My years-long journey to tell it 500 words at a time
I started writing a novel about ten years ago. It was based on a poem my father showed to me. I became enamored with how crazy the poem was, not understanding its meaning. Eventually, it gripped me so tightly that I had to define it in my way, and The Tree of Children, the name of my unborn novel, was conceived.
The poem is The Reason for Skylarks by Kenneth Patchen. It’s taken me quite some time, but I finally picked things up again almost two years ago and have been writing 2,000 words a week, off and on. I am at 63,000 words now, this October 2019.
I did not produce an outline ahead of time, or devise a set of characters, or motivations for them, or create any details at all. I knew there were the giant and the tree. I asked myself what that meant to me, what it could be, why the giant was at the tree, and the story became apparent.
As I’ve been writing, I leave lots of notes that have to be filled in later. What does a giant eat? How tall, exactly, is this giant? Are we talking titan? Or just your run of the mill Goliath? Goliath, for the record, was three meters tall (about nine feet!).
My goal for 2019 is not to answer all the many questions I have, or fill in the nuance of each character, or iron out motivations, but to finish the first draft. I am on my way, so long as I write most days.
As you might imagine, a book started a decade ago and drawn out over the last year or two is disjointed. It is terrible! But that is OK with me.
The goal is not to write a best seller. The goal is to complete the first draft. I know I will have to reread it all and do some major edits. And even then, it still might stink! But hey, it’s my first novel, so I am OK with leaving room for improvement. And right now, I have a story to tell, so I plan to tell it 500 words a day, give or take.
Sometimes I do let myself get bogged down in the details that might be better left for later.
For example, last month I spent about a week figuring out timelines for two groups of characters. I had to get them to the same place at the same time. To do that, I needed to build a calendar of about twenty days and record when each group mentioned night time or another day passing or was traveling. Super boring stuff. But I felt like I needed to do it to ensure there was not an incongruity in their storylines, and so they could reasonably appear together at a particular place.
Was that a waste of my time? I hope not. But did it satisfy my goal of writing 2,000 words a week? No, it did not. Could it have been done later? Yes.
A round of editing could have figured this out and dealt with a few days on either end. Meanwhile, I could have been 2,000 words further along in the main story than I am now.
Lesson learned — just keep writing. Stick with the plan, complete the first draft.
Eventually, I will have to produce a “Chapter One.” This is what I suppose gets sent to agents and friends who ask what I’ve been typing on about all these years. Honestly, I am not sure that Chapter One is even written.
I did start writing, but that doesn’t necessarily mean I know how the book will begin. It starts at the beginning, for now. But as I write, I create new histories and storylines. And they might have new, different beginnings, or add new relevance to the primary arc. Maybe it would be more fun to drop one of those in as the first chapter, then jump back to the main story?
Before I can share Chapter One, despite already producing so many words, I have to finish all the words and do at least one edit, removing and juggling. Then I might have an idea of how to answer, “What happens in the beginning?”
For now, in my journey to write my first novel, there is just one goal: tell the story I think about every day, 500 words at a time.