On the first of April, I published my plans for this year's Camp NaNoWriMo: to write three short stories focused on Inac, Lorelay (formerly Lorilla), and Garret. Now, having completed the goal, I want to look back on the month and share what I learned from the experience.
I'll break this up into three sections, each relating to a specific worry I had after setting the goal. Thankfully, none of my fears came to pass.
Only a month...
Fear #1: A month would not be enough time to write and edit three short stories.
In reality, a month proved to be a fairly relaxed pace. The average daily time I clocked last month was about 50 minutes – a little more than half of the average of 90 minutes per day I spent on the book's second draft. There were some days where I spent less than 30 minutes drafting or editing. I do wonder why I suddenly started spending half my normal time writing last month. Two ideas strike me as the most likely.
First, writing these short stories after spending seven months on the book's second draft made it feel like this was a side project. A nice breather while I prepare to start the real project, the third draft of An Ocean of Others. That's not the way I should have seen it, but it was hard for me to view these as equally important to the book.
Second, I was writing these stories at a faster pace. My average writing rate during the book's second draft was 430 words per hour (wph). For these, I averaged 608 wph – about 40% faster. I chalk that up to the relative lack of complexity in the short stories, but maybe it's also because I wrote in shorter sessions. During a long writing session, it's easy to get caught up revising a little detail that you're trying to get just right. That costs precious time, whereas when writing the short stories, I don't remember that happening at all.
I admit I had a bit of a head start with Inac's story, but it wouldn't be unreasonable to expect a short story to take about a week or two of work if it's about the same length as these three. That's strictly for me. If you've never written any short stories, I encourage you to give it a shot. It's good practice and quite rewarding to be able to finish and post a completed product. Although it might not seem like it if you're writing the same setting and characters, it's also a pretty good way to take your mind off the main project while still remaining productive. I see that now.
In the future, I think I'll try to do more of these as I'm waiting on feedback or putting the book down for a month or two to read it with fresh eyes.
Surely I'll rush...
Fear #2 was a thought that went something like this: "Okay, I'll be able to get three stories done this month. But I'll have to rush through them, so surely they'll be embarrassing messes."
Well, I don't think they're my strongest pieces of writing, but none was so bad I thought I shouldn't post it. Could I have made them better if I had more time? Absolutely. Given the strict timeline I set, I knew I couldn't revise over and over until every detail was perfect. The stories got one or two editing passes before posting. I only got feedback before editing on one story. In an ideal world, I'd have gotten more beta reader feedback and done a few more editing passes to tighten up the writing.
Now I certainly don't think they're awful, but in some sense I'm flying blind here. Are they horrible, unspeakable abominations, the posting of which sullies my good name? At the very least, I think I can say they're not that. But are they good? I've had one person tell me they enjoyed them, so that's good enough for me.
I'll need some time away from them before I can read and judge them objectively. If you've read them, you can also help me out here! Leave a comment or shoot me a message letting me know what you thought. If you regret ever spending time reading those posts, and you didn't understand anything that was happening, and you just wanted all the characters to die... even that is helpful feedback!
In April, I set a strict timeline so I finished everything for Camp NaNoWriMo. However, in the future, I likely would leave myself a bit more wiggle room. Even an extra half-week would help improve the stories, either by giving me time away from it before revising, or by allowing more readers to give feedback. Since my goal here was related to Camp, I sacrificed some quality to complete it in a shorter time. Time and quality are a tradeoff, so you have to find the right balance for whatever your goals are.
This is a waste...
Fear #3: Writing these stories would be a waste of time, a distraction when I should be working on the third draft of my book.
This one is, in some sense, a philosophical question. Since writing is a craft, is any time spent practicing that craft really a waste of time? Perhaps my fear was more about opportunity costs (ah, isn't everything?) and optimizing my time. I could have been honing that craft while working on my main project instead.
So I found a balance. These stories aren't part of the main Dance of the Sibling Suns series, but I intend them to remain canon for the setting and characters. Therefore, I wanted to make sure they expanded upon the world in meaningful ways.
Knowing the sequel to An Ocean of Others will feature Lorelay and Garret as viewpoint characters, writing stories featuring them helped me find their voices. What do I mean by that? Partially, I'm talking about the style in which their chapters will be written. They need to be distinct from Grim's chapters (the main viewpoint character of An Ocean of Others) so the book doesn't feel stale. This includes technical things like whether the prose favors short or long sentences, how often to use sentence fragments for emphasis, how their thoughts are denoted, and more. But I'm also talking about what's going on inside their heads – what's driving them, how they speak, what details they alone would notice. These are the things that really define a character. Pairing that with a style of prose that complements the character draws the reader in and makes it more interesting to read, in my opinion. (Joe Abercrombie is masterful at this.)
These stories also let me do some worldbuilding for places other than Liwokin and its immediate surroundings, which is largely the setting in An Ocean of Others. Two of these new locations will appear into the main series, but one likely won't.
In A Different Light, we see Inac's childhood home, Sea Pot Lake, a lush island basin that sits below sea level, with a lake that periodically drains and refills. The main purpose of this story was to flesh out how Inac views Archemagic differently than most other mages, as becomes apparent in the book.
