Earlier this week, I crossed the 20,000 word mark on my novel in progress. If you're curious, that translates to roughly 80 double-spaced manuscript pages. Considering that the average mass-market genre paperback runs around 60,000 words (240 pages), this seems like an ideal place to pause and reflect on the journey so far. I'll repeat this exercise at the 40,000 word mark, and again upon completion of the first draft, in hopes of sharing some of what I've learned with you.
But first, let me make an admission: I fibbed to you in a previous blog entry. If you remember, I told you that this book is my first novel. Well, it's not. It's actually my third novel. Don't hit.
Yes, it's true: I wrote two novels in the late '90s, but no one ever saw them. Despite my best efforts, the end result of my wordsmithery was a pair of books so utterly horrendous that I immediately disowned them, threw holy water on the hard copies, and exorcised the digital files right off my hard drive. As far as I know, both books are gone forever, and believe me, that's no great loss. I claim no parentage of those earlier literary disasters, and this new project feels like a first novel all over again. So if you'll allow me to employ some Obi-Wan Kenobi logic, you'll see that what I told you was true... from a certain point of view. In every way that matters, this is a first novel.
Oh, by the way, since I haven't mentioned it, you may as well know that the book is a light-heated, comic-tinged mystery, in the style of Lawrence Block's The Burglar Who... series. My protagonist is an unorthodox private investigator named Clayton Gyler, who uses a bumbling facade to hide a shrewd, analytical mind. He constantly places his life, and the life of his staff, in danger. As a result, he must contend with a lot of employee turnover at his agency, which poses no end of problems for him. It's hard to be thorough when you have no one to help you.
The act of writing this book has been both easier and harder than I expected. Let me break it down as follows:
Easier. Writing this book has been easier than I expected because I have a great sense of the protagonist. I'm writing the book in the first person, and my viewpoint character, Clayton Gyler, is one I've lived with for a number of years: he starred in a couple of short stories I wrote in the mid-90s, entitled The Fine Print and (in a transparent homage to Lilian Jackson Braun) The Cat Who Couldn't Solve Mysteries. Because I am comfortable with this character, it's a pleasure to write about him, and to put words into his mouth.
Harder. On the other hand, writing this book has been harder than I expected because I made the (perhaps foolish) decision not to outline the story ahead of time. When I sat down and began pecking out the first chapter, I had no idea what the main conflict would be, or how I would arrive at the climax. Now that I'm approximately one-third of the way through the tale, I'm much more aware of my protagonist's goals, and the obstacles he will face on his way to achieving them. However, I already know several places in which I will need to revise the earlier chapters to plant clues and insert backstory.
This has made it difficult for me to show the book to anyone as I'm writing it. I had intended to share each new chapter with a small group of beta readers, but I quit doing this with the second chapter; I already knew changes would be required that would render the earlier version of the text unusable. I am keeping careful notes as I think of these changes, but I've opted not to backfill the text until I start the second draft. Otherwise I'd do nothing but rewrite the first 80 pages over and over from now until the end of time, and would never finish the book.
Write a complete draft, then worry about fixing it. That's my strategy.
Although not operating from an outline means I knew very little about my story when I began creating it, it allowed me the experience of operating in the same way as my protagonist: he, like me, is trying to get to the bottom of the mystery and doesn't know the solution ahead of time. As such, it feels very natural to write about his efforts to solve the case, because that's exactly what I'm doing too.
Also, Mr. Gyler has surprised me with his ingenuity on a few occasions, which he couldn't have done if I'd decided to adhere to a strict outline. I started writing a particular scene a few days ago, intending for it to play out in a certain way, but Clayton simply wouldn't cooperate. Instead, he devised a solution to a problem that was so different from what I'd expected that I actually laughed out loud.
Don't let me confuse you: Although my fingers were the ones tapping the keys, it was the character who came up with the solution, and he wouldn't take no for an answer. I let him have his way, and his rash actions turned what would otherwise have been a fairly prosaic scene into my favorite moment of the book so far. Allowing my characters the ability to overrule me--that's been the biggest delight of the process thus far.
So at any rate, that's the view from 20,000 words. I'll continue to work on the book in the weeks to come, and I'll update you each time I break through a new 20,000 word barrier. Thanks for your interest and your support.