Another Novel-Writing Update, or “Why Did I Think I’d Be Able to Finish This Draft During the Holidays”

So… I am pretty sure I won’t finish MYSTERY BOOK by the end of the year.

First because I followed the Lee Child method of letting the characters tell me where they wanted to go next, which unlocked a new subplot (which is a good thing because I really wanted this book to be closer to 70K words than 50K).

Second because there have been several days in which I’ve chosen to prioritize rest over novel-writing—which actually means I’ve chosen to prioritize other stuff, like client assignments and filling in as a piano accompanist and doing community volunteer things, and then in the time left over I’ve chosen to prioritize rest.

Which, part of me is all “this is the time of year in which people are asked to do a bunch of extra stuff, and here you are doing it, and it’s good to be part of the community,” and the other part is “I have written so many Lifehacker posts about the ways in which our priorities reveal our values, so does that mean I don’t value my MYSTERY BOOK draft?”

And then I remind myself that it took nine months to draft the 90,000 words in The Biographies of Ordinary People Volume 1, and another nine months to draft the 90,000 words in The Biographies of Ordinary People Volume 2, and I’ve been working on MYSTERY BOOK since October 1 and I’ve already got 30K good words. (I had closer to 40K words at one point, and then I chucked a bunch of them out because they led the characters into a corner and then the characters stopped wanting to do things and then I had to open a new doc and paste in only the words I wanted to keep and memory wipe all of the corner-path words from my characters’ heads so they could start making choices again.)

So maybe now really is the time to prioritize holiday caroling at the community center, because MOST WONDERFUL TIME OF YEAR and etc.

But I’ve also got this January writing retreat hanging over me, and although the absolutely eminently sensible thing to do would be to WORK ON THE MYSTERY BOOK DURING THE RETREAT, since the whole point of the thing is to “dive deep into your creative work” and “focus on your manuscript,” the event ends with the opportunity to pitch a bunch of agents.

Which means I feel like I should be in a position to show them an entire finished draft, instead of saying “I’m still working on this.”

Except we’re also going to be workshopping our manuscripts during the retreat, so even if I had a complete draft I’d probably want to rework it after it went through the workshop process. I’m feeling a lot of confusion and stress about this whole “end the experience with an agent pitch” thing, and maybe I should just email the organizers and ask whether we’re supposed to pitch finished work or the stuff we’ve been workshopping for the past week.

I still feel like MYSTERY BOOK is the exact right project for me to be working on right now, because every day that I don’t get to jump into the draft is a huge bummer. (When I was writing that PORTAL FANTASY DISASTER, there was a point at which every day I managed to avoid working on the draft was a relief.)

But I’m pretty sure it won’t be done by the end of the year. ❤️

Yet Another Excerpt From MYSTERY BOOK In Lieu of a More Substantive Post

Because #amwriting. ❤️

(This is one of the sections that doesn’t directly involve any amateur detectiving, so there won’t be any spoilers for the murder mystery plot.)

(Also, you’ll have to read the book to find out what Larkin and her mother fought over. It was a pretty big deal.)

***

Larkin knew that her mother had signed her up for an 8:30 a.m. job interview before the two of them had fallen into their largely un-commented-upon conflict, in the sense that neither of them were really talking to each other except to say the kind of bland, polite courtesies that were intended to assure the other that they were still loved, deep down, underneath all of the anger. They avoided each other in the kitchen and the bathroom, except to say “excuse me” and “thank you for making the coffee” and, as Larkin’s mother had said before Larkin left that morning, “I hope you have a good interview.”

Nothing could be good about an interview that Larkin didn’t want, for a job she didn’t want, at a time of day in which nobody should actually be working, while wearing an armpit-scented suit that fit so badly that she’d had to loop a hair tie through the buttonhole on her pants. Although her mother had not set any of this up as a result of their fight—if anything, it was one of its instigators—it still felt like a punishment. Larkin was being anti-grounded; told to leave the nest and report to duty and strike out on her own (she couldn’t come up with anything but cliches this early). 

The administrative assistant whom Larkin might be replacing did not offer Larkin any coffee. Instead, she let Larkin sit in a black plastic chair while she fielded phone calls, typed rapidly at her computer, and kept the copy machine continuously running. Larkin wondered if she was even qualified to take over this woman’s position, even for two months. She could type fast enough, but she hadn’t touched a phone that wasn’t attached to a pocket-sized supercomputer in years.

