On Writing: a Novel in a Week?

A couple of weeks ago, we had a late-winter snow storm that cancelled work and school for two days—a Monday and Tuesday—giving me a four-day weekend. I had written 10,000 words the previous week in my work-in-progress (Corgi Capers: Curtain Calls and Fire Halls), and I promised myself if we got the full four days off, I would finish the entire first draft, a novel for middle-grade readers with an estimated 50,000 word total. Up to that point, I had never written 40,000 words in four days before, and I wasn’t sure if it could be done. The undertaking would require me to change several writing habits:

Outline vs. Discovery

Normally, I work from an outline, but I create the outline only several chapters ahead of what I’m writing. Thus, I’ll work on, maybe, five chapters from the outline, and as I work, I discover things about characters and plot, and I integrate the new discoveries into the next several chapters of my outline. I prefer this method because it allows me to work on “what I feel like.” So if I’m in an outlining mood, I can work on a few chapters of outline. If I’m in a writing mood, I can work on writing. If I ever get stuck, I can go back and edit my last chapter or two.

This time, because of the condensed time frame, I decided to work 100% from an outline. Understandably, this outline was the most Spartan I’ve written. Normally, my outlines are several dozen pages, full of quotes and passages I jot down as I plan. This one was literally a bulleted list of plot events and character development points broken down by chapter. The outline definitely kept me on track—there wasn’t enough time to get writer’s block if I was to meet my goal—though I did end up changing some of the major points I’d written as well as adding many others.

I’m not sure that I liked working 100% from an outline. I sort of felt like I was cheating when I changed something, but it definitely kept me on track. It didn’t give me an excuse to stop writing to flit about the next few chapters in the outline, or take a break to edit, something that’s not entirely helpful when trying to knock out a draft. With the outline, I sacrificed capriciousness for discipline.

Handwritten vs. Typed

This was the biggest change for me. As my clicky wrist attests, I like to handwrite all my first drafts. The only exception to this is if I have such a flow of ideas that my hand cannot keep up. After I handwrite the draft, I type it up, editing slightly as I type, especially correcting things in earlier chapters that I have since changed in the later ones, or adding foreshadowing I didn’t know about in the early stages. But I knew my wrist would never survive if I tried to write 40,000 words in four days. Thus, I turned to my laptop.

It was awkward at first. I typed a few clumsy sentences, and I felt like I was writing. When I write by hand, I get lost in the ideas. I forget that I’m there writing. But I told myself this was only a first draft. Like NaNoWriMo, the goal was simply to finish.

Before long, I did fall into the story and temporarily forgot I was writing, although I was much more easily jarred out of the storyline. Perhaps it was the position: When I write by hand, I lie on the floor—my world consists of me, the paper, and the pen. At the laptop, I sat, giving me a view of everything in the room, out the window, down the street… Or perhaps it was the easy distraction of email or the Internet. Nonetheless, I proved that it could be done. Although my draft came out less poetic than previous first drafts, I realized a new level of productivity if I can just learn to type first drafts instead of write by hand.

Discovery

What I learned surprised me. The sheer pace of my draft meant that everything was compressed in my mind. I didn’t leave time to forget about a character arc or a plot point. Everything came out as fast as my brain could fathom it. Two things surprised me.

The first is the way the characters seemed to develop on their own. I won’t give away any plot points, but at several instances I found myself frowning in awe at what was coming out on the screen. It apparently lived in my subconscious, these symbols and layers of meaning developed simultaneously among numerous characters (some of whom I thought would simply be playing a cameo). When working from a slowly-developing outline, these changes and developments come through much more slowly, making them more difficult to notice. Working so quickly, I felt like I was watching one of those time-lapse videos of a flower poking out of the ground and blooming. The novel’s closing image seemed to come out of nowhere, but when I read it again and thought about it, I realized it was always there, cooking in my subconscious brain.

The second is the way my story refused to follow the rules of my outline. From the start, I knew who the culprit of this mystery was, but along the way, several characters swore the guilty party was not guilty. I didn’t believe them, thinking they were simply protesting in order to provide foils, confusing the reader and making it difficult to guess the real culprit. I mean—this is MY outline, and I TOLD THEM ALL who the bad guy would be from the start. The bad guy was supposed to accept his role and act accordingly, and everyone else was supposed to slowly realize his guilt. But when I got to the scene in which the culprit was revealed, my hands refused to obey my outline. My brain told them to do something else—reveal a different culprit. I paused as the guilty party’s name flashed on the screen. I pondered. And then I nodded. My brain had been right after all. It all fit into place. My subconscious had known all along.

From this experience, I’ve learned that I much enjoy writing novels—at least, first drafts—in the most compressed time period possible. I always thought I wrote novels over the summer simply because of the nature of my job as a teacher—that’s when I had time. But thinking on it now, it seems my brain likes the compressed time to keep characters and plot active in my subconscious brain. I’ll admit, it was mentally taxing. Once I was finished, I had the rare desire to simply stare at moving images on a television screen. And granted I’m giving myself a few weeks’ break (to finish another work in progress) before I actually get into editing.

But writing a novel in a week is something I want to try again.

And with the threat of another three or seven inches coming Sunday night for winter’s last hurrah, maybe I’ll get that chance after all.