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Finished Book Two

I just won NaNoWriMo! Woo-hoo!

Unfortunately, it was NaNoWriMo 2018. Do they still have badges for that? 

Whatever. For only the second time in my life, I finished a novel last week.

Writing, that is. If I only finished reading the second novel of my life at the age of 46, I doubt I’d be trumpeting quite so loudly.

Although sometimes, when looking at the drivel I put onto a page, one might presume I’ve never actually learned how to comprehend the English language anywhere beyond “See Jane barf. See Dick dick.”

I could barely contain my giggling in the background while listening to Daughter’s first grade class work on their vocab. “Don’t let the cat <Blank> you.” “Theo and Jana <Blanked> the sandwich.” And my personal favorite, “I decided to <Blank> to the finish line.”

(The answers were scratch, split, and sprint, you sicko!)

In my mind, Book Number One took five years to write, but I never bothered looking at the stats. It turns out I was overshooting. Or undershooting, depending on what one defines as “writing.” 

According to Microsoft Word, I began Book Number One on April 1, 2014. I thought it was a NaNoWriMo novel, but that start date implies it was Camp, not NaNo proper. Not that it makes a difference. I’ve never won any NaNo, whether April or July or November. While I could probably shit out 50,000 words in a month, I wouldn’t consider it “Novel Writing.” Nor would it be be a complete novel.

My daughter, by the way, was born one month later, in May of 2014. If I couldn’t finish a book in a month with no child and Wife mostly immobile, it’s safe to say it ain’t ever happening. One November, I had a student teacher, which necessitated me to  vacate my classroom and sit in the staff room with my laptop every day. It also gave me two fewer class periods to prep and grade. I still didn’t “Win” that NaNo.

To be fair, Book One wasn’t really my first attempt. I started a hot pile of puke for NaNoWriMo in 2013, a “semi-autobiographical” retelling of my trip to Mardi Gras as a wee lad. I say “semi” because said trip happened in 2000, thirteen years earlier, and I can barely remember what I taught yesterday. I was also rip-roaring drunk a substantial portion of Mardi Gras, so even if I’d woken up every morning and written down what happened the night before, it would’ve been half-accurate at best. One morning I awoke with my jaw hurting like hell. A day or two later I remembered taking a punch to the chin while trying to break up a fight. Whether or not I broke up said fight remains a mystery twenty years later.

So yeah, that “book” made it to somewhere in the 30-40,000 word and shall grow no more. NaNoWriMo might consider that 80% of a full book, but it ain’t. Not that any of my books are likely to see the light of day, but that one shouldn’t even grace my computer screen. There’s a reason weed journals aren’t on the New York Times bestseller lists, because none of our lives are quite so hilarious as we are led to believe. 

Still, it was probably a good first attempt. Write what you know, they say. If I was ever going to push anything beyond 5,000 words or so, it probably helped that I didn’t need to plot things out, or get to know my characters. Who knows, maybe I’ll salvage some of it for blog posts some February. After all, “embellished life stories” might as well be the subtitle here.

According to Microsoft, I “finished” Book One on June 8, 2017. So not five years. More like three and some change. But it still isn’t really finished, and it’s now been six-and-a-half years. If I split the difference on those two, it’s five years, give or take.

I remember writing the last line of that book. It was a “planned” book, as opposed to a “pantsed” book, but in reality it ended up being very little like the plan. The character that was supposed to die at the end of Act II lived until the end of Act III, while at least two characters who were supposed to survive the book didn’t make it that far. One because he swapped places with the “planned” Act II death, and another because I got tired of typing all the apostrophes in his accent.

But I knew the tentpoles of the plot. I always knew what major plot point I had to get to, and the next one after that. As such, that final line was pre-ordained for three years. I might not have enunciated it in the planning stage, but by the time I was 10K words in or so, I knew precisely how it would end. The month leading up to it was both exciting and scary. I remember the feeling that June afternoon, sitting in a pub while waiting for Wife and Daughter to meet me at a baseball game, as I wrote paragraphs leading up to it.

Is this it?

One more paragraph.

Is this it?

Nah, make him go around the bend, and then…

Is this it?

Holy shit, I just finished a book.

Now what?

I guess I’ll start Book Two.

