Lab Book for a Novel: Process, Targets and Goals

The Little Man is learning about the scientific method in school: making observations, asking a question, forming a hypothesis, making predictions, testing prediction, wash, rinse, repeat. Writing this novel, while not a perfect fit for the scientific method, certainly borrows from it. Observations I have made in the past when attempting to write at length have led to several questions. These include: Can I write well at length? Can I create a story that holds a reader through 100,000 words, and make them want more when it is all over?

I am generally a pantser—one who writes by the seat of his pants, without planning much beyong where I am in the story. Stephen King has likened this method of writing to digging up a fossil, revealing a bit at a time, until eventually, the whole thing is there for you to look at. I have also heard this described as a “headlight” method of writing: writing in the dark, with a headlight which allows you only to see a few steps ahead at any time.

This method has worked well for me with short fiction. In fact, I have sold every piece of short fiction I wrote using this method and sold exactly none of the pieces I plotted out in advance. That is well and good for short fiction, but I am becoming more skeptical that it works for me with longer fiction. My hypothesis, therefore, would be: If I blended my methods, mixing plotting and pantsing, I could write and finish a novel length story that keeps both me and readers interested throughout.

It is important to me to keep the story fresh for me. If it dulls on me while I write it, it certainly will dull on readers and that makes me losing interest in telling the story. Returning to the headlight analogy, perhaps if I set out waypoints, close enough that I know what direction they are in, but far enough away that I still need my headlight to find my way there, I’ll write a better story. This prediction is certainly testable, both in terms of the process and the output. Subsequent drafts allow me to iterate through this prediction and testing phase.

But what is the story? If you follow along with this lab book, it would be difficult to have the right context without knowing something about the story I am trying to write. And yet, I can’t talk about (or write about) the story specifics without losing the desire to write the story. In this regard, I am reminded of Ken Lui’s excellent novella, “The Man Who Ended History: A Documentary” In that story, it was possible to witness past events, but doing so consumed the ability to witness it again. Once I tell a story, whether describing it to a friend, or typing it into the keyboard, I seem to lose my desire and ability to tell that same story again.

What I can tell you is this:

  • Like the last several stories I sold, this novel features baseball as an important thread.
  • The story takes place across two distinct time periods separated by about 60 years.
  • Like “Gemma Barrows Comes to Cooperstown” (IGMS, May 2015), the story, while centered around professional baseball, is really not about baseball as much as the effect the game had over the course of one person’s life… and its potential effect on civilization as a whole.
  • There is an element of the fantastic to the story, but I won’t say any more than that right now.

This is how I think of the story, now, at least. I’ll try to come back to this when the first draft is finished and see how that matches up to what I said here. Often, the story finds its own path as I write.

I learned through a lot of trial an error that I need a good beginning and a good ending to get started. These provide anchoring points, and while they may change over the course of a story, I need them to get started to know where I am going. In this case, I have 9 “waypoints” that I’ve marked out along the way to help me across what I imagine will be at least 90,000 words of storytelling. I am hopeful that these waypoints will keep me on track. Unlike short stories, where I have a pretty good sense of ending when I start out, for this one, I have only a vague sense of the ending. This could be good or bad. I’m going to take it as good. 90,000 words is long way from beginning to end and a lot can happen. Better to keep some slack in the line.

It would be good to have a schedule. That’s tough. I can’t guarantee I’ll be able to write every day, given work and family obligations. I have no problem writing for 10 minutes here or there, but 10 minutes one day, no writing the next, and 2 hours the day after that makes it tough to come up with a schedule. So, I’m taking a page from my project management experience, and looking at past history. In 2013, when I wrote my first novel draft, I started at the end of the February and finished mid-September of that year. Call it six months, or 180 days. 95,000 words divided by 180 days comes to an average of 527 words/day. Let’s round it down to 500 words/day on average.

If I start in the next couple of days, I should finish in 180 days. Monday, September 23 is the first day of fall. Seems like as good a date as any to target as a start date. At 500 words/day that would give me an end date of March 21, 2020.

In project management, there is usually some contingency built in. Let’s call it 10%, or 9,000 words. 9,000/500 = 18 days of contingency. There may be some days I am not able to write at all. There are also vacations, busy work scheduled, etc. Of course, on other days I may write more than 500 words, but let’s factor in the contingency to plan for the unexpected. Adding 18 days to March 21, 2020 we get April 8, 2020.

I will aim to have the first draft of this novel finished on Wednesday, April 8, 2020.

Again, this is a baseline that we can come back to in April and see how things are going. If I am off, we can investigate why.

We now have the baselines for this experiment of mine:

  • Target length: 90,000 words
  • Target start date: Monday, September 23, 2019
  • Daily goal: 500 words
  • Contingency: 10% (9,000 words, or 18 days)
  • Target completion date: Wednesday, April 8, 2020

And yes, all of these stats are tracked and captured in a Google Spreadsheet (called my “Logbook for a Novel”) which I will talk about tomorrow when I talk about my tools for this project.

Of course, the first draft of a novel is only one part. What about after? Well, I’m not ready to plan that far ahead. One step at time, as the saying goes. I’ll worry about the second draft after I have a completed first draft.