In A Way to Wake, I got to show the Bright Empire's capital city, Vos, and explore the Paceeqi culture through Lorelay's profession and relationship. I had a lot of fun writing this one, and it's my favorite of the three. Though I wrote the first two drafts of An Ocean of Others without any of this story's events in mind, its aftermath will actually have a big impact on the next draft and even more so on Book 2, when we once again get inside Lorelay's head.
In The Weight of Survival, Garret is in the middle of Eko's rainforest, on a mission but admiring the thriving ecosystem all around him. I love when fantasy worlds include exotic flora and fauna, and Eko is the perfect playground for me to introduce some strange creatures. I hope to show the country's treetop cities at some point, but it didn't fit with the part of Garret's backstory in which this took place, so that will have to wait. As always, the story must take precedence over worldbuilding.
Last, I wanted to make the stories worthwhile to read if some future reader discovers them after reading one of the books. To that end, I included some foreshadowing of later books' events. Hopefully it isn't too obvious what I've got planned!
So I think I can rest assured that these stories were not a waste of my time. All of them will make the upcoming drafts of the first book stronger, and laid the groundwork for what I've got planned in books two and three. Writing stories that focused on the characters' pasts let me understand who these characters are in a way that I couldn't get from Grim's perspective. I would consider it good practice to do this before starting any book. Even if the character isn't going to be a viewpoint character in the book, writing a chapter from their perspective would be extremely helpful.
Finally, I learned something about myself. Well, I should say I confirmed something that I already suspected about myself. After revising Inac's story, I set out to "discovery write about the two of them [Garret and Lorelay] this month to help find their voice and flesh out their backgrounds." I envisioned myself opening up a blank document, writing all the way through the story in a couple days, then revising it to clean up the messy bits. That's... not exactly how it went.
After staring blankly at the empty page that was to become Lorelay's story, I instead opened a new document to write an outline. That outline was eight bullet points in sort of a mirrored structure (A1>B1>C1>X1>C2>B2>A2>X2). Each of those bullet points became a hastily scrawled paragraph or two, and each of those paragraphs became a more carefully written paragraph or three in the original document.
Is that discovery writing? I don't know. It sure didn't feel like it. Before I could start writing the "real first draft", I needed to know where the story was going. What it's purpose was. For whatever reason, writing a story that way makes sense to me. As Stephen Covey wrote in The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, "Begin with the end in mind." (I don't think Mr. Covey was a discovery writer either.)
But I put "real first draft" in quotes. Why? Because I think it's a matter of framing. Perhaps someone would say that my outline was discovery written, or the draft after that was my "real first draft". That writing was sloppy, but the job of the first draft is simply to make the story exist. After that draft, it wasn't anywhere near ready for publishing, but it certainly existed.
Outline writer, discovery writer; it's not a dichotomy. It's a continuum with weakly defined extremes. At one end, the writer creates an outline of the entire story, down to the finest detail. Even in this, there is an element of discovery. At the other end, the writer begins the first draft and writes all the way through until the end. Here, I see an extremely detailed outline. Much of that discovery-written first draft will change in revision, just as a story will invariably deviate from an outline in subtle ways. I have more thoughts about this, but I'm verging dangerously close on useless rambling. Perhaps another time.
So what did I confirm about myself through this experience? That on the continuum of storytellers, I am much closer to the outliner extreme than the discoverer extreme. No one who knows me is surprised. I even outlined this blog post before starting.
That was a lot more than I intended to write, so I'll sum up my four main takeaways here.
- Time - Due to their reduced complexity, short stories can be written faster than a chapter of a book even if they're about the same length. It's a good way to spend time when you're waiting on feedback for a novel or need to take a break from the main project.
- Quality - Leave yourself time to put the story down so you can read it with fresh eyes. Time and quality are a tradeoff, so find what the right balance is for you and what you're trying to accomplish.
- Pointless - Writing short stories from side characters' perspectives is a useful way to learn about the characters. It can also be a good way to include worldbuilding that doesn't fit into the main series.
- Continuum - I need to know where a story is going before I begin writing it; I can't help but create an outline. I'm what would normally be called an outliner (or an architect, to steal George R.R. Martin's term) rather than a discovery writer (or gardener), but I don't see the two as a dichotomy.
I said above that I see now that short stories are a good use of time while reading my own book with after spending some time away. Unfortunately, I didn't see that at the beginning of April, and I spent the whole month reading a completely different book – The Priory of the Orange Tree by Samantha Shannon. So while my original plan was to start the third draft in April, it's now May and I still haven't read my own book.
I'm trying to make up for lost time here; I've read about 40% of my book in the first 5 days of May, so I'm looking to start consolidating beta reader feedback and my own thoughts to begin the third draft toward mid-May. Of course, come June 2nd I'll be heading to Utah on vacation, so I'll have to get my momentum back once I return.
With all that in mind, I've updated the Projects page to change the expected start date of Book 2's first draft from September to December of this year. I've also added a 4th Draft status bar for An Ocean of Others; from what I've read so far, it's definitely going to need it. After that, I think the book will be in pretty good shape to send to an editor. So when the book is in their hands, I'll begin the sequel's first draft, which will inevitably be interrupted when I get the editor's feedback.
It's a lot to juggle, but I'm determined to figure it out as I go. After I've got a book or two published, I expect to get much better at estimating how long things will take. Until then, thanks for your patience!