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The Beginning of the End

Here we go...

Welcome friends and fellow writers! We're quickly approaching June 1st—the beginning of what promises to be an insane nine months—and I’m delighted to embark on this journey with you. (Check out my home page for more info on why I'm embarking on this journey at all.) This blog post is will serve two purposes:

  1. To briefly intro my novel. If the blurb seems like a teaser, don’t worry; you’ll be hearing more about the actual content of the book in the coming months. That being said, the main objective of this blog is to discuss process, not to promote a book I haven't even written yet.

  2. To break down my process and deadlines. Note that my approach is not prescriptive, it’s a case study. I have no idea if my process will work for other writers or, for that matter, if it will even work for me. I've used variations of this process in the past to some degree of success, but if there’s one thing I've learned it’s that no project ever goes quite the way I plan it to. Therefore, what I lay out today is highly subject to change. And when (not if) it does change, you'll be the first to know.

And now, on to the pitch!

My thesis novel: Sunset Sultan

Sultan Ferry, bastard child of a high school vice principal and a barely legal student, is the last baby born after natural and artificial reproductive efforts fail globally. From the moment he pops out of the womb, an entire population lives vicariously through the hit reality TV show Sunset Sultan, projecting their ideas of a perfect “last life” onto introverted, self-reflective, bald-since-birth Sultan Ferry, who at age sixteen wants nothing more than to crawl out from under the media’s thumb.

Sultan’s only solace is his friend—or, as the media likes to say, his “arch-nemesis”—Dev Chaudhuri, the boy he beat out for the title of Youngest Person Alive by a whopping two minutes. Pursuing wild conspiracy theories, Sultan and Dev stow away to South America in search of children rumored to be living in the Amazon, hoping that such a discovery will divert the media’s attention once and for all.

Potential issues I foresee:

Who is Dev?

I haven’t quite figured him out yet. What's his personality like? How will he interact with Sultan? What's his story arc? How will his presence inform Sultan’s development? It makes me nervous to launch a project without having a firm grip on a main/supporting character.

What happens in Act II?

I have a bare bones outline and rough character transformation trajectories, but the third quarter of the novel could go several different directions and I’m not sure where to take it.

Can I sensitively handle the cultural crossover?

The bulk of the narrative plays out in the Amazon rainforest. The beginning backdrop is Hollywood. One of the characters is Indian. I, on the other hand, am a white girl deeply submersed in east coast culture. Can I pull off these perspective shifts?

What’s the genre?!

It should be simple. If it sounds like YA, looks like YA, and smells like YA... it must be YA. But does it read like YA? My style has usually fallen into the literary fiction category, so I’m a little tentative about transitioning to something more commercial. I've always written about and for adults—can I skew younger? My plan is to write the shitty first draft however it comes out, then I’ll take a step back and make a conscious decision about target market.

Conclusion: Most of these things can hang loose in the first draft. The second draft is when I’ll start fitting the puzzle pieces together. Which brings me to...

Breakdown of process & deadlines

June 23 — Finish shitty first draft

The "shitty first draft" is a term coined by Anne Lamott—one of younger me’s favorite authors—but innately known through experience by most writers.

Every shitty first draft is a different kind of shit, but mine specifically resemble incomplete evacuation. I leave transitions out, skip important scenes, summarize entire passages with something like [insert huge blowout argument here.] I get about half the story out while moving from plot point to plot point as though everything is in order. (It’s not.) I give myself permission to be laughably inconsistent: a character who was blonde on page five is now bald on page fifty; a character whose worst fear is water gives no second thought to swimming to shore when the boat capsizes. The prose is stream-of-conscious blocks of purpleness (that's writer talk for overly flowery) punctuated by emotionless, robotic subject/verb sentences. The dialogue is repetitive, forced, or overly dramatized. The tone shifts left and right. Themes pop up here and there but don’t come to fruition.

I write whatever comes out and try to keep my fingers moving as fast as possible, not stopping to think (much) or to edit. The only goal is to get from point A, the beginning I have in mind, to point B, the ending I have in mind.

