When it’s okay to use the drawer

Personally I’ve never been a fan of “the drawer”, the place where an author puts a piece of work they think is not ready for the world to see. If I’ve worked on something, it’s because I want to put it out there. It may be in various stages of “development” but it’s not shelved, filed, archived, whatever.

I heard an interesting idea though from Meg Wolitzer, in an interview for the Nerdette podcast last summer. She’s a writing teacher and advises her students to write 80 pages of their novel, then stop and read what they’ve got. She advocates reading in a place different from where you write, even on paper rather than on technology.

The goal of this is two-fold, to learn about the book you are actually writing, and to decide if it’s something you want to finish. You may have set out to write about one thing, but a plot point a character or anything else you’ve been finding interesting may have dragged you in a different direction. The goal is not to force the book back into submission of your original idea, but rather to learn about what you’ve actually been doing, and to write the rest leaning more in to that path.

Wolitzer says 80 pages not 100. A 100 page project feels like a project you need to finish, and one that you have to keep working on despite how you may feel about it. 80 pages is something you can feel proud about, it is an accomplishment, and it’s far more material than a literary agent would read to decide if they like  a book or if it’s working. If you can’t get the book together in the first 80 pages, you’re not likely to get it together in the next 80.

I have probably about 10 novel ideas floating around in my head, and am trying to decide which to work on next (after Surreality is released). I could see giving the couple of most likely candidates the 80 pages treatment then deciding which makes the most sense to work on, based on how the draft is going, and how it meets my expectations. My current draft of Dark Matter is a good example of taking a goal to it’s finish, without stepping back to think if it’s working. It’s a 200K work that wants to be 125K and can only really be fixed through complete rewrite. That’s a lot of effort, and potentially something that can be avoided.

Now 80 pages is a fuzzy term to me so how about 25,000 words? That’s a quarter of a 100K word book or half a NaNoWriMo. You can write 25,000 words in a month at 833 words a day so it’s not a ridiculous pace. And a month of time really isn’t all that long if writing is a life-long project. Maybe 20K? Something substantial but easy enough.

And if it isn’t working as a novel, you can always tweak it and make it a novella for minimal effort.

This model doesn’t see the drawer as the place where stories go to die, but rather the place where they germinate until they are ready to be worked on. And a drawer full of 80 page books is a lot less tragic than 300 page ones.

Once you start writing something, can you put it down if it’s not working?

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Filed under Writing, Writing Goals

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