Monday, June 3, 2013

The 20K Roadblock and Discovery Writing

There appears to be a consensus among writers that 20K is the magic word count where they hit a roadblock. This just happened to me. I was sailing along, content with hitting my word count goals, not worrying too much if everything I was writing was terrible. Hey, it's a first draft, right?

And then I couldn't go on anymore. I mean, I could, but I wasn't sure that I should.

I had gone far enough to realize that too many things weren't working. I didn't like the tone of the novel—it was getting too dark. I hadn't introduced enough complexity and subplots so it seemed like it was going to end too quickly. And quite frankly, it was boring. I write YA science fiction, and it definitely needed more cool world building.

I could have continued with the daily word count and pushed forward with my rocky first draft anyway, but I decided to hedge my bets and revise. With my previous novel, the second half of the my first draft ended up in the garbage. I had forced myself to finish the draft, but nothing about the ending worked. And I think that was because I didn't have a solid enough beginning to go forward with.

That's how I know I'm what Brandon Sanderson calls a discovery writer. I think his term is a lot more accurate than the traditional “pantser” v. “plotter” designation. A discovery writer discovers the story as they write. And they tend to revise a lot, especially the first three chapters. That's because they're molding the these chapters, trying to get a sense of their characters, world, and what the plot really is.

Don't think this applies to you? Sanderson says that most people are actually somewhere in between a discovery writer and an architect/outliner. In fact, I wrote an outline for this WIP, but I always give myself room to stray and to discover. Very few people outline to the extent that nothing needs to be decided at go time.

(By the way, Sanderson has an awesome lecture series posted here, which I highly recommend.)

The conventional advice to writers is to keep moving forward at all times. But personally I don't see a lot of sense in moving forward if I haven't figured out my tone, my characters, my subplots, and my world. All of those things must come together in order to create a truly resonant ending, an ending that is, as Robert McKee advises in Story, both unexpected and inevitable.

That's my goal. I don't want to spend a lot of time heading into a false ending which I will have to scrap completely. Therefore, I'm returning to my first chapter. Has this happened to you? How did you deal with it?

6 comments:

  1. great post, and apparently I'm a discovery writer too, who is presently stuck at 20K as well because omg I need to go back and do some revisions, but was totally feeling like maybe I'm doing it wrong because everyone just says keep going.... so THANK YOU!!!! I"m revising some so I can move forward in the right direction!

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    1. Thanks! I hope we're both better off listening to our instincts. Good luck! :)

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  2. I am also a discovery writer. And yes, 20,000 seems to be where I take stock in the direction of a novel. I put down a novel for two years, because it seemed very choppy. And this was the only novel where I actually wrote an outline, which could be part of the issue for me, since I prefer to discover the story as I write. But I was challenged to write a full outline. Anyway, I recently picked it up again and am working on it. I reread it and found htat it isn't as bad as I thought it was. Giving it a rest really helped my perspective.

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    1. I completely agree, some space can really change the way you look at a novel. I find that even a week or two can often make a difference to me. It's great that you were able to pick it up again after two years and have retained your interest in it!

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  3. I'm a hybrid plotter/discovery writer. I make a 1-2 page rough outline and discover the rest from there. I've gotten stuck once so far--at around 45,000 words. As an exercise, I re-wrote a few existing scenes from the viewpoint of another character. It opened up a whole new world for me because I knew so much more about why things were happening, made subplotting easier, etc. Plus it was fun. ;-) It looks like I'm going to end up keeping the second POV. I still have a lot of work in front of me.

    Basically, I think you have to do what works for you. If revising in the middle is necessary, then I don't think you hold off just because it doesn't work for some other people.

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    1. Nice, I love the idea of writing from a second POV as an exercise! It's cool that you decided to keep it, too. And I agree, you definitely have to do whatever works for you. The trick is figuring out what that is.

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