I’m sure you’ve heard this advice before: get your first draft down. Don’t overthink it. Just get the thoughts down, get the words down, and finish.

It’s common advice, and it’s not hard to see why. One of the hardest lessons for a new writer to learn is that you have to actually finish projects. And that’s really friggin’ hard! Unless you’re very, very fast, writing 80,000+ words will take several months of work. And that’s just finishing draft #1!

Thus, the advice: just finish, even if it’s garbage.

But you know what? “Write a shitty first draft” means totally different things to different people.  So here’s what it means to me, and why I think it’s an excellent idea… if you’re doing it the way I do.

What does it mean to write a “shitty first draft”?

So, first thing’s first. Finishing is important. Finishing is really important! But this doesn’t mean anything goes. Specifically:

  • Write all the events that you want to happen, even if they’re out of order or don’t have the right emotional tone.
  • If you have scenes you absolutely love to death, put them in here.
  • Connect those scenes as best you can, and foreshadow them as best you can, even if you aren’t 100% sure you’re going to keep all this content.
  • Don’t worry about how nice it sounds. Your scenes don’t have to be beautifully crafted. They just have to exist.
  • Attempt to put all the connections in. For every plotline or character arc, you should put all the major events in: every plot twist, every reveal, every important landmark of character growth.
  • Write all the way to the end.
  • Try to structure it as a story. This means that there are no holes, no “And then everyone was somewhere else, with no explanation!”, and no “WRITE FIGHT SCENE HERE”s. Try to connect the dots.

Does that mean that you only write stuff you want to keep? Of course not! I always have a few scenes (or a few chapters, or many chapters…) that I’m pretty sure I’m going to have to throw out. But I write them if I have to do so to finish the story, then push through to the ending. But I write everything I know I want, connect it with stuff that will probably be similar, and finish.

The end result usually looks like a coherent novel that you could theoretically read and understand. It’s just not very good.

What does a “shitty first draft” NOT mean?

So here’s the problem: I’ve seen people take this advice really differently. “Just finish, no matter what? Great! There are no rules anymore! Nothing matters! There are no standards! Now, as long as I reach 80,000 words, I’m successful!”

And then they just write nonsense. Your story isn’t long enough? Throw in two chapters of backstory! Add characters or events for no reason at all! Who cares! We’re just aiming for a word count!

No! No no no no! You should definitely not:

  • Write nonsense.
  • Completely give up on telling a story and only care about producing a full novel’s worth of words.
  • Change your mind about the story you want to write, but write the old idea anyway so you can “just finish” something.
  • Write filler for the singular purpose of raising your word count.
  • Give up on writing anything that resembles a linear story.

And why not?

The point of finishing a story is to create something you can edit.

When people say “JUST FINISH THE STORY,” they aren’t giving you permission to write anything–anything at all!–as long as the end result is longer than 80,000 words (or whatever your goal is.)

The goal isn’t only to finish. If you want this to be more than just a learning experience, you also need to make something you can edit. And what can you edit?

  • Characters you want to keep
  • Events you want to happen
  • Plot arcs you like

…Even if these are all trash! If your characters exist but are poorly fleshed out, you can fix them. If you have events you like, but they’re not in the right places, you can move them. These things may be poorly written and not very engaging, but they exist, and you want them, so you can fix them.

But if you needed 20,000 words to finish a story, so you padded out the ending… who cares? You don’t care about that content. And when it comes time to edit, and to decide what stays and what goes, your only choice will be to throw it all out. And now you’re 20,000 words poorer and you have nothing to edit.

Remember: it’s okay to write messy. Just be strategic about it.

A first draft is like a puzzle. You can finish it if you have all 1,000 pieces on the table in front of you. If your pieces are gross? That’s fine. You only have the outline, and you’re missing big parts of the middle? Still a place to start. You have a bunch of pieces that don’t even belong to this puzzle? That’s okay! You can fix it.

But you can’t make a puzzle by starting with 1,000 mixed-and-matched pieces, especially if your master plan is to just sweep the table and start over from scratch. In that case, why bother? You wrote a full-length novel, sure. But you didn’t make it any easier to write the story you want to write.

So write messy. Write imperfect sentences. Write not-beautiful things. But write with purpose, too.

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Logo for WriteOnCon.

