Lessons from a writing holiday

I’ve just indulged in a rare pleasure. I took a week off work to concentrate on my writing.

A whole week. I can still scarcely believe it. What a luxury! What a perfect holiday!

I accomplished so much in the past week. But – and this is weird – not what I actually intended to accomplish.

The plan had been to throw myself hard at the outline of my novel-in-progress, A Flash of Black Wings. I finished the first draft of the novel back in December, and ever since I’ve been pondering what I need to do to fix it. (Yeah, it needs fixing).

My piecemeal attempts to patch this plot thread or that mishmash climax haven’t been working. I decided the only way to really deal with the problem was to dedicate some serious time to pulling the whole plot apart and reconstructing it from the ground up, which I knew would not be a simple or quick job. So I took advantage of a rare quiet period at work, and made plans to spend a week on developing a new outline.

Yeah. It didn’t happen.

In the last few weeks leading up to the writing holiday were supposed to clear the decks. If I could just do all those little jobs that have accumulated over the last year or so, I’d have a clean run at revising the manuscript. Turns out I’ve gravely underestimated two things – how much work the manuscript needs, and how many of those little jobs have piled up.

A lot, in both cases. Before the week off even started, I abandoned the plan.

New plan! I focused on the cleanup. I transcribed notes, I edited stories, I caught up on a bunch of critiques, I sent out submissions, I sent some disgracefully overdue emails, I brainstormed story ideas and I outlined. Boy did I outline. I wrote detailed notes covering an entire novel’s worth of stories in a frenzied blur over the course of one morning. Over the course of the next morning I broke two stories worth of those notes into scenes. And for good measure I sketched out two extra stories.

Lucky I got a lot done in the first two mornings because the rest of the weeks was badly broken up with various unexpected distractions. C’est la vie.

I didn’t quite achieve what I hoped to this week. (When do I ever?) On the other hand I learned a few things I should have figured out a while back.

Sprints – I made a conscious effort this week to try short, focused work sessions. 20-25 minute sprints tackling one task, followed by a short break. To the surprise of probably nobody, this variation of the Pomodoro Technique turns out to be highly productive. When I don’t have to try to keep a whole project in mind at once, I get stuff done. In the course of two mornings, I cranked out more solid, useful prep work than I have in the last three months.

Preparation – Which brings me to the second should-have-been-unsurprising revelation, which is that I write more when I don’t have to think about what’s coming next. I like being a discovery writer, which is to say one who writes a story to see what happens next. But when I write that way, I’m slow. Ssllooooooooww.

On the other hand, when I have an outline in front of me – or even just a few notes to remind myself about the ending I’m aiming at – I write much faster. What’s more, I write better – fewer filler words, cleaner scenes, more developed characters and better pacing. So the big lesson for myself is this – always have at least 10 thousand words worth of outlines on hand, waiting to be written.

I like shorts – The big revelation that came to me this week is that I still don’t know how to write a novel. Or to be more precise, I don’t yet know how I write novels. It’s still too big, too intimidating, and I don’t yet understand the shape of long-form writing. My sweet spot appears to short stories between 5 and 12 thousand words. I wouldn’t say I’m great at them, not yet, but I’ve got a grasp on how the moving parts fit together and I know what I need to work on to get better.

It occurs to me that I don’t need to rush into being a novelist. Many writers – maybe most of them – take several attempts before they produce a decent novel. I’ve completed three novel-length manuscripts in my life. I can see for myself I’m getting better with each one. I can see there’s still plenty of room for improvement.

Planning – I’m taking these three lessons and revising my goals for the year. Stronger planning, more focused writing sessions, and more short stories. I’m not abandoning the novel, but it’s no good letting the epic scale of the work it needs stop me from having fun.

Fun – Oh yeah. I had fun this week.

The writing’s better when it’s fun.

Gotta remember that.

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