Sunday, November 10, 2013

The first 20,000 words: a writer's stumbling block

I remember reading something somewhere that many aspiring writers have no trouble getting the first 20,000 words down on paper but that many cannot seem to move beyond that to a finished product.
I wonder how many really good plots never became novels for this very reason.

Has this happened to you?

I have never experienced the exasperation of being at a loss for written words (although I'm often at a loss for spoken words). I usually start writing and can't stop. Daylight turns to night; night becomes the wee hours of the morning. My eyelids keep drooping and I find myself taking shallow breaths. Only when I start yawning so much that tears obscure the page in front of me do I know it's time to put the puppy to bed.

Very little in my life follows a structure, and that includes my writing. I'm guessing that could be a problem for some writers, a problem that ends at the period after the twenty-thousand word mark. Yes, I know where my plot is going. No, I never know what route it will take. In fact, I have to let it sit for weeks after I hit the final punctuation mark on my keyboard because I know I've probably been repetitious; I have probably changed someone's name midway through; I have probably been too wordy, not wordy enough; too glib; too serious; too something that has to be edited. I do consider my work finished but but not polished.

This method probably doesn't work for everyone, which is why that 20,000 mark can be such a problem. In cases like this, it would probably help to have some kind of structure, an outline, for instance.

Then again, maybe it would help to write the ending first, even before the first chapter.
When I was in graduate school, I was enrolled in three literature courses one summer. Each one required a book a week to be read and analyzed, which was quite a task because I was also working full time. While I'm sure I didn't have an undiscovered solution, I resorted to reading the first chapter and the ending of each book before proceeding. My motivation was to eliminate the concern about what was going to happen so I could concentrate on the more important task at hand -- analyzing each book and preparing for questions and exams.

This worked wonderfully. I found I was able to foresee much of where the author was heading and what his characters were going to do. I found it easier to recognize symbolism and motivation. And, I passed each course with perfect grades.

Now when I think about it, I wonder if that's not how my writing pattern works. I know where I'm going so getting there is just a matter of following one route, checking out shortcuts and detours, to see if they will add conflict, flavor, motivation or if they are merely a diversion that can be eliminated.
It's a long road,
 sometimes a lonely, desolate road, but it's been traveled before. The scenery changes but the destination is always the same.

As Emerson wrote, Life is a journey, not a destination. Once you have a bead on your destination, the journey should take care of itself.

(Here's an interesting look at the 20,000 word problem. I found it when I was searching for related content.)