Whew! Chapter 1 Is Done! (And A Few Words About Writing the Damn Thing)

Sorry I haven’t been updating this blog for a while. I decided that I should be, y’know, Writing the Damn Thing.

But I have good news!

I completed my first draft of the first chapter of The Damn Thing. Ain’t that something?

All it required was starting from scratch (I know, I know) and completely changing the tone and direction of my original idea. It’s less murder mystery and more naive young woman ventures into a magical realm, or thereabouts. Think Labyrinth, Legend, Spirited Away and Pan’s Labyrinth instead of The Howling or American Werewolf in London. Don’t worry. I’ve still got my Israeli lesbian werewolf element. It just takes on a different flavor, more akin to the darker, sexier fairy tales I enjoy most. (This will most emphatically not be a children’s or YA novel.)

How did it get to this point where I not only have the beginning of the novel under my belt, but also have a good feeling about the direction it needs to take?

A few reasons.

1. I broke the Damn Thing down to manageable steps. 

Writing your first novel is daunting. It’s the kind of thing that makes you say, “Holy shit, what did I sign up for?”

So, I broke it down into pieces to make it less daunting. To make it easy on myself, I picked a ballpark like 50,000 words for the length of my novel. Although this is much shorter than the average for urban fantasy/paranormal romance, 50,000 words considered complete for literary novels. Chances are I’ll go a bit longer than that, but 50,000 words is my minimum.

Then, using the novel-length fanfic I wrote last year, I broke it down further into roughly 10 chapters. This makes around 5,000 words per chapter. So far, so good.

Then I broke it down some more.

Each chapter is probably going to have different sections in it, so I decided on three to five sections per chapter. That’s enough to flesh out that part of the story. That’s 1,000 to 1,700 words per section. No sweat.

Then I broke that down even more.

Each section of a chapter is about 1,000 words. Then I thought about those 500-word essays I wrote for English class back in high school. Those were only 5 paragraphs long. And that puts a paragraph at roughly 100 words for, say, a 4–line paragraph.

So, 10 or so paragraphs is a section of a chapter. That’s manageable, but you can break it down to even smaller parts.

Let’s come up with a new category for a part of a chapter that’s smaller than a section but larger than a paragraph. Let’s call them chunks to make it easy to remember.

If we break each section up into 3 to 5 chunks, that makes 2 or 3 paragraphs of material per chunk to create the 10 paragraphs for a section of a chapter. 2 or 3 paragraphs. Now that’s what I call manageable.

Let’s work this from the ground up.

  • 2 or 3 paragraphs per chunk.
  • 3 to 5 chunks per section.
  • 3 to 5 sections per chapter.
  • 10 chapters per novel.

At minimum, I aim to finish at least one chunk–that’s two paragraphs–per day. I can do more, and I definitely do more on a daily basis, but we’re talking bare minimum here. No matter what’s going on in my life, I can carve out time for 2 paragraphs a day. If nothing else, that’s what I aim for. Easy-peasy. I can do that half asleep.

2. I liberated myself from my deadline.

This was the hardest part. I’m extremely particular about getting things done when I say I’m going to get them done, and I like to get things done sooner rather than later. That said, I don’t think the Memorial Day deadline will work very well for me. Right now, I’m not at a point in the story where I feel like I know how long it could or should take me to finish a chapter.

So, instead of breaking myself in half trying to beat this deadline, I’m moving it back quite a ways. The novel-length fanfic took me about 3 months, give or take a few weeks, to finish, so I’m giving myself at least that amount of time to finish a first draft of this Damn Thing. Three months from mid-April, which is when I stopped playing around and really started Writing the Damn Thing. Three months at this pace puts me at a mid-July stopping date.

If I want to laze my way around to it and complete one chunk per day for the entirety of the novel, it’ll take me most of a year to finish a draft. Let’s see if I can push myself juuuuuust a little.

Let’s pick a nice, round number like 100 days. Now, 50,000 words in 100 days is about 500 words per day. That’s about 2 chunks or 5 or 6 paragraphs. If we treat this like a full-time job where I work on my novel 5 days a week, that’s 20 weeks, or 5 months. I can do that!

That puts me at a mid-September deadline for a first draft. I can do that!

3. I used an outline . . . sorta.

I’ve posted before about the semi-mindmapping thing I do when I brainstorm ideas, but the actual writing, the actual sitting down and putting pen to paper and fingers to keyboard, goes by a bit differently, and it’s pretty messy.

Now that I’ve broken down my novel into its component parts, it’s easier for me to work on a scale that’s comfortable for me. So, instead of worrying about chapters or pages or word count, I focus on sections.

I like working in sections because I tend to visualize them as scenes, and that feels natural to me because of my playwriting background. Like a scene, each section changes something, usually the location, but sometimes it can examine the same events from a different point of view.

Like a scene, each section serves a particular purpose in the story. This purpose keeps me on track too. It’s easy for me to get distracted and wander off in an entirely new direction, but with a clear idea of what each section is meant to do, I can put all my creativity and energy into the three to five 2- and 3-paragraph chunks that make up each section.

Being semi-rigid about this structure, it’s ironically easier for me to play with words and ideas and commit them to paper. I got a lot more writing done, with a lot less scrapping and starting over (none, actually) than when I only tried to work a piece at a time or when I only looked at the story as a whole.

4. I made room for chaos.

The process of getting the words of The Damn Thing from my head to my laptop involves a lot of chicken scratch on a lot of printer paper.

Really, it does.

Chicken scratch for Chapter 1.
More chicken scratch for Chapter 1.

See what I mean?

I kill poor trees like this because my mind, in its creative space, does not work in a linear way. Rather than try to force it into a rigidity that atrophies it, I give myself the space to work out ideas, try them on, see which ones work and which don’t. I wind up keeping most of it in some form or another, so I don’t toss anything until it’s obsolete.

I used to try to handwrite my ideas into neat, orderly paragraphs then transfer them to my a digital file, but that just frustrated me, so I went from chicken scratch to laptop. I wrote most of the last half of the first chapter this way, so I think I’m going to keep this part of my process. Alas, poor trees.

5. I got out of my word processor and into my text editor.

Like I said before, having something open that keeps tabs on pages and word counts isn’t the best way to keep me focused on actually writing instead of worrying about hitting my quota.

So, I decided that a text editor–yes, I mean Notepad in Windows–would be a better way to transcribe my chicken scratch to a digital file without getting sidetracked by how I’m measuring up.

Turns out this helped me a lot. When I didn’t focus on my word count through the entire process, I could focus on completing the chunks I needed to make progress on my story. I did cheat and sneak a peek between chunks, but I was more often than not pleasantly surprised by how much more I got done, and how much better I liked it.

Let’s see how well all this works for me going into the second chapter.