Blogger: Michelle Ule
Location: In Santa Rosa packing for Mount Hermon Christian Writers Conference
What excitement! A contract! I can write “novelist,” on my IRS 1040 for 2010! A dream has come true.
Or has it?
Don’t I have to actually write the story? Isn’t it due February 1?
I mentally calculated my schedule for fall 2010, when I’d need to write the novella: My daughter was leaving for college; I had planned several trips; the Books & Such retreat would require lots of work in October; Thanksgiving was scheduled in LA; and then there was Christmas. So, I started to work on my draft early– as in the day after we left our daughter at college while I flew to Washington, D.C. with my husband.
Thinking I had 20,000 words and a story that took place over six months, I plotted carefully. I divided 20,000 by 12 (hero and heroine each get a chapter per month) and calculated that each chapter needed to be about 1,666 words long. At approximately 250 words per page, that was about six pages each chapter.
I had significant events that needed to happen during each month, and I wrote them in, figured out whom I wanted to say what and what the weather was like at the time. I started chapter three as we took off from our layover in Chicago en route to D.C.
I felt pretty good about my plans until I happened to ask Janet to confirm the number of words. The answer came back 15,000-17,000. Oh, my! I’d just lost 3,000 words, or 1/6 of the manuscript. I was going to have to write tighter!
By late October, my critique group had read my first draft, and I felt confident enough to read it aloud to my colleague Rachel Kent, as we drove to the Books & Such retreat in Monterey.I was nearly done reading, and we were nearly to Monterey, when the traffic slowed to a stop. A man ran down the middle of the freeway toward us, with three burly characters chasing him.
When he reached our car, we heard the chasers shout, “Stop, police!” They drew guns.
Rachel and I ducked as they zoomed past. Traffic picked up, and we continued on our way.
That’s all Rachel thinks of when I mention The Dogtrot Christmas . . .
My critique group had good ideas of how to improve the story. My husband–who always recognizes himself as the hero–had insight as well. I didn’t like the ending, but I finished it up in mid-November and left it alone.
I glanced at it in December, but didn’t change much–I was onto other novella proposals and couldn’t worry about The Dogtrot Christmas. They always get married in the end of a romance, right?
After life “settled down” following the holidays, I went to work on the project once more, but I just couldn’t tease out an ending that satisfied me. I read up on the posada tradition, thanks to a suggestion from Erin Briggs. I pulled and tugged and finally came up with an ending. But I was over 17,000 words.
I combed through the manuscript one more time, tightening up words, getting rid of excessive description–what an English teacher at UCLA used to call “pruning out the deadwood.” I weighed the value of each word carefully and when I finished, the number was perfect: 16,986, fourteen words to spare!
But best of all, having to think about each word made the story tighter, more focused and succinct. I liked it.
And I finished two weeks early!
How do you put together a story? Do you plot based on length? How do you celebrate when you complete a big writing project?
Michelle, you had me on the edge of my seat as I read your post just now! I was chewing my lower lip as I read about your writing strategy, editing, even your brush with danger as you sat stalled in traffic! (Which, by the way, that’s a great hook for another book!)
I sometimes wonder what it will feel like to be in your shoes…Has it all really soaked in for you yet?
Oh, and I cringe when I think about cutting parts of my story. I think that’s the mark of growth, though, when we’re able to separate the wheat from the chaff. (And description? I do love it so! The best advice a reader gave me yrs ago was, “Okay, enough already. We know you can describe a sunrise a thousand different ways. Get to the meat of the matter.” Tough to take at the time, but it grew me.)
To answer your question about how we celebrate…I’m not where you’re at yet, but I enjoy dreaming. I think my celebration would somehow involve chocolate and mashed potatoes and gravy. Not necessarily in that order!
