My last post for The Scriptors focused on the nature of first drafts and what it feels like nearing the end of a new book. At the time, I was well over the suggested word count in my publishing contract, but I was confident that I was nearing the end and would finish the draft within the week.
Boy, was I wrong.
I am a fairly strict planner when it comes to plotting a novel, and I outline my stories scene by scene, focusing heavily on plot points and leaving the character arcs a little less defined to give myself room to breathe. Throughout the writing process, I constantly refer back to that outline, making sure that I stick to the path I laid out at the beginning, restraining myself from straying too far from that original plan.
At a glance, my outlines are very straightforward and progress logically from beginning to end. Everything makes sense from a big picture standpoint, every little piece adding to the greater whole.
And yet, to my great annoyance, my outlines ultimately tend to fail.
At some point between the process of finalizing an outline and actually writing the novel, things start to come apart at the seams. It’s not obvious at first. For a while, things go according to plan—Character A meets Character B and they spark the catalyst that will eventually lead to the Big Event. But somewhere on the journey, little issues start to crop into the story, little inconsistencies that no longer match the outline, things that seem insignificant at first, things that I think I can easily fix in the next draft, but then suddenly I realize that my original idea for this or that scene—the one that seemed so obvious and linear and logical at first—no longer fits the story as it is. Something changed in the writing.
And the book that I thought would end up no longer than 90,000 words inches toward 100,000, then 110,000, and by the time I finally reach the end, the book is 127,000 words… a whopping 52,000 words over contract, despite all my best efforts to wrangle it into that nice, neat box I outlined all those months ago.
Was it a result of bad planning? A failure of forethought? Because I failed to see this or that plot twist? Did I not plan the character arcs stringently enough? Did I not do enough research before writing?
Or was I just too confident in my own writing ability to recognize that I didn’t plan the book as well as I originally thought?
Whatever the reason, the story shaped itself into something new, something different than I had planned. Whether it is better or worse, I don’t know yet. It is what it is, despite all my efforts to stick to the outline and keep the word count under control, efforts that ultimately slowed me down and stagnated my writing.
The story evolved, but I wasn’t ready to admit that. I wasn’t ready to let the story take its own course, to come to its own conclusion instead of the one I planned. I was so concerned with keeping to that outline that I failed to let the story breathe, to let it take on a new shape as I wrote. Instead of recognizing the story veering off down a different path and following it willingly, I kept trying to yank it back onto the preplanned route I had so painstakingly crafted at the beginning of my journey, and the story suffered for it.
I struggled with the novel day after day, unable to come to terms with the fact that it was no longer the same story I had planned, that it had mutated in the writing process into something else. Every scene felt wrong and imperfect, worse than just a raw, unedited first draft. I could see the short summary of the scene in the outline I had written, but the words that were coming out onto the page were unfamiliar and uncontrolled, steadily trying to break the rigid guidelines I kept trying to force on it.
Finally, after more than a month of this—a month of not meeting my daily word counts, of hating word after word, scene after scene—I gave up on trying to fit it into that box anymore. I let it free.
I stopped trying to limit my word count. I stopped trying to fit the story within the outline. I just wrote, word after word, scene after scene, and all the struggles that were keeping me from making progress suddenly vanished. The words flowed freely. The story streamed along without much effort. I wrote more than double my daily word count for the next two weeks and finished the book in exhaustion and relief.
Yes, the ending makes no sense and the penultimate chapter will most certainly need to be rewritten, but at least now I have a finished book. I have 127,000 words I didn’t have before… 127,000 words that need a lot of work before I can even send the book to my editor, but words can be edited. Blank pages cannot.
And I’d rather have an imperfect draft than to continue languishing over every single sentence as I muddle forward bit by bit, not making much progress. Breaking free of my outline allowed me to finish my book, and even though I finished the novel a month behind schedule and 52,000 words over the contracted word count, I learned something about my process, and perhaps in the future, I’ll be better able to recognize when I need to adjust my outline and my drafting methods in order to reach the end without having to fight it so much.
But for now, I have a lot of work ahead of me, several drafts of edits and rewrites to go through before I’ll have something I can be proud to call mine, but at least now, the hardest part of the writing process is over and I can move on to the next and shape the book into something so much better than it was before.
The best writing is rewriting, after all.