Getting Words on the Page

I’m taking a break from NaNoWriMo and revising a manuscript to write about writing. If you follow me on twitter, or here, you might know that I’m doing NaNoWriMo this year, but I’m doing it ‘rebel’ style. This is because for several years now I’ve drafted a novel early in the year, and then spent the fall revising so that I could get the projects submission ready. This cadence has kept me from doing NaNoWriMo for four years now.

Last month I had several writer friends who asked me if I’d be taking part for 2019, and I decided that I’d treat my month of tearing apart a ‘finished’ manuscript, editing half, and rewriting the other half from scratch as ‘writing a novel’ for NaNoWriMo. Hence, the rebel part. In the end, I’ll have 50K words, and have worked on the project every day of the month, which I believe is in keeping with the spirit of the event.

But as I’ve been diving into edits and writing, I’ve been seeing fellow NaNoWriMo writers asking about process, about how to get the words on the page. The magical thing about any creative pursuit is that there really isn’t one right way to do it.

Above: Manuscript broken down by chapters with story beats and themes. (Left is first draft/right is after revisions) Circa 2017

My writing projects since 2013

Let me get you up to speed on where I am right now, as a writer. I have written four complete manuscripts in a fantasy series, which I’ve outlines to contain five books. To be fair, I trashed and rewrote (from a blank page ) two of those four turning them into one book. So in reality, I have three of the five books written for that series. The last two books are both started, one of which is half written, but needs to be gutted and started again.

I have written a romance novella that was very briefly published as a part of an anthology a few years ago. It’s technically the first in my romance series, but I consider the novel-length romance manuscript that I finished earlier this year to be book 1 in the series for a number of reasons that aren’t really important here. For NaNo, I’m trying to get book 2 in that series done because I wrote it earlier this year while I was coming out of burnout, and it was truly a mess. I’ve already begun book three, but I’m going to have to rewrite that as well because of changes in book 2. I have two more books in that series planned but not written, which will make it a 4 (5 if you count the novella) book series.

I have also written my first YA manuscript, which was completed at the end of October. (Yes, I’ve written two and a half full-length novel manuscripts this year, but they will all need beta readers, heavy edits, more readers, and more edits before I’d say they’re ‘done’ and by ‘done’ I mean ready for submission.)

I have also published two short stories in the past year. I find that kind of funny because I really struggle to write short stories. Almost everything I write is novel-length.

I have an entire hard drive of other manuscripts and short stories in various states of completion that will probably never be finished because, in addition to the planned series mentioned above, I have ideas for additional manuscripts in my head that are probably better than what’s on the hard drive.

Back to process

For me a story starts with characters. Or a character. I’m not a plotter. I’d say I’m a pantser that eventually pantses herself into plotting and then rewriting from an outline. It’s a long complicated process that looks like this:

  1. Character running around in my head wanting to be on the page.
  2. Writing a 1-10 page (sometimes it gets away from me and is 30 pages) scene or collection of scenes with the character to get to know him or her better.
  3. Reading and thinking about what I wrote, trying to find a little tiny piece of it that might be something worth saving.
  4. Taking that tiny piece, extracting it, writing more with it as the jumping board.
  5. Nearing 30K words on a new project and realizing I don’t know where it’s going.
  6. Outlining possible plots to go with what I have.
  7. Finding all kinds of holes in the structure of what I already have when compared to the possible plots I’ve come up with.
  8. Writing a VERY loose outline that I like for the manuscript, generally with big themes, the goals and desires of the characters before breaking down arcs (story and character arcs).
  9. Maybe creating a Pinterest board for the story so I can visualize what needs to go on the page. This was particularly fun for my YA given that I started off thinking it would be a contemporary fantasy, and it is not that anymore (the linked board is the current board). The original Pinterest board was mostly scrapped.
  10. Cracking open those 30K words and taking out what doesn’t fit with the outline, and adding to it until I’ve reached the end of the original content. This typically leaves me with 1/3 of what I have outlined, ready to finish the next 2/3.
  11. Writing.
  12. All the writing.
  13. Writing more.
  14. Subbing to my critique group.
  15. Getting feedback.
  16. Still writing.
  17. Sitting down and writing until I’ve got everything from my head to the page.
  18. Checking my outline and realizing I’ve gone off the outline at least a little. [THIS STEP IS ANNOYING FOR ME EVERY TIME]
  19. Now that I have a completed draft, I re-read it. I sit with a pen and paper and write down the key takeaways from each chapter, hereby creating a new outline that actually tells me what happens in the manuscript.
  20. Analyzing what I’ve read and the new outline to see if it works. (Sometimes I can’t tell, and I’ll send it to an early reader asking for feedback really only on ‘does it work for you?’)
  21. Preparing to revise based on feedback received from my critique groups, from my early readers, and from my first read-through notes. [This is the revising plan]
  22. Revising: Going chapter through chapter fixing issues and correcting typos.
  23. Sending it out to readers again. While I wait, I work on a synopsis (using my outline) and my query letter.

And after that, it really depends on the project as to whether I rinse and repeat for revising, or if I try my hand at querying.

So many words…

You might have noticed that when you go through that list, I’ve put an epic-sh!#-ton of words into a project. In fact, most of the time, I have 30K-100K words in the ‘trash’ section of my Scrivener project file. And then I have an 80-120K word project that’s not in the bin.

I’m not saying my way is a good use of time. But that’s my process. I write in Scrivener, and export to Word for critique groups and readers. Then I edit the first draft in Word, or I print it out and edit by hand. Sometimes I do both. That really depends on my mood.

Everyone works differently

I think every single writer I know has a different process. I sometimes look at Lana Sloan‘s process and think that I’d spend way less time revising if I could color-code and tab and outline and all that fancy stuff that she does BEFORE I put words on the page. She also will have her computer read a final project to her so she can hear it. That’s amazing and I think I’d catch so many more issues if I did that, but so far I haven’t tried it.

The point is, there are many ways to get a project down and done, and I’m not saying you should do what I outlined above. I’ve tried to change my ways, and it’s only really resulted in adding in an additional half-baked outline that I then ignore. (Oh to be a plotter!)

If you’re looking for some magical trick to finishing whatever project you’re working on, I can tell you the number one thing you can do. Are you ready? It’s going to sound so simple, and it’s not:


That’s it. Honest. Sit down, or stand, or however you work, and write.

It’s so difficult for a handful of reasons, most of which are excuses. I’ll admit the hardest part is finding time. The second hardest part is finding the words. If you can find the time, even in small chunks, you can find the words. The words do eventually come. I’m not saying they’ll be pretty right out the gate, but they’ll still make it from your head to the page/screen.

I used to sit down and tell myself that I had 30 minutes in which I must write something, even if it made no sense, went nowhere, and was complete crap.

Eventually something will come. But it won’t if you try.

If you’re taking part in NaNoWriMo this year, I wish you the best of luck! If you’re not, I hope you find a few minutes to steal away for yourself and your special project.

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