Writing enough prose to fill a book is one thing, but weaving it all together into a story with a strong arc, purpose, and impact is another. Here are some lessons that might help you in your writing process — whether your own book is an “accident” or not.
In “The Accidental Novelist: How Stolen Moments Can Make a Book,” I wrote about an unorthodox writing technique I discovered — and the novel I’ve been “accidentally” creating as a result.
That process includes thumb-typing chunks of text on my phone whenever and wherever I have a minute and an idea, and building my story piecemeal. One reader, Anonymole, commented that if writers create this way, they will need to step back at some point and consolidate their written fragments, no matter how inspired, into a cohesive and consistent story. I recently hit such a point, with roughly 64,000 words written.
Writing that much prose is one thing, but weaving it all together into a story with a strong arc, purpose, and impact is another entirely. Here are some lessons I’m learning along the way that might help you in your writing process — whether your own writing is an “accident” or not.
When I made the decision to pause my preliminary writing and start stitching the pieces together, I had a total of twelve files that I had emailed to myself from my phone as backup, each containing between 2,000 and 12,000 words. First, I copied and pasted everything into a single word processor document, in the best narrative order I could determine at the time. Having all of my prose in one place felt like an important milestone — my work seemed more like a cohesive novel-in-progress and less like a collection of fragments, scenes, and vignettes.
Edit at will
As with the initial drafting of my novel, I use what minutes I can find in between other activities to clarify the language, put pieces together, or review something I wrote months ago. Sometimes that means searching for a particular scene that’s been caught in my memory and reexamining how it fits into the overall story. Other times, it means scrolling randomly through the document and working on whatever paragraph my eyes and mouse fall on. I focus my time on what I can do right now to get myself closer to the finish line, knowing I’ll get to it all eventually.
Label and shuffle
With tens of thousands of words and dozens of narrative episodes, keeping track of everything can be a challenge. To help, I started labeling significant portions of my story with unsexy and utilitarian titles like, “Argument about green vs. black tea” and “Weird surveillance grocery store encounter.”
Will the chunks I’m currently defining end up as chapter partitions in the final novel? Probably not. But for now, functional titles help me know, quickly and efficiently, what the landscape of my work-in-progress looks like.
Having well-labeled portions of text also helps me put things in the best order for my narrative. Does a certain scene play better in the second third of the book? Does a character’s backstory suddenly become more resonant when presented after a traumatic incident involving an ex-lover? Cut-and-paste is a wonderful thing, and I use it to experiment with all sorts of structures and event orders.
After significant editing sessions, I save a new version of my document with a title like “Draft_v2.0,” Draft _v2.1,” and so on. This way, I can always go back and see previous manifestations of my ideas, as well as what I originally wrote on my phone. Having copious backups makes me more comfortable experimenting — I always know I can revert to a previous version if a creative risk I take doesn’t work in the end.
Fill in the gaps
If I discover that additional text is needed to make the story flow (and this has been happening quite often), it’s always fun to return to writing mode. Either on the spot with my laptop or on my phone the next time I have a free minute, I add the words, sentences, or paragraphs the story needs to smoothly flow and then go right back to editing mode.
Be patient and stay focused
It can be overwhelming to look at a 60,000-plus-word document, completely unedited, and realize it’s up to you alone to get it all in order. I try to stay micro-focused as I work, polishing only whatever sections are in front of my eyes at the moment and losing myself in the task at hand. Just as the crafting of the original text happened gradually and organically, so too will the acts of compiling, editing, and revising.
Keep the big picture in mind
At this point, I know where my characters begin, the struggles and triumphs they go through, and where they will end up physically, circumstantially, and emotionally when the story concludes. I keep this whole arc in mind as I’m editing, compiling, and reordering. In subtle and not-so-subtle ways, the big picture influences everything from word choice to plot adjustments and acts like glue, helping to stick the entire story together as a cohesive narrative.
Do you have any tips for turning inspired chunks of text into a cohesive narrative? Tell us in the comments below.
The Accidental Novelist – How Stolen Moments Can Make A Book
Conflate, and Tighten Up Your Story
Tightening Your Story’s Cause And Effect Chain With “And So”
[Bracket] shorthand helps you draft with lightning speed
The Five Emotional Stages of Publishing A Book