How long does it take to write the first draft of a novel?

. . . when you’re working full time and commuting two hours a day?

Forensic evidence suggests that I started my novel in April 2016 and finished its 123,000 glorious words in September 2017. So, 17 months. Seven thousand words a month. Less than 2,000 words a week. Maybe a page a day. Is that impressive, or awful?

After discussing the final chapters with my cold-eyed writing group, I now need to begin the second draft by recalibrating the climax. Also, I need another title. How many months is that gonna take?

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First draft is done!

It clocks in at about 123,000 words– far longer than I expected. It will probably expand a bit in the second draft. My longest novel is Senator, which is about 140,000 words. But who’s counting?

There’s something very satisfying about finishing the first draft of a novel. Until you have that draft, the book isn’t really real — there’s always the chance that the whole thing will fall apart somehow. I have a few of those fallen-apart efforts in notebooks and on floppy disks stuffed into a file cabinet in my basement. Now I get to make the thing better — add the plot details that I missed first time around, sharpen the characters, maybe even cut some stuff. My previous two novels required significant amounts of revision after the first draft; I think I’m closer on this one. We’ll see.

Killing off your characters

A while back I listened to a podcast about Elizabeth Gaskell’s Victorian novel North and South. The panelists made a persuasive case that it is still worth reading. So I downloaded it and read it. The panelists were wrong.

It’s not, you know, terrible. But there’s nothing distinctive about it, and it falls too easily into Victorian attitudes even as the author sometimes seems to be pushing boundaries a bit. Dickens does the same thing, of course, but you can forgive him because he’s so brilliantly funny and inventive; Gaskell is neither. The panelists pointed out that she tries to fairly represent the points of view of capital and labor in the new industrial society that was transforming England. That’s admirable, but those points of view feel pretty dated 150 years on.

Here’s one distinctive thing Gaskell does: she shows no qualms about killing off her characters. Half a dozen major-ish characters die in the course of the novel, several of them for no apparent reason. That is to say, the plot would have worked just as well if the heroine’s mother hadn’t died, followed by her father, followed by her godfather… It’s Victorian England, of course, so it’s not unreasonable for someone to cash in his chips without any warning in his mid-fifties. But it happens enough in this novel that it feels like an authorial tick.

I’m intrigued by this because I’m approaching the climactic scenes of the novel that I’ve been working on. I’m clear on the general direction of the plot, but I haven’t worked out the details–like who’s gonna die. A bad guy or two, surely, but what about the good guys? It seems unlikely that they’ll get off scot-free. Unlike North and South, in my novel people are actually fighting each other (to be fair, there was a pretty good union-busting scene in North and South, but no one died in it). But which good guys? At this point I’m pretty fond of all of them.

I’m interested in finding out how this all turns out. Which is why I haven’t been blogging much lately.

In which Alexa reads my novel to me

My wonderful kids got me an Amazon Echo Dot for Father’s Day. This is an awesome little toy. Alexa (the thing’s voice) can play music and set a timer and tell me jokes and do math problems and lots more. It didn’t take me long to discover that Alexa could read books in my Kindle library. So of course I told her to read one of my own books–in this case, Terra.

The first problem was that she insisted on narrating all the front matter–copyright statement, ISBN, etc. There should be a way to turn that off or skip through it, but I couldn’t figure it out.

Then she started reading my deathless prose. She will not be replacing professional audiobook narrators anytime soon. The meaning is reasonably clear in her narration; she pronounces the words correctly (except for the oddball name “Polkinghorne”) and she pauses between sentences. But her emphasis was consistently a bit off: she said “post OFFice” instead of “POST office”; “cell PHONE” instead of “CELL phone”. And she didn’t do dialog right: you need to drop your voice a bit when you come out of a line of dialog to identify the speaker: “Larry said” or “Vinnie said”. She didn’t do that. And of course she made no effort to characterize the speaker; they all sounded just like Alexa (she sounds great, but she doesn’t sound like Larry Barnes). I couldn’t imagine listening to her for a whole novel. I gave up after about a page.

By the way, one of the most popular posts I’ve written is the one where I contemplate whether Jeff Bezos is the Antichrist. Apparently people Google that question a lot, and my opinion comes up second, just after Jonathan Franzen’s.

Maybe I’ll ask Alexa what she thinks.

PORTAL on sale for 99 cents!

For some reason my novel PORTAL is now on sale for a mere 99 cents at Amazon and Barnes & Noble. I really think you oughta buy it. Here’s its great new cover:

And here’s a random quote from a satisfied reader:

A Terrific Read! I wasn’t sure what to expect when I started reading this. Would the promising story idea deflate once it got past the initial set-up, as so many other books do? It definitely did not, and stayed entertaining all the way through – I could not put it down. I have kids around the same age and I really felt for these boys – they’re lost and are doing whatever they can to stay alive, stay together and hopefully get home. Glad the book was complete in itself, but it would be great to see them have more adventures like this. Overall, two very enthusiastic thumbs up!

 

Let’s count adverbs!

This post about this book (which I need to buy) is great.  Number of  -ly adverbs per 100,000 words:

Hemingway: 80

Twain: 81

Melville: 126

Austen: 128

J.K. Rowling: 140

E L James: 155

One might easily imagine that the writer of the “Fifty Shades” novels would use almost twice as many adverbs as Hemingway, but it’s nice to see some data.

The case against adverbs is pretty clear: they are often a flabby substitute for more succinct prose.  “Hurry” is punchier than “walk quickly”.  And lots of adverbs might indicate that the writer hasn’t done a lot of revising and tightening:

The Hemingway book with the highest usage rate for -ly adverbs, True at First Light, was released only after his death and is considered one of his worst works.  The same pattern is true for Faulkner and Steinbeck, namely that the most highly praised works have relatively low rates of -ly adverb usage.  Among other notable authors surveyed, D.H. Lawrence seems to be the most obvious exception to this regularity.

I often find myself editing out adverbs that I couldn’t seem to avoid in my first draft.

While I’m sort of on the subject, I enjoyed the rather strange novel Adverbs by Daniel Handler (who was much more successful with his Lemony Snicket novels).