WriteOnCon is coming up! This year, it’s running from February 9 to 11, Friday through Sunday.

Haven’t heard of it before? Check it out. WriteOnCon is a writing convention for children’s book authors, including everything from picture books to New Adult. It’s also completely online, which means you don’t have to go anywhere–just register, sign on, and watch the panels!

It’s only $5 to read all the blog posts, $10 to see all the content, or $15 to see all the content and also have access to it for a month after the conference. So it’s dirt cheap, it’s fun, and it has a lot of seriously good speakers and topics. And Susan Dennard (author of the Something Strange and Deadly and Truthwitch series) is doing the opening keynote! How cool is that?

My experience with WriteOnCon is limited, but it’s something!

I attended WriteOnCon half-assedly in… I’m going to say 2014? It’s hard to compare that experience to now, because the convention was managed by a different team, went down for a while, and now has apparently been revived by a different team.

But that’s not really relevant for this post, because this much is the same: in 2014, I literally only signed up for the forums. I paid no money and didn’t attend any panels. I specifically did the Query Feedback forums, which are exactly what they sound like:  you post your query and you get feedback from the tons and tons of attendees.

Better yet: since agents are participating in the event, they look at the forums, too! And if you get super-super-super-duper lucky, you might get a request!

But chances are you’ll just get a ton of feedback, which is still super useful. You do need to take it with a grain of salt, of course–the attendees range from brand-new writers to honed veterans, and since everyone wants to be fair (if you get feedback, you want to give feedback, too!) you get a lot of feedback. This means you’ll get a mix, some great and some decidedly iffy.

Back in 2014, I was querying Justice Unending, and I got an absolute bucketload of feedback. And while I definitely didn’t use all of it, WriteOnCon did help me forge the query letter I eventually queried with.

Buuuut, I admittedly don’t know what to expect.

That said, I’ve never attended the full event before, so I have no idea what to expect. I’m attending this year, though! I’ll be  listening to all three days of events and participating in the forums. And, hey, it’s $10 and a few days. This isn’t a massive investment.

So if you write kidlit, give WriteOnCon a look!

It’s 2018! You know what that means, right? It’s time for self-indulgent introspection!

Let’s start by checking my 2017 resolutions and seeing how I did!

My 2017 New Year’s Resolutions

I did okay! Okay-ish?

  • I did edit my new YA fantasy, the tentatively titled Garden in the Waves. It took WAY longer than I expected, and it’s still not quite ready to query. But I did finish my second draft. Garden was 115K at the start of 2017, and now it’s 90K–and almost all of that is completely new content.
  • I didn’t query Garden, but I do have a query letter drafted and (nearly) ready to go.
  • I didn’t write any short stories this year, unfortunately. I was hoping that the above-mentioned edits would take ~6 or so months, and… they took 10. Huh. And even when I was done, I still didn’t have time for short stories, because…
  • I did NaNoWriMo! I wrote about 70K of a novel that’s probably going to be 80K. That draft isn’t done, and it also needs to be completely rewritten, but it was nice to blow through something new after spending 5 months writing and 10 months editing Garden.

So I got a fair amount of work done. Let’s look at it in more detail!

Reading: I could have done more.

According to Goodreads, I read 30 books and approximately 10,000 pages. That’s about average. (It’s a little behind the 35 I did in 2016, though.)

The best book I read was–shock! surprise!–not a YA fantasy. It’s never a YA fantasy! I read boatloads of them, I swear! I really like them! But I always seem to run into something totally unexpected–and something totally not YA–that blows me out of the water.

This year, the best series I read was The Broken Earth series (the first of which is The Fifth Season), an exceptionally powerful adult fantasy series with some mindblowing worldbuilding. It’s hugely popular. There’s a TV series coming out. It’s definitely worth picking up. I don’t like morbid, dark, post-apocalyptic stuff, but this series absolutely devoured me.

Writing: I’m pretty inefficient!

If you’ve followed this blog for any amount of time, you know I seriously love tracking how much I write. So I can tell you that I:

  • Wrote 251,078 words this year.
  • 229,534 were just brand new words in brand new chapters.
  • 8,673 of them were related to outlining.
  • …Leaving 8,082 related to editing. But that number’s wonky. I only count my words as “editing” if I’m keeping the majority of the content I’m working on. If I toss out content and rewrite it from scratch, I count it as “writing.” And lemme tell you: I did a lot of rewriting. A LOT a lot. So even though I edited a single novel for 10 months, most of that time wasn’t logged as editing.

