The stages of writing, as experienced by me.

I’m not much of a blogger. I’ve never journaled. I tried to do one of those ‘sketch a day’ things once, and even that stopped after about a week. No, I’m not overly interested in diarising my life and achievements. It’s not something that has ever appealed to me, but sometimes my mind wanders off onto tangents and, much like my stories, the best way for me to make sense of them is to write it down.

So, here’s what I’m thinking about: stages of writing.

The thing that brings this particular topic to the fore right now is, naturally, my current stage of writing. I’m at the glorious (oh I wish you could heard the sarcasm) 15k mark on my current manuscript. Now, over 11 years of writing and 8 completed manuscripts, I’ve discovered certain trends in my work ethic and enthusiasm, trends which are painfully prevalent at the 15k mark.

So, without further delay, allow me to present my ‘stages of writing a novel’. I should probably note that these stages are unique to me and everyone has their own stages, though they may be similar at times.

Stage 1: HELL YEAH, I AM A WRITING GOD!

Word count: 0-10,000

Oh yes, this is a thing. At this stage, I’ve just finished what little planning I do (don’t judge my pantser lifestyle), and I’m thinking I’ve got it all figured out. In my head I have a beautiful image of the opening scenes . My heart is beating fast, my words seem to flow onto the page of their own accord, each beautifully crafted to bring my characters to life for you, the reader.

Over the course of all my novels, published and otherwise, I’ve noticed a consistent trend, and that is that I always use more descriptive language at this stage in my novel, also, metaphors. Metaphors everywhere. But yes, at this stage, I get caught up in the excitement, convince myself I could totally write the full 100k words the novel is roughly going to end up being in the course of the next few hours. I’m never right, of course. The maximum I’ve ever written in a day is 20k, so under the right circumstances I’m good, but I’m not THAT good.

Anyway, once my ego settles the hell down, it’s time to move into stage 2.

Stage 2: Gawd, why is this taking so long?

Word count: 10,000 – 25,000

Yep, you read that right. I go from gung-ho, write like crazy, thinking I’m a god to moaning about how long this is taking to write. Now, I will say that this stage might only last to 15k, or more commonly, 20k, but sometimes it does last to 25k, so that’s the parameter I’m putting in place for the sake of this piece. 15k words of absolute HELL. So what’s really happening? Well, allow me to explain. Basically, I hit the 10k mark after my mad burst of new-novel energy and usually reach the first big-ol’ void in my planning, which I have done very little of. Now, for a macro-planning author, this wouldn’t be an issue. They’d have the whole story planned out, all their scenes, and when they reached those voids they could simply write another scene until they figure out what needs to fill it. I am not a macro-planner. As I said, I am a pantser. A pantser and a micro-planner. A micro-planning pantser who writes in sequence.

You see my dilemma?

I reach this void, which I haven’t planned for, because I focus on the micro-details and figure it out as I go, and because I write in sequence, I can’t even jump ahead while I figure it out. If I do, I’ll ruin my flow, so I’m left to scream into the void. And scream I do. Slowly, with great agony, I scream (silently, I mean, I do have neighbours, if I screamed out loud they’d be pretty pissed). And in my screaming, I slowly begin to chip away at the edges of the void, words crawling jarringly onto the page, not sitting quite right, but there. It’s something akin to trying to mine rocks with a cheese knife. It’s slow and I hurt myself more often than the rock, but I very gradually, in tiny increments, manage to start mining those stones.

I crawl, and crawl, and crawl, until the void begins to fill, until the scenes I’ve painstakingly carved out begin to make sense and whisper to me, telling me how to fill the voids later in the story. For this, stage 2 is beautiful. And this leads into stage 3.

Stage 3: First mile-stone, hitting the spot like a gallon of double-strength black coffee

Word count: 20,000-50,000

Now, I will stress that I don’t actually drink coffee. I can’t stand the flavour, for anyone wondering, but that’s a discussion for another time. For the moment, I’ll say that this is one of the longer stages, but not in a bad way, and without the burn out of stage 1. I think in part this stems from the relief of having passed the dreaded 20k (or 25k if stage 2 dragged out) stage, of knowing that I am half way to ‘novel length’ (a novel being anything over 50k words). It’s a relief, to be able to look at what little planning I’ve done and know that I’ve got enough to at least fill the next 30k words. Oh the relief. Because, let’s face it, part of the struggle of stage 2 is a fear that my story will fall short of that pivotal 50k mark.

I begin writing with new vigour, we’ve reached a couple of major scenes, the story is starting to come together, I can see how the strings will weave to create the tapestry for the climax. Yes, this is what writing is meant to be. Watching a world form before my eyes. This stage is really quite blissful, I write quickly averaging anywhere from 3-7k words a day, every day, for the 3 or so weeks it takes to get to the 50k mark, I watch as scene after scene after scene comes together, racing briskly towards the climax, towards the penultimate scene, towards the whole point of this novel, the twist I’ve so subtly hinted at a dozen times. Wonderful.

Of course, this can’t last. Enter stage left, stage 4.

Stage 4: I must hit 70k words!

Word count: 50,000-70,000

Okay, so my story is now long enough to be classified a novel, and it’s not completely finished, hooray! BUT, oh gosh, I am super close to hitting the climax (and this blog is starting to sound like a B-grade porno I’ve said ‘climax’ so many times), but I want to make it to 70k. I mean, 70k is the sweet spot, it’s well and truly a novel, it’s going to be at least 200 pages, which is nice. Thick enough not to look like a child’s book, but short enough not to appear overbearing. A good number. And frankly, the minimum I’ll allow. But the story is about to reach the climax, and then it’ll be over. Done. And there’s no possible way it’ll reach 70k, not with only another 3 scenes remaining before the big ol’ boss fight!

