Poems & Essays

15 Sep

Writing A Novel 400 Words At A Time: A Conclusion

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At the beginning of the year, I started a project. I would finally work on the book project I’d been putting off for years by writing 400 words five days a week until I hit my goal of 50,000 words. My deadline was June 26, my thirtieth birthday. Spoiler alert: I made it, barely. 

I typed the words “The End” on June 25, bringing my word count to just over 51,000. Is it the great American novel? Nope. Is it polished? Nope. Is it finished? Define “finished.” Honestly, even though I met my deadline and my first draft has a story arc, my manuscript is a mess. 

The further I got into the story, the farther away from my initial idea I found myself. My draft pretty much went where I thought it would, but the path was much more complicated than I expected. The plot twists and turns and begs for more detail and more character development than I could provide during this first go round.  As I wrote my first draft, I found that I had to give up any semblance of control I thought I had. Characters changed in ways that surprised me; subplots appeared that I hadn’t fully dealt with because I had to constantly push the story toward a finish then follow each rabbit hole that erupted. A lot of the writing process felt like the story was writing itself and I was constantly trying to herd it back toward the main goal.

When I talk about my now finished first draft, I like to say it’s more of a detailed outline than a draft. My goal was to get the story down, put the words on the paper, and find some sort of finish line. In doing this, I accomplished my goal, but I’d be lying if I said I felt satisfied. I know I need to flesh it out to really have a complete first draft, one that I can maybe send to readers before I tear it all down and rebuild it again. So, I’ve started thinking about how to accomplish that goal, the fleshing out of a real complete draft the same way I wrote the first draft—in tiny bites over time.  I think it’s me, taking ten pages at a time, and prepping them for a real or imaginary workshop.

I really enjoyed my fiction workshop and I plan on taking more in the future, as soon as my professional life calms down a little.  As much as I truly believe the best time to do anything is now, I recognize that some periods of time can be rougher than others. As I finished writing my first draft, I was days away from being laid off, interviewing and applying for jobs, and devoting a lot of my mental energy to the process. When I finally typed “the end” and gave myself permission to put my story away for a while, I was relieved to take something off my plate. That was over a month ago, and I’m still in a period of flux professionally.  I’m just now starting to think about revisions, but I doubt I’ll pick up my red pen until I feel a little more settled. I feel like I need to let the story sit for a while and give my life a second to calm back down to the buzz of the busy everyday instead of the raging busy of spending every free moment trying to find a way to keep the lights on.  

I’m so glad I did it and I’m so happy I’m done (for the moment). It was hard and will continue to be harder. But I now feel like I have permission to laugh aloud at anyone who bemuses that, when they retire one day, they’ll sit and write all day long and hammer out a book while enjoying every second because they just love to write. Let me tell you, there was very little about this whole writing a book thing that was “fun.” There was joy in accomplishment, sweet creative flow, and a ton of slogging through to meet the daily word count.  What I found I loved the most was the routine.  Writing every day, or five times a week, does make you feel like a writer. Setting goals and watching yourself fight to reach them is enjoyable in the same way that running any length of a distance is enjoyable—in a winded, sweaty “I’m glad that’s over” way. 

I’m not sure I even like my book right now. It sits in my cloud drive, taunting me with its imperfections. But it exists. I created it. From a seed of an idea to a 51,000 word document in six months. 400 words at a time. It’s very creation is a success, no matter how imperfect or unfinished.

Columnist Shannon Curtin is a 2014 Pushcart Prize nominee and the author of two collections of poetry, Motherland (Anchor and Plume Press), and File Cabinet Heart (ELJ Publications). She is the newly named Poetry Editor of The Quotable, and her writing has been featured in variety of literary magazines including Mothers Always Write, The Muddy River Review, The Mom Egg Review, and The Elephant Journal. She holds an MBA, competitive shooting records, and her liquor. You can find her at www.shannonmazur.com and @Shannon_Mazur.

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