This is huge. I wrote approximately 212,000 words last year. I wrote 139,000 words the year before. I am writing a ton of content, and I’m writing more every year!

But that doesn’t mean I used my writing time well. I spent this year editing a YA fantasy that–with any luck–I’ll query this year. I also rewrote the first half of it 3 times. I tossed out my first draft. I rewrote the first 14 chapters, then tossed them out. I wrote 15 new chapters to replace them, then tossed most of that out. Now I have 14 also mostly-new chapters, and they mostly, but they still need edits. Argh!

I essentially took a 115,000-word story and rewrote it. It is now 92,000 words. But I had to write 159,000 words to get there.

And then I wrote a new story, which is currently 70,000 words long. But it was a NaNoWriMo story, it was really quickly outlined, and I… really want to do all of it differently. So that’ll have to be rewritten, too!

So while I created a lot of content, it’s also really easy to feel like I’m running in place–creating and creating and creating, but inching toward the actual act of finishing something and getting it published. I’m close, sure! But it’s easy to feel like I didn’t actually do anything in 2017.

Other Writing-Related Goals!

I was busy, though!

  • I attended my first major writing convention!
  • I participated in NaNoWriMo for the first time (and won!)
  • I actually left the house and made some local writing friends!

These are all really good things!

My Goals for 2018

So! 2017 was a… well, it was a year. I did some stuff. It might not have been the year I was hoping it’d be, but it certainly wasn’t a wash. So what do I plan to do in 2018?

  • I need to finish my third–and hopefully final–edit of The Garden in the Waves. I want this one to go much faster. I’m 90% of the way there!
  • And I’m definitely going to query it this year. Fingers crossed!
  • I need to rewrite the Justice Unending sequel from scratch. I got a lot of ideas down on paper, I wrote 70,000 words, and now I know a lot more about what I actually want to do.
  • I’d really like to write 1 or 2 short stories this year. I haven’t published any since 2015! I had a few out on submission in 2017, but I didn’t write any–I just kept a few old 2016 stories out on rotation. It’s time to put those to bed and focus on something new.

And that’s that!

It’s been a productive–if not slightly frustrating–year. I might not have accomplished everything I wanted to do, but I definitely did a lot.

I didn’t query, no. But, with any luck, I’ll be out in the query trenches in a month or two. And once I’m there, I promise: I’ll cover everything that I learn along the way here on the blog.

And for those folks who follow me: thank you for another year! I’ve loved chatting with all of you and hearing about your experiences. I hope you all have a wonderful new year!

Banner that reads 'Winner: NaNoWrIMo 2017.'National Novel Writing Month ends tomorrow, November 30. So if you’re still pushing toward 50,000 words, you still have time! Go go go~!

Like I said a month ago, this was my first serious attempt at NaNoWriMo. It’s been a wild month, full of write-ins, friend-making, and writing-encouragement cake. I had a lot of fun, but it was also really different. Here’s how it went.

I went to a different write-in every week and I met a ton of interesting people.

During NaNo, people hold “write-ins,” where you meet up with other people at a coffee shop or library and write for a couple of hours. There was only one write-in anywhere near me (and it was held at a time when I couldn’t regularly attend), so I ended up driving to a lot of random events.

And I’m glad I did, because each write-in was a totally different experience. My first write-in was super awkward. There were seven people there. Great turnout, right? But when one suggested we write, almost everyone left. Only three of us stayed to write anything. That wasn’t a great start.

But I kept at it, and every other meetup was awesome. I got to meet the author of Big Top Burning, a MG non-fiction about the 1944 Hartford, Connecticut circus fire. I attended an awesome, big-scale event with catered food, cake, and people who were as into fantasy as I was. I made friends! It was fun.

I wish I was in a more active area.

I live near a really large city. Not in, but near. And yet my entire NaNo region was dead.

There was no municipal liaison. The forums were empty. There were one or two write-ins, all thinly attended, and the most successful ones were ones cross-posted from another region. I ended up having to mine events from a different region, which meant that everything I went to was 40-60 minutes away.

