My debut novel, The Biographies of Ordinary People: Volume 1: 1989-2000, releases on 23 May 2017. The sequel, which covers the years 2004-2016, is scheduled to release in the first half of 2018.
Photo credit: Garrhet Sampson via Unsplash
I wrote the first chapter of Vol. 1 during the last week of July 2015. I wrote the last chapter of Vol. 2 during the last week of December 2016. Two full-length novels — roughly 90,000 words each — drafted over 18 months, plus I was revising Vol. 1 while I was drafting Vol. 2.
If you've dreamed of writing your own novel(s) but haven't yet written anything besides the first two chapters — and trust me, I've been there — you're probably wondering how I got it all done, in addition to my everyday workload and all of the other stuff that goes into a life.
Some of it has to do with experience. I was able to write The Biographies of Ordinary People in part because I had already written hundreds of blog posts, online articles and short fiction.
But a lot of it came down to structure and planning.
Building a Structure
The NaNoWriMo model, as much as I love it, doesn't work for me. I already write roughly 50,000 words every month as a freelancer, and doubling that level of output isn't an option.
So, when I started outlining and planning The Biographies of Ordinary People, I gave it a structure that I knew I could do:
- Write in addition to my current workload.
- Sustain over time.
I decided to keep the chapters short. Around 1200-2000 words each, or the length of a freelance article. Some authors like to end their daily work mid-sentence so they can jump right in the next day; I've been practising David Allen's Getting Things Done for 10 years and open loops just run circles in my brain. I wouldn't be able to stop mid-sentence. I wouldn't even be able to stop mid-chapter. So I made sure I could complete a chapter draft in a single evening.
(Plus, I was already very familiar with writing to that 1200-2000-word length. I knew how the rhythms should go, and I knew how to keep people reading.)
I also decided to give myself a chapter limit: Each volume would be divided into two parts, and each part would be 35 chapters long. (The first volume of The Biographies of Ordinary People begins on Rosemary Gruber's 35th birthday; the second volume ends on her daughter Meredith Gruber's 35th birthday.) I outlined the main event of each chapter, to ensure both books had the right amount of rising and falling action and to ensure that I never sat down to a chapter not knowing what to write next.
Lastly, I decided to write two chapters per week. This gave the project both a workload and a duration. Writing 140 chapters would take 70 weeks to complete, although I gave myself one week off after every 35 chapters, during which I would edit and reshape my outline for the next 35 chapters. That meant my time-to-completion was closer to 74 weeks.
It helped that I'd written a novel before. That novel was called The Red Book of Cordia, and it was about a group of quirky characters who join together to fight an evil empire (I had just finished playing Final Fantasy 6), and I wrote it when I was in high school. It took me two years to finish. It wasn't a good novel, but the fact that I'd completed it meant that I knew how to sustain a large creative project over years — and could probably do it again.
Having the Background
I should mention, at this point, why I used the word "probably". It's been 17 years since I graduated from high school, and since then I've tried to write half-a-dozen novels, including a few chapters of The Biographies of Ordinary People that didn't go anywhere.
I failed every time. So why would this time be different?
You know how they say writers should write short stories before they write novels, and a lot of writers ignore that because they only read novels and aren't interested in shorter pieces?
I started freelance writing in 2012.
Between 2012 and 2015 I wrote a lot of short pieces.
Some of them were articles for Wing World or Popular Science. Some of them were first-person blog posts for The Write Life or The Billfold. But I also wrote fiction — Dispatch From a Mars Widow for Yearbook Office, From the Diaries of Minerva McGonagall for SparkLife, How Gilmore Girls Do Money for The Billfold.
I was learning about character and voice and structure, I was putting in my 10,000 hours, I was levelling up — whatever you want to call it, I was doing it. I was writing all the time, and both my work and my processes were improving.
(I was also reading a lot of books, but I've always read a lot of books. Just throwing that in because reading is one of a writer's most important skills.)
So when I decided to finally start writing The Biographies of Ordinary People, after wanting — and trying — to write it for years, I felt ready. I had both the skills and the practise to succeed. I had three years of experience in outlining ideas, writing compelling narratives, and hitting my deadlines. I'd been paid for my short fiction, and people had told me how much it resonated with them.
In other words: I consistently wrote 14 articles a week for five freelance clients. I could add two more chapters.
Finding My Readers
My career as a freelance writer and editor has taught me two things:
- I like immediate gratification from readers.
- I like getting paid for my work.
I wanted the same experience with The Biographies of Ordinary People. I had built a readership through my freelance career, and I knew that many of those readers were interested in my fiction, so I set up a Patreon project that would allow people to read and respond to draft chapters of The Biographies of Ordinary People as I wrote them, in exchange for a small monthly pledge.
This worked beautifully. I had my group of readers, I had financial support, and — most importantly — I had an early test of the novel's viability. Were my readers enjoying it? Did they want to know what happened next? Were they sympathising with the characters and responding emotionally?
(I was even able to make some course corrections based on reader response, which helped improve the novels.)
Knowing that I already had reader interest, and that people were willing to pay for this story, also gave me the advantage when I began exploring different paths to publication. I ended up going the self-pub route, for reasons I outline in detail here, which meant that I could publish both novels within a year — and also meant that by the time we got to Vol. 2, readers would get a book that took place in the immediately-recent past.
At this point I'm guessing some of you are ready to start planning your own novels and the rest of you are sceptically wondering if my book is any good. (It's too structured! It's self-published! It should have gone through years of revisions!) Here's a five-star review from Foreword Clarion Reviews:
(It's a good thing I've got that second volume almost ready to go, so I can keep building on the momentum of the first one.)
So write your books, whether you write them like mine or whether you choose a completely different tactic to get from the first word to the 90,000th. But keep in mind that, at least in this case, building a structure and setting up a sustainable workload helped me finish my project. That, and writing a lot of short pieces first.