Let’s say you are a dedicated pantser, someone who writes without an outline or a plan. If you are, you may be surprised by what you wrote when you read it again. I’ve written like this, and found that it leads to much work later, correcting my stream of conscious creations. I know when I’m in a good creative flow because (for me) things like spelling, selecting the correct homonym, grammar, and precise word choice go out the window. When I look back, I’m not just surprised at what I wrote, but aghast.
I first ran into this way of writing when competing in the National Novel Writing Month competition (NANOWRIMO). It encourages stream of consciousness writing and not editing your first draft. Some writing coaches also advise writing without editing instead of editing as you proceed.
Then, one day, you re-read something you’ve written, and you discover some surprises like:
1. A minor character took over one or more chapters.
2. You have holes in your plot.
3. Someone who died earlier, returns with no explanation.
4. Dogs that were killed by the villagers bark at invaders (love that one).
5. You mix up the names of the characters, E.G. Swan becomes Quodak, and Skean becomes Rose.
6. You have an actor do something out of character.
7. You surprise yourself by repeating a scene from earlier in your work.
You get the picture? If you’ve done any of these things, you have several choices:
1. You can throw out the offending lines, paragraphs, scenes, or chapters—yikes.
2. You can edit like crazy to tighten up your story and make it flow.
3. You can get creative and pull it together.
Here’s what I do now. I go through the book and highlight the parts that stay true to my story line. In another pass, I highlight in a different color any name changes, those can often be corrected by the Find and Replace command. Next, I highlight sections that don’t belong and remove them. I generally don’t throw those away. They go into a file of golden nuggets that I may use later. They may even go into another book. Where I’ve written a scene twice, I compare them and use the best parts for a hybrid scene that is placed in the right context.
Finally, I outline from the place I left the track to where I got back on course. With the name changes fixed, and the parts that don’t belong removed, I edit to make the story coherent again.
I’m giving you a way to untangle a mess, but I’ve come to believe there’s a better way of writing. Let me share a quote from the Old West gambler and gunfighter, Wyatt Earp, “Fast if fine but accuracy is final. You must learn to be slow in a hurry.” That’s an old west koan (a paradoxical anecdote or riddle, used in Zen Buddhism to demonstrate the inadequacy of logical reasoning and to provoke enlightenment).
How can you be slow in a hurry when writing? Select the number of words you would like to write a day to finish your book in a year. My guess is that many writers would pick the number 1000. If you stick to your guns, your novel will be around 365,000 words. Children’s novels are about 16,000 words, a mystery novel about 70,000, while a thriller could weigh in at 100,000. You don’t want a tome of 365,000 words for real. So, cut your daily total to one-third your high-end estimate of what you want to write. Your goal will be around 350 words per day (wpd).
If that’s too short for you, kick it up a little, but no more than 500 wpd. Then, when you write, edit yesterday’s work to get you into a workflow before you write for the day. If you set your goal at 350 wpd, you’ll be done in 200 days; 140 days at 500 wpd. That leaves you with plenty of time to attend to the other tasks writers must accomplish.
That’s if everything goes as planned. Almost always, in my writing, I find multiple errors, the most common of which are POV errors and wordiness. The latter requires editing out excessive verbiage. The former requires a rewrite.
I chose to write about 500 wpd. A page is about 250 words. At 350 wpd, I feel like I’m just getting started when I’ve reached that limit. At 500 wpd, I feel more comfortable. To be true, there are some days I hit 1000 or 1500. Why? I get in a rhythm and don’t want to stop. Whatever your wpd goal turns out to be, it’s up to you. Keep Wyatt Earp in mind, if you go slow and focus on accuracy, you can learn to be slow in a hurry with better results.
(I can write two pages in the time it takes for my spouse to get ready to go out.)
Just one more thought. I know writers work on their stories when they aren’t working. They think about their tale while they’re doing other things. I sometimes tackle the largest problems between 11:00 PM and 2:00 AM, losing sleep. That is some of my most creative time.