This made socializing an absolute pain in the butt. I met awesome people, and they were far. I saw several cool libraries, and they are far. I learned about writing groups that are far away.

I am seriously tempted to apply for the liaison position next year, because there are  millions of people where I live and why are they all driving downtown to write?! This must be fixed.

I wrote a lot, and in a totally different way than I usually do.

I normally write like this:

  • I outline for 1-3 months.
  • I write approximately 2 chapters a week.
  • I usually write an entire chapter (~3,000-4,000 words) in a day or two.
  • Once I write a chapter, I edit it the next day. I usually change large details, restructure it, or reframe it. I move to the next chapter when it’s good enough.

I don’t do a lot of work on each chapter. But I do want each chapter to accomplish something specific, clearly show what mindset the characters are in, and set up a launching point for the next chapter.

This means I usually end up with 8,000 words a week, all lightly edited. I could not do this for NaNo. There simply wasn’t enough time for me to write 50,000 words and edit them.

The end result is weird. It’s much, much rougher than my usual first drafts. It’s more like a long-form outline than a novel. I want to rewrite… pretty much all of it. The beginning should not have happened the way it did, I needed to introduce a bunch of characters earlier, I need to change the motivation/conflict that drives the first half of the novel… Yeah. Big stuff.

But you know what? I’ve written first drafts–slowly written, lovingly edited–that I did that to, too. I recently finished draft #2 of a 90,000-word YA fantasy that I lovingly, slowly wrote. I still threw out the first 14 chapters and rewrote them from scratch.

This draft is uglier. But I’m throwing most of it away, so who cares?

I’m not sure that I’d write everything like this–it’s nice to have more time to be thoughtful about the content–but it was an interesting exercise. I’ll probably post more about that in the future.

And I’m not done.

I’m done with NaNo. I have my shirt, I’ve got my WINNER tag, and I’m officially at ~51,000 words. But this novel isn’t done.

This novel is probably going to be 80,000 words long, which means I have several chapters left to go. So I’m going to keep writing this through December. When I’m done, I’ll have a first draft that requires… really, really considerable rewriting, and probably a complete re-outlining.

But it’s still been an awesome experience. I met some awesome people, did some fun things, and saw some wonderful libraries. It’s definitely a fun experience–but the best part about it is the people.

 

I attended the New England SCBWI writing conference back in April, and one of the most intriguing panels I attended–and the one that’s stayed with me the best–was called “And Then There Were More: The Art of Writing a Series with Agent Ammi-Joan Paquette.”

I’m a fantasy author, so–be it for better or for worse–series are part of the landscape. And when I plan a trilogy, I only know one way to do it. I’m an outliner, yes? So if I was going to make three books, I’d outline all of them at once. I’d think big, come up with a large conflict, and then break it into three, self-contained arcs that inch closer to the “true” final battle. This is how I think.

But know why this panel stuck with me? Because Ms. Paquette explained that you can’t really think that way if you’re getting published with a traditional publisher.

So, my friends, if you’re one of those folks who wants to go the big, big publisher route, gather ’round and listen. Here was her advice.

A publisher might not agree to a full series right off the bat.

The crux of Ms. Paquette’s talk was that, if you’re getting published with a big publisher, guess what? You can’t choose whether you get a sequel or not.

You can want one. You can tell the publisher you have ideas for a series. That’s great! Publishers love knowing you’re ready to write more. But do you actually get to say “Hey, guess what, I’m taking a three book deal or nothing?” Well, probably not. (Not if your agent wants to steer you clear of the chance they say “Great! Nothing it is!”)

Instead, the publisher gets to decide if you get one book, two books, or whatever. And if you’re new, unproven, or they just aren’t sure about this project yet, they may want to wait and see.

So they only sign a contract with you for one book. They want to wait and put out the first book before making any decisions. They want to see if there’s any interest in it. Is it selling well enough to justify a sequel? If so, awesome! Let’s do more! If not, oh well! We all got one book out of it, didn’t we?

…And that means you have to change how you think about planning a series.

So, you can’t guarantee you’ll be given the number of books you want. How on earth do you write a series?

