Collecting my fiction-writing updates in one place
I’m writing a YA fantasy novel! I had the idea in late 2019 and I started it in earnest in 2020. I wanted to write a story about a girl growing by the edge of magical wilderness, in an egalitarian, pre-agricultural society.
It’s become a slow burn project because I keep getting blown off-track by flurries of activity for other shorter projects.
It’s also taken a while because I’m learning a lot of writing craft along the way, and sometimes the breaks give the new concepts time to sink in. Like learning how to structure a scene, and add just enough new information and surprises to keep it interesting.
I wrote the novel’s “origin story” of how I started writing it here: (parts #1, #2, #3, and #4).
I also made a video series about a particularly productive novel-writing period, where I used drawing to get me unstuck.
I love leaning on strengths from my other interests, like art and research to find unique ways to approach this area. I draw to help visualize. I read news and history to inspire little plot details. And I love a good math metaphor to understand an idea in my magic system.
This is also one of the biggest projects I’ve done, and it’s taught me a lot about managing long-term projects that’s transferred to other areas of my work. Writing is an unpredictable process, and novelists learn quickly to work with that in their planning. An important lesson for me, since all my projects are unpredictable. I’ve learned from writing that I can handle that just fine!
Here’s the last video update in this series, where I draw another location for the novel (a storeroom) and harvested scenes from my Q&A document.
I listed the scenes from the ‘answers’ I had highlighted in orange in a new document, and gave them each a summary. I do intend to refer back to the original Q&A document for more detail when needed.
I ended up with 40 scenes for Acts 2 and 3, of which 29 are new. Now I just need to develop them out!
Reflecting on the past month, I thought I’d share some observations and things I’ve learned from this experience.
This challenge had just the right amount of flexibility. When setting it up, I gave myself a choice of what to do each day: write, draw, or prepare to write (mashing up Inktober Prepober and NaNoWriMo into December, which is why this challenge has that unpronounceable name).
Having options was great! I could switch between tasks, depending on:
how much time I had,
what I was in the mood for, and
what phase the project was, in terms of what it needed next.
I tracked my writing in a sprint tracker I made in Notion (you can see it in the video). To ‘win’ the challenge for the day, I just had to write (at all). Even if I wrote for five minutes, it counted.
That was pretty much all the structure I needed to maintain consistency. I typically wrote more than that, because I was having fun.
Measuring progress in ‘streaks’
It was helpful to measure my progress in streaks, so if I fell off the consistency train (which I did a couple of times), I just restarted my streak counter. I got the idea from Wordle because that’s how it displays your statistics.
Streaks incentivized me to keep the challenge going even after I’d fallen off. Here was the result:
I wrote or drew every day of the month except for two.
My longest streak was 18 days.
Even on the days that I drew, ended up also writing, because the momentum was starting to build and I was excited to push my draft forward even a tiny bit.
Often, writing was the easier choice because I could do it in about five minutes, if I wanted. Drawing a picture typically took an hour or more.
In that way, the incentives lined up well with my goal because writing was the more important task. The drawing was mostly for fun and to help visualize scenes in my writing. Since I ended up writing more often, that worked out well.
Over the month, my writing went through three phases.
The first phase was just reading my old draft.
Next, I started pulling pieces out to make an outline.
Last, I went through a couple of passes of questions and answers about each plot point.
That evolution just happened naturally, out of asking myself what I needed to do to get more clarity and get closer to be able to draft the scenes.
The small level of consistency I maintained helped in finding answers to my questions, just between writing sessions. I posed a question one day, and had an answer the next.
I guess my subconscious was plugging away at it without me knowing, which is always nice.
Qualitatively, there was a ton of progress!
Looking at the before-and-after of my novel makes that clear.
At the start of the month, I had been stuck for a while, and I hadn’t read my draft in months. (I was scared to.)
At the end, with just a little bit of effort, I’ve built up momentum and have a clear plan going forward. And most importantly, a bunch of confidence that I didn’t have before.
So, suffice it say that I’m really glad I did this!
I’m nowhere near as tired as I have been after NaNoWriMo, (the couple of times I attempted it, and didn’t win, obviously). With this challenge, I did what I set out to do and still feel energized.
That’s important for making sustainable progress.
If you’re considering devising a challenge for yourself…
I would definitely encourage doing it! I think it’s a great idea.
And I’d also encourage kind of setting the bar low. I think there’s a lot to be gained from consistency alone, without going after crazy word counts that will tire you out.
I guess what I’m saying is that doing something easy can actually be beneficial, believe it or not.
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So, that concludes this series, and I hope you enjoyed following along!
Here is a video update where I’m drawing another setting for my novel! It is a type of work room.
In my last update, I had just finished my third pass through my new outline in the form of Q&A about each plot point, adding in the world building element or character motivation that was missing.
By this point, I’d got a ton of material in the Q&A. Before going back to the start for another pass, I needed to do was decide what I was going to do next. There are always more questions to answer, so I could have done more of that.
