I’ve been radio silent for the majority of this year while I beaver away on my debut novel. And by beaver, I, of course, mean prevaricate, for it turns out a novel is not just a stretched-out short story. Who’d have guessed? That’s not to say I haven’t been writing any short stories. It’s just that I’ve had to be selective about the calls I answered.
To date, the longest story I’ve written is Heart of Thorns a novella (20k words) published by the wonderful Eerie River. This itself was based on a short story (8k) called Thorn in my Side, published in Eerie River’s It Calls from the Sky anthology. The two stories are separated by thirty years and contain the same characters. The short story starts on the day of an alien invasion, and then the novella skips to what it looks like thirty years later. Add to that gaping hole, that the novella didn’t quite deliver a satisfying finale, and it felt like there was another novella to finish the full story arc. So in January, I cleared the decks to write that novella, a sequel to Heart of Thorns.
The publisher recommended I work on a timeline as well as characters cards to help flesh everything out and make sure everything scanned. So, after a month of planning I had my timeline, had my character profiles but something didn’t scan, in fact it became more obvious. I had 8k words <– 30 years –> 20k words +5k new words to flesh a few things out and the new 25k words of the final novella. Skipping most of the key characters’ development, just felt odd. Which left me pondering a quadrilogy, 4 x 25k novellas, to cover the thirty year period from the initial invasion to alien domination a mere thirty year. That at least felt joined up.
By now, we’re into May and I’m taking the original Thorn in my Side 8k short story with the intention of spinning it out to 25k. In the process I can also expand the single story Arc & POV to match Heart of Thorns multiple Arcs and POV’s. Simples. So, I introduce a new protagonist, a cast of supporting characters and flesh out the story. I’d always imagined the original story to be more of a road-trip through Australia, now I have the space to do it. Brilliant. I crack on.
Fast forward another month and I’m loathing it. I just can’t seem to make the story do what I want, what I had planned and I’m shoe-horning in all manner of contrivances to get from A to B. Progress feels two steps, forward, three steps back as I try to stick doggedly to the outline. Until one day I’d had enough, and I ripped up the plan and went off-piste. In the next. two weeks I hit 20k, the story flowed, the characters came to life. Lesson learned, plans/outlines are not the only path and as a writer limiting your direction for any reason is a bad idea. Some of my favourite scenes have proved to be far from the beaten path.
Two-weeks later, into book one and I’ve hit the 25k mark, in fact it’s in rear-view mirror before I even notice. Great!? Except I’m not even halfway through the story. Why, oh why, did I wander off the path. It’s mid-summer, it’s hot as hell and I’m pulling my hair out. There’s no other option but to park this mess until the temperature, mine and the weathers, cools.
Late September, with the first leaves falling, I pick the project back up with the mindset of reworking scenes, cut and merge down into the target 25k. A couple of days, and I’m choosing between slicing my wrists or another great scene. Nope. It ain’t going to work. Thankfully at the time, I’d been reading a couple of books on writing to market which had raised a few interesting nuggets, key amongst them, the marketability of a novel over a novella. So, I sit down and I reimagine the story not as four novellas (4x20k=100k) but three novels (3x80k=240k) and lo and behold everything falls into place. Plenty of space to indulge my Australian road-trip and bring together the key characters. Book two, has plenty of space to cover the thirty years, without feeling rushed and Heart of Thorns as is forms the first 3rd of the finale book, with the extra space for world building that got chopped to fit a novella. It’s a win, win, win.
What’s this all got to do with NaNoWriMo, I hear you ask? Well I find myself at the end of October with 30k words, needing another 50k to hit the 80k target. Why 80k? It’s the average length for a post-apocalyptic novel. That’s what readers expect.
I’ve had success in the past, and enjoy the accountability and deadlines that NaNo provides, and at the time of writing, I’m one week in and bang on target. My goal is to edit and get feedback from alpha readers in December and aim to get my first novel off for professional editing in the new year. Assuming that all goes to plan, I’m confident I can turn the second book around in two months and the third in a similar time scale, with the goal of completing the trilogy in the middle of 2023. I have a longer road-map in mind to produce a bunch of dystopian/post-apocalyptic novels, many spinning out successful short stories, so it’s a genre I expect to invest a lot of time and effort into other the next few years.
The cover image is my muse for the last couple of months. It’s a conker I picked up on my wanders and I’ve given it the photoshop treatment. No I didn’t paint it. The original sits on my writing desk, right next to my water, where every day I accidentally brush against it and think up a new curse word. I’ve vowed that it shall remain in situ until I’ve finished the first book. Blood and tears indeed!
If you are participating in NaNoWriMo this year, feel free to buddy me up. Misery loves company.
Update: 1st December 2022 – this years NaNo proved a fantastic success. I got my 50k words in the 30 days and I actually like a good three quarters of what I’ve written. I’m at 73k still targeting 85k, which will not be a problem given many scenes and characters need fleshing out. Of course, it all needs editing, there’s pacing issues in the third act, things that don’t quite connect up, all of which I’ll be fixing in December. Key as always to my success with NaNo is sprinting and I can’t thank the local Kent NaNo team enough for organising a Discord bot. Six-eight twenty minutes sprint with good company makes life a lot easier.