To be clear, Book Two isn’t a sequel to Book One. I’ve heard that’s a big-time no-no. Because when the editor tells me not to kill off Character One, make it Character Two instead, that’ll make Character Two’s super-important arc in Book Four super awkward. Not saying you can’t teach an old zombie new tricks, but it requires a fair amount of backtracking. During a NaNo write-in, I once met somebody who was writing the SEVENTH book in an unpublished series. Man, I hope he never has to go back and edit book one. I’m guessing some character motivations have changed in the interceding six tomes. At least I hope so.

One of my characters changed quite a bit during this book. I know that because I wanted the last chapter to mirror an earlier chapter, so I did a bit of side-by-side writing. Wow, did I really start out the character that way? He’s always been crass, but by the end of the book he’s more crude jokester. On the re-read, he’s kind of a dick early on. He also seemed to have a son in Chapter Four, but it’s a daughter by the end. I’m not sure what her name is. I kept writing [Daughter] in the final chapters, certain that I named her at some point, and when I find said name, I’ll fill it back in. This might be the problem with taking six month breaks from writing throughout the course of the book.

Sorry, let’s double back to the statistics. Book Number Two’s file was created on October 10, 2018, but I don’t think I actually started writing it then. That sounds like prime “NaNo Prep” range. The first page still has a little preview blurb, again only covering the start of the book. So I can safely assume I didn’t start the novel proper until November 1, 2018. Oh, maybe October 31, because I’ve been known to fudge a little. If it’s past 9:00 PM in California, it’s already the next day on the east coast. Heck, 4:00 PM nets me midnight GMT. It’s not like I use the extra couple hours to push me across the finish line. I promise, if I ever start at 4:00 on 10/31, I will not accept a win after 4:00 on 11/30.

Regardless of whether I started on 10/10 or 10/31 or 11/1, the fact that I finished it in November of 2020 puts it at just about a two-year novel. Not quite half of my first one, but in that range. Maybe by the time I get to book five, I can cut it to a year. I’ll still never figure out how Michael Connelly and Lee Child (pre-retirement) can churn out 17 or so books per year. It takes me longer to read their books than it takes them to write them.

Writing the ending of Book Two was a lot less cathartic than Book One. I’m sure part of it is the law of diminishing returns. After all, Book One wasn’t only a 3.5-year journey, it was a 40+ year one. Finishing any book would’ve fired off endorphins. With Book Two, it’s a matter of been there, done that. And considering that Book One is still in the editing process, experience tells me that getting to the end is little more than a checkpoint. I feel sorry for Stephen King. Does he get any joy out of finishing a book?

On the other hand, he’s a multi-millionaire who gets a movie deal every time he has a bowel movement, so maybe I should hold off on my pity. It’s like when Billy Joel says he would’ve liked to have been a history teacher. I’m a history teacher, Billy. Wanna switch? 

I also wonder if my lackluster finish stems from the fact that this book was “pantsed,” not planned. I had a couple characters and an opening scene in mind when I started. Instead of wasting another six months creating a plot I wouldn’t follow anyway, I decided to just write that opening scene and see where it ended up. Turns out it ended up at a whorehouse.

As such, the final scene has probably only been in my head for a couple months. I had a vague idea of how the characters were going to get out of their final snafu, but I wasn’t entirely sure how they would get into it. And I sure as shit had no idea of what to do afterward. Y’know, you gotta have the requisite cool-down, level-up scene after the big blowout. I know we all think in terms of “Hans Gruber falls from Nakatomi Plaza, fade to black,” but the consumer wants to see some bullshit hug-it-out scene between John McClain and Al Powell.

The final line? I thought it up a week or so ago. Not convinced it’ll make it past the first rewrite. Instead of that bronze ring I’m getting closer to each time the 500-words-a-day carousel comes back around, it felt more like the decision point after my second beer. Do I add a little bit more or call it a night here? In the end, I decided to avoid the headache waiting for me tomorrow morning if I dragged the scene out any more.

So now what? 

Unlike with Book One, where I let it sit for a year, I think I’m going to do the second pass soon. Make the drapes match the carpet. No wait, sorry. Wrong euphemism. What I meant was “check the pubes for hair dye.” Nope. Still not it. 

Make the ass match the face! That’s it! Turn that son into a daughter, maybe finally discover her name. Decide whether I want to keep the character an asshole to make his growth more astute or maybe take a little off the edge at the beginning so readers don’t hate him before they find out his daughter’s name. I also remember some stuff I wanted to switch around at the beginning. I killed off one character earlier than I should have (again, unplanned, but I found myself liking her way better than the main characters, and I thought my readers might, too, so off with her head!). Turns out her death ended up having a major effect on the main characters. Who woulda thunk that when it popped in my head one day?