And then she was called into another office, and introduced to a couple of people who said nice things about her mother, and asked why she was interested in the job.

Larkin wasn’t expecting this question. Well, she was expecting it at some point, but not right out the gate (cliches, again). She was supposed to tell them a little bit about herself first; set the room at ease with stories of her ambition and competencies. Instead, she said “Because my mom said I needed to get a job.” 

“You know this is just a short-term position,” one of her interviewers told her. “To cover a twelve-week maternity leave.”

“Yes,” Larkin said. “That’s why I’m interested in it.” Good. “Because I don’t want to do this kind of thing forever.” Bad, bad, bad. “I mean, I’m currently working on my dissertation.” Better? Larkin tried to recall how her interviewers had been introduced. She realized that none of the people at the table were faculty; that they were all administrative assistants and HR associates who might very well want to do this kind of thing forever. 

“Larkin, can you talk us through your resume? Have you done administrative work before?”

Larkin had been ready, when she came in, to say something ease-setting about how anyone could make photocopies, and how she’d made plenty of them when she was working for various theater directors  in New York. Now she was pretty sure her name-dropping wouldn’t impress and her joke wouldn’t land. “I haven’t worked the kind of admin job that’s behind a desk,” she said. “I’ve been an assistant director and an assistant stage manager, both of which require a substantive amount of support work including taking notes, typing and distributing those notes, making copies, running errands, and so on. But no, I have not had a job like this before.” She added, as convincingly as she could, “I am eager to learn.”

 “Well, we were hoping to get someone with a little more experience,” another interviewer told her, “but your mother said you were as sharp as a tack.” (Apparently everybody thought in cliches at this time of day.) “Of course we’re interviewing a few other people”—and Larkin knew she hadn’t gotten the job—“but we’ll let you know.”

They stood, Larkin stood, hands were shook, smiles went all around. Then Larkin was escorted outside, into a brilliantly warm October day, the air like a thousand Post-It notes clinging to her skin. It was 8:52 and she had no idea what she was going to do with herself—for the next ten minutes or, if she was honest with herself, the next ten years.

Then she heard a familiar voice call her name.

Mystery Novel Update: Shifting From Word Count to Scene Count

So I am pretty sure I didn’t write 10,000 words on my MYSTERY NOVEL last week, but I also stopped keeping track of the word count (at least for now; I know this book will need to have around 60,000 words eventually) and started focusing on the number of scenes between me and the end of the story.*

Because I do have a scene list, and unlike that other book I spent part of the year trying to write, this book’s scene list fell naturally and perfectly into a three-act plot structure without me even having to think about it.

Probably because this book actually has a plot at its core, instead of, like, a philosophical argument.

(It also has subplots, in case you’re curious. I am so tickled that I got some subplots going without even trying—the characters have to do something in between solving and/or committing crimes, after all.)

So right now I have a list of all the scenes in the book, and a plan for when I’ll work on the ones that still aren’t written and when I’ll focus on the ones that need to be tweaked.

I am hoping hoping hoping that I’ll get this book drafted by the end of the year.

That gives me 43 days. ❤️

*If you want to know why I can’t just check the total number of words in the document, compare it to the previous total, and figure out how many words I wrote last week, it’s because I spent this weekend reworking old scenes, which meant deleting and rewriting and cutting and pasting. I’d say I wrote 5,000ish words in total last week, but it feels like I got a lot more work done.

Another Novel-Drafting Update

So I gave myself the goal of writing 10,000 words in MYSTERY BOOK this week, and… well, so far I’ve written 3,729, which means that if I count Saturday and Sunday as part of “this week,” I only need to write 1567 words per day for the next four days.

Which is, theoretically, doable.

I don’t know if I’ll actually do it, but I’ll try.

The big reason I’m behind on my word count is because I wrote my characters into a corner—basically, I knew they needed to discover Plot Element X to proceed in their amateur detectiving, but the way I had them go after the plot element turned out to be unrealistic. (Because I am transparent about pretty much everything, I’ll admit that I got them into this corner because I didn’t realize attorney-client privilege extended after death. Whoops.)

