The Too-Short Game Plan

IMG_8812I did it. Yesterday, I typed “THE END” on the last page of my manuscript. I’d like to say it was a momentous occasion, but the truth is, whatever feelings of relief and accomplishment I might have anticipated were sorely absent. At 67,500 words, the manuscript is about 20,000 words too short.

I expected this to happen. A quick peek at my publication history will tell you, I write short. I always have. As far back as high school, I struggled to reach minimum word counts on my assignments. More than once, I had professors note this…and then add that they wouldn’t penalize me because I’d still covered all the necessary points. I may write short, but it’s not out of laziness or corner-cutting. I’m concise. I know this is who I am as a writer.

Seeing as I’m still an unpublished novelist, I also know that “who I am as a writer” doesn’t amount to a hill of beans out there in the publishing world. I need to add words. Luckily for me (and for you, if you’re a writer who faces this problem), adding words is totally do-able.

Here’s my plan of action:

1. Go scene by scene. I just completed a class on scene-building, taught by Trai Cartwright at Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers. Over the course of two weeks, she laid out the building blocks of effective, interesting scenes, including plot, conflict, character, suspense, information, atmosphere, and theme. I know that, while the foundation of my novel is in place, each individual scene might not be pulling its full weight, so step one in fleshing out the manuscript is making each existing scene as good as it can be.

2. Do some unpacking. Chuck Palahniuk wrote a great article on how to write beyond some of the shortcuts writers sometimes take. His advice:

From this point forward – at least for the next half year – you may not use “thought” verbs.

I’ve had these words in my head the whole time I’ve been working on this novel, which is why I’m absolutely certain there were times I ignored them. Faced with a second draft where I need to add words, now is a great time to go back and unpack those “thoughts” and “felts” into something more substantial.

3. Flesh out subplots. When I first started my novel, I used Victoria Lynn Schmidt’s wonderful Book in a Month to structure my plot. That book recommends drafting without subplots. I found that the subplots simply presented themselves as the writing went on, but expanding the word count is my chance to weave them more thoroughly into the story. Janice Hardy’s article on “bulking up” at Fiction University offers a perfect set of questions to analyze and expand subplots, along with a lot of other useful advice.

I think these three steps will get me pretty close to where I need to be on my word count. If not, well, there’s always a prologue. Maybe a nice, long one with lots of juicy backstory?

(I’m kidding about the prologue. Please don’t hurt me.)

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Stay on Target…

There’s a lovely, little window that lives at the bottom right corner of my manuscript, called the “project targets.” This Scrivener feature calculates a daily word count target based on a deadline, goal, and weekly writing days that you set. Right now, my targets are set up to indicate the number of words I’ll need to add as I flesh out my second draft.

Screen Shot 2014-06-16 at 8.23.58 AMI adore those numbers. I live and die by those numbers. The session target is my guiding light and from it, I will not stray.

That obviously means I write to a daily minimum word count. What’s less obvious is that I also try not to go too far over. Here’s why:

  1. Pacing yourself keeps your momentum steady. When you blow past your word count one day, it makes it easy to justify slacking off the next. For me, one day often leads to two, two leads to three, and it’s all abandoned-hopes-and-dreams from there.
  2. Slowing down gives your subconscious time to sync all the elements of your story. Novels are like Indian cooking. In her book, Quick & Easy Indian Cooking, Madhur Jaffrey notes, “…avoiding dishes with too many spices? That would be like asking an Indian not to be an Indian! If you can put one spice into a pan, you can just as easily put in ten or even fifteen.” All those spices can take some time to meld, which is why Indian leftovers are so crazy-delicious. Novels are complex dishes that require hundreds of ingredients. Don’t be afraid to put the leftovers in the refrigerator overnight. They’ll taste great tomorrow.
  3. Keeping to the speed limit helps you see the road ahead. When you’re driving 100mph, bumps in the road appear too quickly for you to do anything about them. Some would argue that this is great for novelists, and I agree, there’s something to be said for embracing the unexpected. The danger is when the unexpected threatens to derail your entire process. A judicious application of the brakes allows you to make a choice, whether you want to head straight for the pothole or gently steer around it.
  4. Reasonable goals prevent burnout. Winning NaNoWriMo requires writing 1667 words a day for thirty days straight. I did that nine times. The result was nine novel files I closed on November 30 and never opened again. I know this isn’t true for everyone, and plenty of published novels have come out of fast drafts and marathon writing sessions. However, it’s important to know your own limits. Once you determine what works for you, sticking to it can be the difference between finishing a novel you’re still in love with and finishing a novel whose guts you hate.
  5. Reaching your daily goal means you can read. When you set a daily word count goal and don’t pressure yourself to blast past it, it means you have time to pick up a book at the end of the day. Enough said, right?

There’s a lot of emphasis on speed out there in the writing community right now. The “full speed ahead” method works great for some writers. I’m not one of them. If you aren’t either, remember there are plenty of good reasons to be a tortoise. Stay on target, even if your pace is a crawl.