Then I’ll wait. It seems like the third draft is where the magic happens. Book One started at 127,000 words. After pass two, I got it down to just over 100,000. I was doing a small amount of ass-fitting-the-face, but also cutting large swaths of inner dialogue that, while necessary for my writing process, added little to the reading process. Then I found a couple of beta readers. Well, I found 7-10 people who said beta reading sounded fun, but only two ever responded to the opening 10K I gave them. So yeah, we’ll call that a couple beta readers. I’m hoping the others didn’t get around to it. If they read it and it was too horrible to enunciate, then I might be progressing on faulty logic.

Originally, I didn’t consider this pass a third draft. I was just cleaning up those first 10K words for the beta readers. I was planning to dump the extra 90,000 words on them all at once, with caveats that I would “clean it up” later. So if I used nicer verbs in the first batch, assume they’ll make it into draft three. Or, hell, if y’all like the shitty words, then maybe next time I’ll query the diarrhea first draft and pretend it’s stream of consciousness. 

Besides, I logicked, I’m going to make changes after their feedback anyway, right? 

Except the first beta reader to get back to me said he’d be fine getting it in more 10,000-word dribs and drabs. Less daunting for him that way. So then I figured I’d “clean up” batch two. Less daunting for me that way, too.

I also wanted to play around with a way to freshen up the book that I was bored with after 227,000 words over six years. Right before sending it off, I threw in  a couple of changes I’d been thinking about, some tongue-in-cheek references to add levity and to make it substantially less derivative. Both respondents liked it, so I’ve continued adding them to the new batches.

I’m now starting my sixth “batch,” finishing up Act II. I originally named this file “2.2,” it’s pretty obvious that it’s destined for “3.0” status once I put all the batches back together. 

Draft one is putting shit down on a piece of paper. Draft two, I’ve been told, is making those words less shitty. At least for my first book, I’m finding the third draft is where I’m actually focusing on writing some good words. It’s on pace to be around 80,000 words, which seems like a good spot for a novel with a little bit of world-building. Even better that the net -20,000 words is more like -25,000 less crap plus an extra 10,000 words of those added accoutrements. 

Who woulda guessed, after cutting close to 30K from first to second, I still had more than 20K to cut. First pass, I focused on cutting full paragraphs. Second pass is taking “He decided it was time to go around the corner” to “He rounded the corner.” Can that reduce the manuscript by 20%? Turns out it can.

Book Two stands “complete” at 110K. I’m a little worried that if it goes through a similar culling process, it’ll be down to 60K or so, which ain’t much of nothin’. But I feel like I need to add some to the first half while chopping the second half. When I was still figuring everything out, I didn’t have as much to say. Once I figured out what made the characters tick, I had to explain what made the characters tick.

So I’m a little in between right now. Finishing the last few beta batches of Book One while working on the reorganization, large swath cuts of Book Two. It won’t be easy since they’re drastically different. I occasionally ran into this problem over the past month. Book One is a fantasy/historical fiction, a hero’s journey with a studious main character. Book Two is set in modern-day Vegas with one main character obsessed with sports while the asshole is likely to bust out a Golden Girls reference at any given time. Did I mention Book Two took a detour to a whorehouse? Not an easy transition from that to a heroic stand of cavaliers in chainmail.

I wrote Book Two in the present tense. Not sure why, but it seemed to fit. One goes to a whorehouse, one has not gone to a whorehouse.

So yeah, maybe I spend the next couple weeks finishing the beta batches, then do the ass-and-face pass?

More importantly, when do I start Book Three? And which book shall that be? I’ve had a few ideas bumping around, one of which started out before Book Two was even a thought. Since I went serious then funny, maybe I’ll head back to a “Very Special Episode” again.

It would also send me back on the “Planned” road. I haven’t written word #1, but I’ve known where and how the final scene will go. I might even have the final line picked out. It’s the first line that’s proven to be a right asshole.

And I could totally fuck future me up by starting Book Three this week. When I post about finishing it in 2024 or so, watch how confused I am – December 1? WTF? Did I finish a NaNoWriMo and decide to keep the mojo going? 

Never mind. I’ll KNOW that wasn’t the case.