I sort of work both ends against the middle. Starting like you did, I parcel out the average length of each chapter and assign scenes to each, but often these scene descriptions are little more than one-line targets. When I actually start writing, my characters take over, and sometimes they insist on telling the story in ways I didn’t expect. When all is done, I edit multiple times, tying up loose ends, weeding out weasel words, tightening the tension in each thread, and finally combing through line edits.
My wonderful husband has taken charge of celebrating the completion of two manuscripts to date, inviting friends to join us for an impromptu supper and surprising me with balloons and flowers. Since there’s a long gap between finishing and actually profiting, I hardly feel deserving, but he seems to think that’s all the more reason to celebrate each milestone…which is why my heroes all seem to be patterned after him. 🙂
Congradulations are your success!! I am so happy for you.
Today’s blog has made me think. I have completed a big writing project last year (about a thousand pages)in about six or seven months and nearing completion now of another big writing project (about 500 to 600 pages) in a few months. The one thing I do not do is celebrate. However, this time one of the engineers I write for insisted that we celebrate by bringing in donuts. I guess it’s a start.
I think your husband is a hero, Lynn! What does he look like? Maybe I’ll write him in the next manuscript . . . 🙂
I celebrate the ending of a big project with a massage. After sitting at a keyboard for endless hours, my shoulders and neck are such a mess, I need help! And I confess, I had a massage after I finished The Dogtrot Christmas, and again last week in Budapest. So, two massages after something I sold. That sounds good to me!
Finishing a project is a big deal, whether you end up with a contract or not. Many, many people talk about writing books but much fewer ever get them all down on paper. So celebrate after you type in “THE END.”
Stephanie Grace Whitson
Michelle! Congratulations!!!! I’m thrilled for you. As to commenting on your question…well…you finished two weeks early. I don’t think there’s a thing I have to offer. We live in different levels of the writing sky … but I love you anyway!
Some of the best writing advice I received was that “it’s done when it’s done.” In other words, write it all out. Don’t worry about restricting yourself by word limit on the outset of the project: that is what editing is for. You might find out when you are finished what scenes, or even characters, do nothing for the story.
How do I celebrate when a project is finished? After all that writing, I prefer to go watch a movie 🙂
Congrats on not only finishing with four words to spare, but also two weeks early! I enjoyed reading about your process–and yes, I do plot to word count. I usually end up under though, and I add more details while revising.
Julie Surface Johnson
I started out a pantser but after taking courses from Susan May Warren and others, I definitely see the value of plotting and characterization ahead of time. Set-up may take a little longer, but you definitely save time in the long run when editing.
I really do enjoy reading about other writers’ specific writing (and celebrating!) strategies.
With my current big non-fiction project, I plan out word counts per chapter as well, along with topics and key points. When I begin to write an article, I usually write pieces of it first, then transitions, then go back and edit to make sentences stronger. I usually have to cut words, too.
It’s exciting to read your journey, Michelle. Thanks for letting us celebrate with you!
What a harrowing tale. On several counts. It’s wonderful that you sold on proposal and wonderful that you finished your manuscript on time. Great story.
My good friend Amy Parker (an author/editor) is going to be at Mt Hermon! Hope you run into her!
What a great story, Michelle. I think I would have ducked under the seat as soon as I saw those guys.
I rarely worry about length when I write. I guess that’s kind of silly because it means I’ll just have to make cuts, but it interrupts the flow when I think of doing anything other than just writing the story as it comes to me. Once that first draft is done I can take out my axe and chop away because I’m in editing mode.
LOL. You asked for a description? There’s a picture on my website (About Us), but words show some things better, eh?
My real-life hero is everything you’d expect in a retired colonel–muscular, square jaw, trim for 50, just a touch of gray at the temples. Hard to tell if the lines at the corners of his eyes are from squinting down the flight line or from smiling. He works harder than anyone I’ve ever known. He believes in what he stands for and stands for what he believes in, and that includes God and family. Loyal to a fault, he absolutely never compromises his integrity.
I’m president of his fan club. Can you tell? God blessed me good in him!