Instead, I decided to organize all the material first, because it was getting unwieldy. There’s no point creating a giant document that’s super hard to read, since I’m trying to create something that will help me in the drafting process.
As soon as I’m sufficiently clear on the story and have enough of the details, I intend to build out the next draft, under each scene heading, by either pasting in pieces of the existing draft, rewriting a scene, or more likely, writing a missing scene for the first time.
Writing from an outline will be interesting, since I’m not much of a “plotter,” if you buy the plotter/pantser dichotomy. (I think it’s more of a spectrum.) But you can’t “pants” a second draft, so it’s important to be able to write from an outline.
Anyway, I spent the last day of my InkPrepNoWriCember challenge organizing all of my notes. Here’s how:
I highlighted answers that needed to be their own scene. Maybe because I needed it to set up a conflict that would come up later, or introduce new information.
Some elements needed to be introduced, but didn’t need a full scene. I could squish them into an existing scene, so I highlighted this answers and labeled them ‘breadcrumbs.’
The next thing I will need to do is pull those out into a separate list, soo that I have a complete list of all the scenes, including the ones I’ve added now, and the ones I already had.
After that, I can decide on their order. In some cases, the order is clear, and in other cases, I have leeway to decide which order makes the narration the most interesting.
The story is inching toward clarity! I’m nearly ready to start drafting in earnest, and I think that’s really good progress for a month of work.
I have a couple of days left in my writing and drawing challenge, and I’m really happy with how it’s going.
This is about as much consistency as I can manage, which is not in the same league, at all, as the people who do NaNoWriMo or Inktober in their original form, but a tiny bit of consistency does go a long way.
The continuity of coming back to the novel every day makes it easier to get into the story each time. My brain is simmering on the novel in the background, even when I’m not working on it.
Here is a video update where I’m drawing one of the settings of my novel. It’s one of the few settings that I can say, with confidence, will appear. I won’t say much about it! I want it to be a surprise.
Writing Update: Last time, I was on my third pass through the story, working on the plot Q&A. Today, I spent a little longer than planned and made it to the end of story! The third pass is done, so I’m going to have to figure out what to do next.
I could continue pretty much as I have been, just go back to the beginning and just keep refining.
Or I might spend some time organizing all the material I’ve generated so far, turning those Q&As into actual scenes, or bullet points, or something that I can basically use to do the actual writing with.
This challenge will be done soon, so I want to figure out the organizing principle for the next round of edits. Will it be another month long challenge? And should I jump into it straight away?
After this is done, I’ll take a couple of days to go through everything I’ve done and then decide.
And of course, the new year and planning ahead got me thinking about this time last year, which was a lot like now: cool weather and editing.
About a year ago is when I finally figured out how to do novel revisions, and edited the first section of the novel. It’s crazy to think that a whole year has passed since then! And what a year it has been.
Here’s a video update where I’m drawing a potential setting for my novel. At first, I sketched in a few characters for scale. It got me thinking about coming back through these drawings (in a later challenge, no doubt) and drawing in the characters!
I’d have to design them first. I haven’t figured out the details of how they dress or do their hair. Those will be decisions for later, after the more important ones have been made.
My focus this time is just the settings because I find those especially helpful in helping me visualize scenes while writing descriptions.
As for the writing itself, I’ve been going through the story in passes.
The first pass through the story I did was just reading the draft, because I hadn’t read it in a while. I had just been adding to it without reading it for months.
The second pass was creating a new outline, and here’s how I did that:
I started with a timeline, listing month one, month two, month three, and so on for the (in-story) passage of time. And listing all the main plot points that from the draft. They were written, but still needed work.
Then, I began a round of Q&A, where I’d go through each plot point and ask myself, what I didn’t like about it. What needed to be added, why the different characters did what they did – all sorts of missing details.
It was easy to first frame them all as questions. But I also added answers as best as I could, you know, whatever hints of an answer I had. So the second pass was just basically doing that for every plot point until I reached the end of the story.
My questions and complaints took thousands of words to write! It became really clear why I’d had this vague sense of dissatisfaction with parts of the story.
While brainstorming possibilities, it became clear that any of these answers would probably be fine. There isn’t one best way to solve this problem. This is my story and I can kind of do whatever I want! As long as it sent me in an interesting direction, I could already sene that the story was getting better.
It was reassuring. It wasn’t about choosing the best answer, but delving into the plot points until I found them convincing.
Most of this detail is probably not going to make it into the final book – I don’t know which parts will and which parts won’t, but all of them are getting me closer to being able to tell the story well because I believe it.
After Q&A-ing my way to the end of the story (with the amount of clarity tapering off toward the end since the answers would depend on earlier story beats), I started on my third pass through the story.
I just went right back to the beginning of the plot point Q&A, and read my answers, asked followup questions, and answered whatever.questions I could.
At some point, I will have to stop analyzing and get drafting. More background detail isn’t always better. Hopefully, I’ll catch myself when I get to the point where I’m just outlining and outlining as a form of procrastination.