So then I was like “I’ll figure this out later and jump ahead to the next scene,” but I couldn’t do it—every chapter in this book builds on the last one, and I didn’t know what I was building on. I wrote 651 bland words that had no specificity because they had no foundation, and then gave up.

That was yesterday.

But also, yesterday, I was re-reading Maggie Stiefvater’s The Scorpio Races because last year I was part of this book club that read The Scorpio Races over Scorpio season and I decided to do it again this year, and in the back of the book there’s this Author’s Note where Maggie Stiefvater explains that she tried to write this book several times before she actually wrote it, and she kept getting derailed because she was focusing on a specific technical detail that pushed her novel into a story she didn’t want to tell.

So she found a way to write the story without that detail, and it became the story she wanted to tell, and then she had her book.

Which meant I also spent part of yesterday scribbling down a bunch of notes, on paper, about how I could get my mystery novel back to THE STORY I WANT TO TELL instead of THE CORNER I HAD WRITTEN MYSELF INTO.

This is, ultimately, a story about a broke Millennial who, after years of foundering and wandering, moves back in with her mother and has to figure out how to be an adult. (More specifically, she has to figure out how to be an ordinary person, now that all of her childhood dreams of fame and fortune are crushed. I write to a theme.) There is a murder, of course, and there are some car chases and on-foot chases and costume parties, but the real mystery is the friends we made along the way.

Of course, this also means that I have to do a lot of rewriting, since I spent the past few chapters of this story leading my characters down the wrong path. (Also because writing down the notes, which I did not count towards my word count but maybe should, helped me to clarify a few themes and details that aren’t yet present in the story.)

Soooooooo… that’s where I am with this process right now.

And maybe I will get 10K words down this week. We’ll see. ❤️

On Knowing When You’ve Got a Profitable Idea

So I mentioned yesterday that I had just started playing Crypt of the Necrodancer, and when I was searching YouTube for tips and tricks I found this video by indie game developer Ryan Clark (co-founder of Brace Yourself Games, the studio that produced Necrodancer, Cadence of Hyrule, and more).

It’s a 45-minute talk on how to consistently make profitable indie games, but much of his advice could apply to other creative art forms—so if that’s the question you’re currently asking yourself, set aside some time to watch the whole thing.

The biggest takeaway from the video is probably this pull quote:

If you are not confident in being able to explain why the hits hit and why the others did not, you shouldn’t be confident about your game’s chances either.

Clark then explains, in detail, the three-step process he uses to create a profitable game:

I evaluate the quantity and the quality of the game’s hooks.

I evaluate the viability of the market for similar games.

I consider how I can describe and promote the game.

I didn’t do any of this background work before launching into the draft of that mystery novel I’ve been mentioning lately, and it’s making me wonder whether I should have thought more carefully about THE HOOK and THE MARKET.

My initial instinct is to plow through the draft while I’ve got all of this creative energy and figure the rest out later, but Clark suggests that this how we get competent creative art that doesn’t survive the marketplace. If you put as much time into evaluating and eliminating your creative ideas as you do into putting the best of those ideas into practice, you’ll be more likely to create a hit.

He also recommends running your ideas past your potential audience as soon as possible, so I might as well run this in your direction:

In our eternal and dismal present, 35-year-old failed theater artist Larkin Day finds herself with no choice but to move herself, her crushed dreams, and her unpaid student loans and maxed-out credit cards into her mother’s guest bedroom.

In, like, Iowa.

After her mother insists that Larkin do something besides sit on the couch and scroll social media for celebrities with worse lives than hers, Larkin reluctantly joins a community choir as they prepare for a tri-city performance of Beethoven’s Ninth. When Larkin discovers the choir’s devilishly attractive accompanist dead on the stage door steps, she realizes that her ability to understand and manipulate people’s emotions—a skill honed through her years of stage training—might make her the ideal person to solve this mystery.

(Of course, she won’t be able to do this alone. This story, like so many stories, is really about the friends you make along the way.)

Anyway. That’s all I’ve got for you today, gooooooo enjoy the video and/or let me know what you think about that idea. ❤️

I Love This MYSTERY BOOK So Much, Let Me Tell You More About It

The MYSTERY BOOK draft is up to 14,936 words, so I wanted to share this excerpt from the beginning of Chapter 7 and, like, explain its secrets.

