First drafts: 2,000 words a day

Next month my novel The Shadow Tracer will be published in the US and Canada. This month, next month, and all summer long I’ll be busy writing another novel. The book in progress will be published in 2014.

What does this mean in practice?

1. I’m writing 2,000 words a day on the novel. This works out to 7-10 pages, double-spaced. I sit down and tell myself I will type like a monkey on crystal meth until I reach that word count. Then I will either pitch face down on the keyboard or, if I’ve had enough coffee and Junior Mints, will finish the sentence I’m typing.

2. I’m working from a 3500 word outline that took six weeks — and lots of back and forth with my editor — to develop. This is the backbone of the story. Keeping a copy of it open on my desktop helps me stay on track as I write. The outline follows on from an initial document called Story Ideas, which is 15 pages of notes, random thoughts, lists of potential character names, half-baked ideas, plot setups followed by lists of twenty ways those setups can pay off, character sketches, grocery lists, and reminders to buy more coffee and Junior Mints.

3. I stick to the outline — except when I don’t. The outline is the novel’s structural skeleton. But as I write, the characters come alive. Better ideas come to me. Twists present themselves. Throwaway characters develop such vibrancy that I decide they shouldn’t be killed off at the end of a scene, but should stick around to cause more mayhem.

4. My daily 2,000 words contribute to the creation of what Anne Lamott calls “shitty first drafts.” I just write. I don’t edit. I don’t nitpick over word choice. I let the characters say whatever they want to, in whatever crude or absurd terms they want to say it. I get five pages into a scene and have a fresh idea for how to make the story go forward and I don’t go back and cut the original idea, but just plow ahead. I can edit later. I love editing later. Later, in the rewrite, I can fix things that are stinky or broken. I can put clever words in the characters’ mouths, at my leisure. Of course, this means that my first draft is a hot mess. It means that I pray every night to a list of deities, asking that I not be hit by a bus before I get the chance to repair my shitty first draft. Seriously. You should see my spare room. It’s an absolute pantheon of statues, votive candles, offerings, and shrines dedicated to the world’s known gods. Just don’t step on that pentagram in the center of the room. And nobody touch the stuff on the altar. It’s sacrificial coffee and Junior Mints.

And now back to it.

4 responses to “First drafts: 2,000 words a day

  1. Not so fast, Louis.
    Evan or Jo or A.N.Other?

  2. When’s the contest? (If there is one.) 🙂

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