Finished the first draft of my fourth novel: Study Machines

Okay, right, so you’re reading this on Monday, but I am writing it at 3:30 AM on Saturday morning. I woke up at 7 AM yesterday and wrote for approximately 540 minutes (from 8 AM to 9:30 AM; most of the time between 2:30 PM to 6 PM; and then from 9 PM to 2 AM). During that time, I produced 14,500 words (my highest-ever single-day wordcount). And that 14,500 words was the last sixth of 93,000 word contemporary (i.e. not sci-fi or fantasy) YA novel that is tentatively entitled Study Machines.

I started the novel on December 18th (though it’d been percolating in the back of my brain since August) and wrote it over the course of 31 days (I took off December 23rd to revise my short story “A House, Drifting Sideways” for GigaNotaSaurus). During those 31 days, I wrote for a total of 4,596 minutes (76.6 hours). That’s approximately 148 minutes per day.

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This is obviously just a first draft, but I feel pretty good about it. If you’ve been paying attention, you might remember that I spent the fall blogging about my efforts to revise another novel (my third: Boom). Well, in late November, I abandoned that novel. I was trying to revise it, and I just couldn’t get over the idea that it was terrible. I mean, the structure was nice and some of the situations were interesting, but it had no personality. The writing was dry as hell.

It was hard to abandon it. After all, that was half a year of thought and effort gone down the drain. But it also felt very freeing. Because I wasn’t committed to it, the revision was really dragging out. It looked like it was going to take forever to get out there. My second novel (which is the only one I’ve ever submitted) only took 7 months to go from the first word to its first submission to an agent.

Inevitably, I always spend my next novel trying to correct whatever problem I had with the one before. This one has a lot of personality. I am glad. Voice is one thing that’s hard to add to a piece later on.

On this one, I was going to go slow on this one and do a little research (I checked out so many books from the library). But whenever I abandon a novel or novel attempt (which has happened three times now), I start to get super antsy and think to myself: “Oh my god! I’ve become someone who just fumbles around and never finishes anything!” and I find myself compelled to start something new immediately. So around December 18th, I felt this incredibly strong compulsion to stop faffing around and do something NOW.

Even after I started writing, I planned to go slow. I allocated myself almost 90 days (from mid-December to mid-March) to complete it. Obviously, that did not happen.

My problem is that I just don’t write slow. No matter what, I’m generally putting out around 1,000 words an hour. For short stories, I do a lot of rewriting: often 5 or 6 complete drafts, so it’s like I’m only writing 200 words an hour. But with novels, I haven’t yet quite figured out how to do the rewriting. I usually just start with the first word and write word after word (sometimes doing a very minor amount of backtracking) until I reach the end. Maybe, now that I know what happens, I should do a complete redraft of the novel. But…you know…I tried that with Boom and it was just deadly boring. I don’t know.

I’m not really happy with my line-level writing, and I think it would generally be improved if I went a little slower, but what can you do? In the bottom of my mind, I just don’t feel like there’s any point in writing good lines when it’s possible that all this stuff is going to be mooted by later revisions to the story. The problem, of course, is that good detail-filled lines generate new possibilities through their denseness. I did try to slow down and explore things a bit, but at some point my fingers just flew out of control and I could no longer exercise restraint.

I have a lot of fears about this novel. When I was on the plane home from India*, I wrote a list of 25 things about it that I thought might be bad. Then I tried to write a list of things that I thought were good, and I only came up with 21 things (though some of them were kind of a stretch). That’s a deficit of 4 badnesses! My intuitions about the deficiencies in my writing tend to be pretty accurate. For instance, when my summary blog post about Boom, I wrote that I felt like the writing might be bad. And it was.

But…I really do like this one. Some of its flaws will be fixed in revision and some will be unfixable. But, you know, it has its good points too. And novels don’t need to be perfect; they just need to be interesting.

Also, writing it was a hell of a lot of fun. When I write short stories, I usually approach them from a very cold and mechanical place: some idea that I want to work out. And that’s what I do with novels too, but novels…they somehow get away from you. Despite everything, the characters take on a sort of life. That’s a really enjoyable feeling.

*Yes, I wrote the bulk of this novel (approximately 74,700 words of it, while I was in or on the way to South Asia).