Here we go:

“You look lovely today,” Josephine said.

“I’m your darling daughter,” Larkin said. “You’re supposed to tell me I look lovely every day.”

“Well, you look exceptionally lovely today,” Josephine said. Larkin had achieved this compliment by dressing exactly like her mother. She wore a nicer pair of jeans paired with one of the loose floral blouses she’d worn to her many unsuccessful job interviews—she wondered if it had bad juju, and then decided that, as a white woman who didn’t even know where juju originated, she couldn’t claim it applied to her blouse—paired with a cornflower-blue cardigan that her mother had thrust upon her two Christmases ago. Josephine, standing between the coffee maker and the toaster and waiting for their respective dripping and popping, was wearing the same cardigan in a slightly darker shade. 

“You’re also supposed to tell me that the beauty standard doesn’t matter.” Larkin had even dressed her hair like her mother’s, after trying and failing to remember how to braid. Dean Day wore her just-below-shoulder-length dark hair with a single barrette in the back, keeping the strands that might have fallen in her face at bay; Larkin wore her should-have-gotten-it-trimmed-two-months-ago hair, in its matching shade, with a barrette that she had swiped from her mother’s shelf in the bathroom. She had positioned herself in the kitchen so her mom couldn’t see the back of her head.

“But beauty is truth,” Josephine said. “And truth beauty. That’s the standard, and it does matter.” She put a slice of toast on a saucer and handed it to Larkin, along with a knife for the plastic butter tub that currently sat across from Josephine’s laptop on the kitchen table. 

“Are you sure Keats didn’t mistranslate the words he found on that urn?”

“Larkin.” Her mother laughed so hard she slopped coffee over the side of her mug. “Do you actually think that beauty is truth, truth beauty was written on the urn?”

“It’s in the title of the poem,” Larkin said, biting into her toast. “He finds an ode on a Grecian urn.”

“I cannot believe I gave birth to you.”

“So glad you did, though.” Larkin folded the rest of her toast into her mouth, scootched past her mother to wash the butter off her hands, quickly explained that she was meeting another friend for coffee and would be back before lunch—Josephine was thrilled that her daughter had made a second friend, never mind that this “friend” was really “a woman Larkin planned to interrogate about the death of her ex-husband in order to solve a murder and/or win a contest”—and was out of the house in just enough time to justifiably pretend she hadn’t heard her mother say “are you wearing my barrette?”

So we’ve come a long way since the first seven sentences of the book, in which Larkin and her mother are sitting in two different areas of the house (it’s an open-plan) and arguing with each other. Now they’re both in the kitchen! They’re becoming closer, literally and metaphorically!

However, Larkin is still reverting to adolescent behavior and/or not respecting her mother’s space, as demonstrated by The Swiping of The Barrette. The character growth is not yet done!

Josephine Day, like many mothers, has this habit of saying some tiny thing that’ll stick in her daughter’s head for the rest of the day and influence her decisions (for good or for ill). In this case, it’s the Keats reference. Beauty is truth, truth beauty is a CLUE. For THE MYSTERY.

Also, I got to make the joke about the ode on the Grecian urn. Do you know how much fun it is to get to write a book that has jokes in it? And humorous descriptions of murder suspects and their forty-seven succulents?

Yes, I know that this is a book that hinges on a human being killed by another human, sooooooooooo early in the draft I let the characters give themselves permission to be funny:

“He had a flask in his bag,” Larkin said. “He told me not to tell anyone.”

“Two can keep a secret if one of them is dead,” Anni said. That might have been the moment they decided to stay friends. “I’m sorry—can we make jokes? I think we have to. I’m going to say we can.”

Eventually, of course, there will be a moment when Anni decides they can’t make jokes anymore. And then, at the end of the book—well, you already know how this is going to go, and that’s the point. Half the fun of reading books like these is knowing how they’re going to go, so that when Anni finally says “I think we can start making jokes again,” you feel as relieved and happy as the characters in the story. ❤️

Let’s Just Make All of These Posts About the Novel I’m Currently Drafting Because That’s What I’m Currently Thinking About

The fun thing about writing a novel about an absolutely amateur sleuth is that my protagonist and I get to learn things at the exact same time.

