A Beer-Napkin Primer on Country Mardi Gras + A Complicated Story on Blackface – New Bayou Books
Last week, I offered some personal insights on how I approach creative writing. Novels, specifically. This week, to round out the picture, I want to outline the structure I use to organize the books. For me, I found that once I had a specific organizational scheme, it’s been a lot easier to get the work done.
Writing a novel is a process. When you consider the finished product, it’s easy to think that a finished novel is some kind of magic thing, the special domain of intellectual magicians who have the power to conjure elegant stories from thin air. At least, that’s what I thought. But what I’ve discovered—what you likely already know—is that writing a book is a step by step process. So, here’s mine. The main parts, anyway.
Tell the story in ten episodes or less. This was the key insight for me. My first drafts were all over the place. I had some chapters that were five pages and some that were twenty five. And even though I had a rough outline of my story, without a specific way to break it down, it wasn’t clicking for me. Until I started thinking about Netflix.
The best series, for my money, are the ones that can tell a complete story in ten episodes. Something like Ozark, for instance. To my mind, that’s the model. Now, I’m going to resist the urge here to start gushing on about that series. The point is, organizing my work into ten episode chunks was a breakthrough for me.
I realized that if I could divide my narrative in this way, I could break up the work into manageable chunks. My initial thinking was ten episodes at about ten thousand words per episode would yield a one hundred thousand word manuscript. That’s right at twenty pages per episode, based on the way I set my margins and spacing.
For what it’s worth, the conventional wisdom on the right length for a commercial fiction novel seems to be between seventy and ninety thousand words, so my formula overshoots the sweet spot by at least ten thousand words. The contrarian in me is skeptical of conventional wisdom, but I do have to say that I think this range is probably about right. My sense is that something like eight thousand words per episode is probably about right.
One episode a week. I’m not particularly good at math, so something about the convenience and the symmetry of 10,000 words in 10 episode chunks to arrive at a 100,000 word manuscript appeals to me. Now, the symmetry of my little formula breaks down a little here, but it works just fine for me. Ten divided by seven comes out to three point three. So, in my mind, three and a little bit.
That means if I write at least three pages a day, I can complete one episode in a week. And one episode a week means ten episodes in ten weeks. That results in a completed manuscript draft in two and half months. Which, by the way, jives with what Stephen King says in On Writing. The Man writes that you want to get from start to finish in about “a season”. In other words, three months.
Three drafts. I need at least three drafts to get my fiction to a readable standard. I don’t expect that to change. But I’m okay with that, because it means if I keep to my schedule of three pages a day, even with some slack time built in, I can complete a book in a year. And that is a pace that strikes me as both reasonably fast and sustainable over the long haul.
Real quick, here’s the way I approach each of the three drafts.
Draft One. The whole point of the first draft is simply to flesh out the story. For me, it’s been helpful to remind myself that not one word from draft one will be carried forward. The first draft is just for me and a very small handful of people I trust to read my half-assed skeleton of a story, see what I’m trying to do, and offer suggestions.
Draft Two. For me, this is the hardest draft. It’s the point where, if the characters are fake or the plot line is contrived, the book will fall apart. There’s more pressure here, for me at least. I think it’s because, not only is it the make or break point in terms of the characters and plot, but the stakes are also higher in terms of the actual writing.
Draft Three. Theoretically, this is the easiest pass. The goal here is to really polish the words and tighten up the inconsistencies that trusted beta-readers have pointed out. Honestly, the better your beta-readers, the easier this draft will be. Also, you can probably go faster than the three pages per day here . . . but still, it might be prudent to stick to the pace. The closer you get to the end, the more it makes sense to slow down and focus on quality.
There’s a lot more to it, but for this week, I’m going to leave it at that. I haven’t covered editing—the developmental edit between the second and third drafts, and the copy edit after the third–or the difference between episodes and chapters, if there is any. But those are probably subjects for another time.
Meanwhile, if you’re a new novelist—especially if you are from Louisiana and in a position to contribute to the literary revolution New Bayou Books hope’s to spark—I hope you find this helpful. And if you have questions, feel free to reach out. I don’t claim to be an expert, but whatever I know, whatever I’ve learned, I intend to share.