At least, that's the only structural goal. There's another goal that's far more important and also far more abstract: to find the voice. I want to walk away from the shitty first draft feeling like I really got into a groove with the narration, like it came from a clear, specific perspective and is interesting, nuanced, and drenched in character. (Finding this voice will also help me determine the genre.)

September 30 — Finish meh second draft

A "meh second draft," my own phrase, is a near-blind rewrite of the first draft. After I’ve told the story once, to myself, chaotically, I’m ready to go back and shape it into something more cohesive. I’ll read through chapter 1 of the shitty first draft, then open a new tab in Google docs and rewrite it from scratch. I might look back at the original version to see if there’s anything salvageable—usually nothing more than a couple sentences or a shiny turn of phrase—but for the most part I’m producing new material for the second draft. In this second draft I’ll fill in the transition gaps, write missing scenes, make sure the characters have satisfying arcs, and address glaring inconsistencies. This is the time to ensure structural integrity.

October 31 — Finish relatively decent third draft, send to beta readers

This is when things start to come together. If draft 2 is a rewrite on the structural level, then draft 3 is a rewrite on the prose level. For draft 3, I’ll go through once chapter by chapter, then again paragraph by paragraph, and still again sentence by sentence to make the prose sing.

After draft 3 is the point at which I prefer to solicit critiques. The plot and character arcs are in place, the themes are integrated, and the prose is passable. Basically, the novel is in decent shape but not so finalized that big changes can’t be made. Time to send it off to beta readers for harsh, brutal, caustic feedback. (I haven’t lined up beta readers yet, so ping me if you’re interested. Looking for 3-5 readers to commit to a two-week turnaround.)

January 31 — Finish pretty good fourth draft

In draft 4, I’ll integrate feedback from both my beta readers and my thesis director. Who knows what could happen at this stage.

February 28 — Finish and submit final draft

This is a hard deadline set by the school—no wiggle room here! The final draft will, hopefully, consist mostly of proofreading. (And second-guessing every decision I’ve made.)

March 1 to eternity — Query agents

Once I submit my thesis I’ll play mind-numbing video games day and night for at least a full week, wait impatiently for my final grade, march in my graduation ceremony, and then... start querying agents. (For the non-writers reading this, getting an agent is the first step to traditional publication.) Lots more on that to come.

June micro-deadlines

In order to meet my goal of completing an 80k-word shitty first draft by June 23rd, I’ll need to write 3,500 words per day June 1-23. (For context, this blog post is ~1,500 words.) Here’s a portion of the spreadsheet I’ll be using to track my progress:

This spreadsheet is not new for #NineMonthsToNovel; I’ve used versions of it for many projects over the past two years. (Clearly I’m a person who’s motivated by incremental gains.) If all goes planned, it will look like this at the end:

If you’re a writer and you track your progress by word count, I'm expecting you to tell me that 3,500 words per day is unmanageable. I know, I get it. I might even agree. The best I’ve done historically is to manage winning NaNoWriMo a couple of times, which is 50k words in one month and breaks down to 1,667 words per day. Besides the fact that 3,500 is a ridiculously high number, I usually end up working in spikes anyway—7,000 words one day, 200 the next—so I’m not necessarily optimistic that I’ll be able to maintain the momentum I’m projecting. Add to that the fact that I’ll also be doing some light research and outlining during the month of June... I crazy? Is 3,500 words/day doable? What’s the highest number of words you’ve written in a day? What’s your most impressive streak? Anyone out there want to join me in writing a novel in nine months?!

And on that note...

I would LOVE to hear from you. What bits of data and information are you most interested in reading about? What doesn’t speak to you as much? What questions do you need answered? What wisdom would you like to share? Are you writing a novel right now and just want to talk about it? Tell me everything. Tweet at me (@laura_e_rees) or leave a comment on the blog! #NineMonthsToNovel #SunsetSultan

#NineMonthsToNovel #SunsetSultan #thesisnovel #shittyfirstdraft #writingprocess