For example:

  • How do you find out how someone really died?
  • How do you get access to a death certificate?
  • What does a medical examiner do?

This is the same kind of journey that I had Ellen take during A COINCIDENCE OF DOORS (except her big question was “if I go into a portal universe, who will do my taxes and do I need to fake my own death”), so in many ways that trunked draft feels like practice for this one. Having a character go after information that is not easily retrievable—if only lawyers and family members can request death certificates, for example, my protagonist has to figure out how to convince a lawyer and/or family member to share the certificate with them—is really really really fun (yes, I know I already used “fun” as a descriptor, I don’t care).

Realizing that at some point I’m going to actually have to talk to a medical examiner to make sure I include a realistic representation of what a medical examiner does is… like… exactly what my protagonist has to do, so I get to put all of that emotion and confusion and “how do you tell someone you want to ask them about murders without them thinking oh great, another person interested in amateur sleuthing” stuff into the draft.

Also, Larkin Day is not me, despite the fact that I gave her the default name I’ve applied to every video game character since The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past. When I was developing the characters for this “has series potential” project, I literally asked myself “what’s the connecting link that unifies all of the lovable-but-flawed-and-also-identifiable-with characters in my favorite smart-comfort book and television series,” and it took me about two seconds to come up with “humanized archetypes,” and then I was all “hey, I can do that.”

(More about that later, probably.)

Anyway, the current draft is 8942 words and I bet I’ll hit 10K this evening. ❤️

More Thoughts on the First Seven Sentences of a Novel

So I wanted to show you the differences between the first seven sentences of A Coincidence of Doors and this new novel I am drafting, which we’ll just call MYSTERY BOOK for now. (2,592 words of outline and 4,712 words of draft. In six days.)

For Coincidence, I wanted to be all intellectual and evocative and serious and sad, and came up with this:

Grace never came home for Christmas, not even when she was still Julia. She traveled to Thailand, played a gender-bent Feste in Twelfth Night, married Charles. Now she and Charles took one of the two flights into the tiny municipal airport on January second, or on the third if there was snow, and although their presents were under the tree—all the presents, for Grace and Charles and Ellen and Carolyn and their father—they didn’t want any of it; they’d had a week with Charles’ family at the ski lodge, with the carols and the hot chocolate and the champagne on New Year’s. They didn’t want another Christmas dinner, another gift that Grace would whisper to Ellen to ship them later because their suitcases were full. 

They wanted to sit, and rest, and tell stories about Charles’ aunts and cousins, and let Ellen take care of them. They still thought of family as a place where you are taken care of, even if it’s a place you don’t necessarily want to be and are only going out of duty because it’s Christmas—or it was, over a week ago.

Ellen thought of family as a series of actions.

For MYSTERY BOOK, I didn’t bother trying to come up with seven brilliant sentences that would introduce the reader to this world and its primary conflict. I didn’t think about the importance of the first seven sentences at all, and decided to jump right into my protagonist’s most immediate problem:

“I am not going to choir practice tonight,” Larkin told her mother.

“Yes, you are,” Josephine Day said, not looking up from her laptop. “I already told Ed you’d be there.”

“You can’t tell people I’ll be places,” Larkin said, not getting up from the couch. “That’s not how this is going to work.”

“I think I get at least some say in how it’s going to work,” Josephine said. “Since you are living in my house.”

This is where I should be all Sophomore Language Arts Curriculum and ask you to tell me everything you know about these characters from these seven sentences.

Here’s what I know: writing this way is a lot more fun.

Also, in case you were curious, Larkin states her primary conflict in the draft’s eighth sentence:

“Because my dreams are crushed,” Larkin said, projecting her voice towards the kitchen table in the hopes that it would loom over her mother and withdraw with some sympathy extracted.

WILL LARKIN BE ABLE TO GROW BEYOND HER CRUSHED DREAMS?

WILL SHE ALSO HAVE TO SOLVE A MURDER?

AM I GLAD THAT I AM FINALLY WRITING A BOOK WHERE THE MOTHER AND DAUGHTER ARE ON THE SAME TEAM, EVEN THOUGH THE FIRST SEVEN SENTENCES MAKES IT LOOK LIKE THEY’RE BICKERING?

Good gravy, yes. ❤️