write, and then every hour I smoke. I go upstairs, say hello to my dogs, and then my girlfriend and I will take a smoke break together out in the back alley. Sometimes I pitch her ideas while we smoke: either about the book or weekend plans or if we should give the new restaurant in the Crossroads district a try. The break lasts about seven minutes, at which point, we go back downstairs and I repeat the cycle: write, Facebook, Twitter, write, drink, text, write, visit dogs, smoke. These sessions last somewhere around five hours, and then there’s a dinner thrown in there when the coffee becomes too much and I need to eat. That’s the daily grind, and somehow during that time, I hit my daily word quota and switch to ‘off’ mode.
I decompress. I lounge on the couch with a mixed drink and begin that process of winding down via the DVR queue and iPhone games and texting. I check Facebook and Twitter and Instagram. I’ve burned out on writing before, so I know this is just as important to the overall process: not thinking about work, taking my head out of the project. As I said, there’s a schedule you should be writing on. Well, there’s also a schedule to not write on. There’s a time to work, to relax, and to play. I can play pretty fucking hard sometimes. When the novel becomes too overwhelming, sometimes a night out is the best way to clear my mind’s browser history. So we go out, catch some drinks with friends, either at a club or a wine bar. Sometimes we do dinner. With the writing schedule, there seems to be this pattern of having to ‘catch up’ on things. I like those conversations, the distraction of it not being about me or this novel that I’m doing. I like taking a break from Christian-erotica and chatting over a few glasses of wine. There’s a certain clarity the experience provides me, and although I’ll wake up with a headache and needing a little bit more coffee than usual the next day, I’m nonetheless ready to work.
That's the important part: always being ready to come back.
That’s basically the ebb and flow of this project: finding a pattern, a routine, and sticking with it. Having a plan, then executing the plan. When it’s time to write, I write. When it’s over, I do the best I can not to think about the project. I can’t say that Good Sex, Great Prayers has been the easiest book to write. There have been points where I’ve gotten stuck or second-guessed the direction I was going. I will say that it’s been the least stressful project I’ve ever taken on, and I attribute much of that to keeping a balance between writing and everything else.
By the next column, Good Sex, Great Prayers will be done and we’ll enter into the next phase of the process. Until then, feel free to ask questions, make observations, argue with me how you only write when you feel like it and it actually works fine, etc. I look forward to hearing from you in the comments below.
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