Time to really pad this out. Enter, flowery language, descriptive phrases and metaphors again! Much like in stage one, we’re going all out, describing everything, right down to the little pink spot on the toe of the unnamed bar-keep’s shoes. Yep, we’re going to make sure the reader is so immersed in these scenes that they don’t even notice how much longer they are than the rest. Padding! We won’t admit that’s what it is, though, we’ll call it world building and leave it at that, even though we’ve already well and truly built and sold the world to our readers in the first 50k words. But the ego can’t handle thinking we’re actually resorting to padding. So we world build the shit out of this, and the first lines of the climax hit just as we cross the 70k mark.

Success! Success and glory and all things wonderful. We’ve surpassed the 70k mark and surely the climactic scenes will carry us over another 10k words, so we might hit 80K! Oh, 80K, wouldn’t that just be a dream?

Now, things are going to heat up in stage 5.

Stage 5: HELL AND BRIMSTONE, WRITE!

Word count: 70,000-90,000

It’s here! It’s finally here! The climax! The penultimate ending! The boss fight! The moment that will make or break my character! And oh boy, am I excited? My fantasy world is burning, my main character is in tears (and likely insurmountable amounts of pain), the antagonist appears to be winning, oh boy, I am so caught up in this right now. So caught up, in fact, that I write 10k words in a single sitting. Oh yes, my arse is numb, my RSI is so bad I can barely move my fingers and I’m pretty sure my neck just went out, but I am way too into this to stop. In fact, the only reason I do is because my dog starts crying and if I don’t get up and let her out in T-2 seconds she’ll pee all over my floor, and then run straight through it with her super fuzzy toes, and no one wants pee-stained toes in their bed at night. So I stop to let my pup out, and all the physical pain I’ve been ignoring suddenly becomes my primary focus.

I save my document, turn off my computer, and go soak in a hot bath for an hour just to try and fix what my mad scrabble towards the finish has done to me. I’ll finish the rest tomorrow, I remind myself. After all, how can I not? I left my main character on his knees with a knife at his throat and his lover’s life in imminent danger. I have to finish it tomorrow.

So, in the morning I get up and let the dog out to pee, then I sit down, and I go in for round two, and several hours (plus several more) later, I finish the scene. It’s had to be broken across four chapters. The antagonist is dead. My main character is being healed. His lover is worried by his bedside. All is wonderful, and somehow the 10k estimation has entirely gone out the window and my climax is over 20k long. I really shouldn’t have panicked at the 50k mark. How silly of me. My story is 90k long and I still need to write the wind down. Gosh, it’s going to end up at least 100k by the time I’m done.

Time for stage 6.

Stage 6: Oh god, it’s ending, it’s really ending!

Word count: 90,000-100,000+

Ahh, the hesitation stage. The part when I realise my story is coming to a close, all the strings are being tied off with pretty little bows, and if it’s a series, I’m preparing to throw in one more twist to give the next book a good ol’ kick up the backside to start with. I should be thrilled, I should be writing madly, trying to get the words down as fast as possible so I can plan and write the next book, but I can’t bring myself to do it. No, I sit staring at my almost finished manuscript with dread, wishing to be anywhere else, trying to ignore the sad feeling in my chest at the thought of actually finishing this thing.

I close my laptop after an hour staring at it without doing anything, and go binge watch some Bones. I can finish the story tomorrow. There’s no rush.

Tomorrow comes. I don’t even look at my laptop. I read two more books and tell myself its research, not procrastination. I fall asleep pretending I believe it.

Another few days pass in the same fashion before I pluck up the courage to sit at my computer and slowly begin tapping out the wind up. It feels rushed, I tell myself, you need to drag it out or they’ll think you were rushing. So I add an extra little scene, a bit more banter. Oh, but not it feels too slow. I get to the point.

Oh boy. It’s the final scene. The final, final scene. I’m about to reveal the twist that leads into the next book, or deliver that carefully crafted line that sums up the entire story. My heart beats so heard I feel the vibrations in my head and I slowly tap out the words. Tap, tap, tappity, tap, tap, tap. I feel sick, and nervous. Oh man, I don’t want to do this. If it’s over I have to start again. Back to stage 1 with a new book.

My fingers hesitate over the keys on the last sentence. I swallow hard.

Too far, we’ve gone too far to turn back now. I write the final words. Enter down twice. Type, The end and stop. I stop breathing, stop thinking, just stare at those two words, stare so long my vision blurs and my body starts breathing again without my direct permission. The end. It’s over. It’s over and the final word count is over 100k. How impossible, how heavy. And yet, a small weight lifts from my shoulders. I draw in a deep breath, let it out. Press save and close the document. I shut the laptop, carefully packing it back into its bag and record the time in my work tracking book. I put the laptop back on its shelf and walk slowly towards the living room, the world not feeling entirely real to me in this moment. I sit on the couch, and turn on another episode of Bones.

Stage 7: It’s over, it’s really over.

Word count: 0

There’s not much to say about this aside from, it’s done. I’m relieved and proud and a little sad, but that’s okay, because I have another adventure waiting at the end of my finger-tips. I smile as I emerge from my latest binge-watching session and draw my laptop once more from its shelf. It’s time to start planning the next one.

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