Ms. Paquette recommended:

  • Write one standalone novel, which has potential for more novels, but doesn’t require them.
  • Put all your best ideas in there, because:
    • If you want a chance at a sequel, you need to blow sales out of the water. Your best shot is the idea that you love the most.
    • Your readers will only choose to read book #2 if book #1 blows them away.

I mean, this makes sense, right? The idea that you have the most passion about is the one you’ll write the best.

And if you were planning a trilogy with two small crises you kind of care about, leading up to one mega-ending that you love dearly, then you could shoot yourself in the foot. if Vaguely Interesting Conflict #1 sells so-so, what publisher would want to pay for Middling Book #2? Who would read 500 pages and two books of buildup just to reach the thing you really wanted to write about in book #3?

So you frontload that stuff. You use all your best ideas in book #1.

This turned my thinking around,and… also made it really hard to plan.

OK. Fair warning: I do a lot of how-tos on this blog where I give advice about writing. What follows is not advice. It is me, whining.

At the beginning of this post, I said that I plan linearly: If I do a series, I think of one big crisis and break it into pieces. But let’s think about that: if I put my best ideas first, in book #1, then… I can’t really plan like that, can I?

This is really hard for me! Ok, so I should… write one standalone book with my best ideas. But have more ideas! Just not the ideas that made me desperate to write
this thing. Just other ideas, which are hazy ideas, which could become full-fledged books, if they needed to. But which aren’t yet! But still have those ideas, because the publisher wants to know you have a plan.

Ooof. So many variables.

I mean, I’ve done this before. Justice Unending is a standalone novel with series potential. It’s one book, it has a crisis, and it resolves it. It has an really, really open ending that leaves room for more novels. I just didn’t plan any. I wrote one book and did not, in the process of writing that book, think about what book #2 could be about. That’s great for pitching (apparently) and terrible for my own personal planning, because it’s way harder to feel like I’m done and then to think, “OK, but if I was going to do more, what would I do?”

(Apparently I should, though, since all the book reviews mention wanting a sequel.)

And my current novel–which is not a sequel to Justice, sorry!–is just a standalone adventure in one mysterious land, designed so that this adventure in this country would be resolved, and any other sequels (if there were any) would just be other adventures in other places. You know, almost episode-style.

But this is tricky. It is, undoubtedly, way easier to plan if you know where you’re going and how you’re going to get there, and this is something I struggle with mightily. Because writing in limbo–the book that can be book one-of-one and also book one-of-three–is hard.

This is the sort of thing that makes self-publishing way easier. At least then no one’ll tell you you can’t have a series if you want to have a series. But if you’re going the traditional publication route, you’ve got to be a little more flexible.

All’s fair in love and marketing, I suppose.

Recommended word counts cause so much angst.

Don’t know what I’m talking about? Well, check out this Writer’s Digest post, or this post on children’s fiction. (Unfortunately, they’re both pretty old. Still, you get the point.)

Agents and publishers look for novels with word counts within a certain range. This length varies by genre and the rules aren’t set in stone, but they’re pretty good guidelines for what an “average” book looks like. And that makes sense, right? A cozy romance the size of War and Peace would probably struggle to find a niche, wouldn’t it?

(None of this matters if you self-publish, of course. You may have a hard time finding a lot of readers for a 300,000-word MG epic, but you know what? No one’s going to stop you.)

But when folks go the agent and/or publisher route, this whole “word count” thing causes them no ends of angst. And while too-short novels can be an issue, the real heartache happens at the other end of the spectrum, when someone wants to pitch a much longer-than-average novel.

So let’s talk about it!

Why are word counts important?

If there was a mandatory law that debut authors could never go over 100,000 words, authors might agonize less. But instead, it’s a messy, messy world.

Let’s take YA fantasy as an example. A totally informal, but often-quoted rule of thumb is that a debut novel should be under 100,000 words. That’s fuzzy enough as it is, of course, because sub-genres differ, and contemporary stuff tends to be shorter than high fantasy and SF. But let’s give a huge range: YA fantasy debut novels can be 60,000 to 100,000 words long, with a sweet spot somewhere around 70-80K.

But there are people who have sold much longer books. And you will find lots of novels that are well over this range. So word counts don’t matter, right? Write whatever you want! But that can bite you in the butt.

Here’s why: if you’re querying a YA fantasy and it’s in the normal range, the agent probably won’t bat an eye. That’s a “normal” book. That’s fine.

But if it’s 200,000 words long, that’s going to raise some eyebrows. Like… was that intentional? Is this really the right length for this story? Does the author know much about the market, or read many books in this genre? And did they still submit a story this length, even knowing that most other books aren’t? It’s not the end of the world, but it’s… not a red flag, certainly, but an orange one? A small sign that this might be a difficult, weird, or unedited book?

And in the end, agents look for any reason to say no. If they’re on the fence and they see a potentially weird word count–something that you’d have to justify–they might just pass.

So that’s it. You’re making a difficult job harder. Now that agent won’t just ask themselves “Is this premise killer?” Instead, they’re thinking, “I like the premise, but it’s really long. Do I love it enough to request it anyway…?”

And word counts are exceptionally agonizing to fantasy authors.

Do you like fantasy? I like fantasy. I’ve read tons of high fantasy novels, and man–they are long. That’s the sign of a great one, right? Sprawling epics! Massive scales! Immense detail! ZILLIONS OF WORDS!

And there are lots of novels out there–some of them even debut novels!–that are well over 100K. Heck, you’ll find ones in the 200,000 range. So authors often put two and two together: Fantasy is long. Some people have written very long books and been published. So I shouldn’t worry when I submit my 175,000-word fantasy, right? It’s perfect! The length probably makes it better!

Sadly, every fantasy author thinks they’re the exception.

I know the pain. You want to write an epic. And if you have four POV characters, two countries, a war, and a plague, 100,000 words might seem a little restrictive. And if some people have gotten away with more, then surely you’ll be OK, right?

Except, see above. It bites people in the butt. And an agent isn’t going to waive the word count because you’re a fantasy author. They’ll see a very high word count, raise an eyebrow, and wonder: Is this 175,000 words after it’s been edited into lean, clean, streamlined perfection? Or did the author not know about the market? Or maybe they just didn’t edit themselves, because they thought it’d be fine because it’s fantasy?

It’s a pitfall. It’s tricky. But remember: There are a lot of new and hopeful fantasy authors writing mega-epics, all hoping that theirs will be the one that is so good that an agent picks it up anyway. And you could make your life a little easier by being at least somewhere near the 100,000 limit.

Besides, why does this have to be a bad thing?

Writing within word counts can actually be helpful!

Word counts don’t have to be an arbitrary cap on your creativity. They can be very useful things:

  • An average-length book will be easier to sell and market.
  • Writing with a word count limit can help you with pacing and plotting. If you want your book to be around 80,000 words long, for example, you’ll know that you’re in trouble if nothing has happened by word 50,000, or if your climax hasn’t ramped up by the 70,000 mark.
  • It makes the querying process easier, as it removes one reason to say “no.”
  • It makes it easier to find publishers, because your book will most likely fall within their requested range.
  • If you do happen to have a huge book, intentionally capping it at a certain point gives you a good idea how much you can “fit” in one book–and gives you content for sequels.
  • If you can get yourself established with an agent or publisher with a “normal” book, you can always use your early success to justify taking risks on much longer-than-normal books later.

Does every book have to be exactly the same? Of course not. Are there books that need to be long to tell their stories? Absolutely!

But if you’re a debut author, you don’t have a lot of clout. These people don’t know you. No one knows how popular your works will be. So it’ll be extra-difficult to convince someone that you shouldn’t just be the one rare soul they choose to work with–but that they should do so, even if your story is longer than what they’re looking for.

There’s nothing wrong with trying to take that gamble, of course! Lots of people win out. But it’s always good to know the potential pitfalls before you start.

Got a science fiction/fantasy novel that’s more or less ready to pitch? Hodderscape, the SFF branch of the publisher Hodder & Stoughton, is accepting unagented submissions between August 3 and 16:

Open Submissions: The Guidelines! | Hodderscape

They even mention in the comments that it doesn’t have to be finished. (Although goodness gracious, that sounds like a terrifying and intimidating idea.) They don’t even require a query, just some basic information, a 2-page synopsis and the first 3 chapters (or 15,000 words, whichever you prefer).

And, better yet, it appears to pass the Absolute Write test of “Hey, is this a good opportunity?”