Brick by Brick

In the Six of Crows (and its sequel, Crooked Kingdom) by Leigh Bardugo — my daughter and I listened to the audiobooks this year, and they’re wonderful — one character swears to dismantle another’s empire brick by brick. There’s something wonderfully specific about that image. It speaks to slow, meditated thoroughness.

My use of the phrase is not quite so enchantingly dastardly, I’m afraid. I’m drafting a manuscript, and using the same mantra for my approach. Brick by brick. One small piece at a time.

Over on Writer Unboxed this week, there was a discussion about writing too much and why it might be better to set smaller goals rather than shooting for the moon and failing. I don’t know; I used to be a shoot-for-the-moon kind of person. I could go away for a weekend and burn through thousands of words. In a week, I could push through a whole draft. A messy, uneven draft, mind you, but a draft. But something has changed.

Maybe it’s the kind of book I’m writing now. My previous books were written for imprints that had length constraints — I think the longest were the Orca Sports books, at 24,000 words each. At those lengths, I always had trouble fitting in all the story I wanted to tell, but with the help of my writing groups and my oh-so-patient editors, I managed to wrestle the manuscripts down to size. More importantly, the set length meant I had to tell a certain “size” of story, in terms of timeframe, subplots and so on. As it happened, it was a size I could hold in my head. I could tell myself the story, see the shape of it, climb up on top of my pile of index cards and get a bird’s-eye view of the whole thing. I am a plotter by nature, so that pleased me immensely.

My more recent projects seem to require a different approach, one that I’m still trying to wrap my head around. The long and the short of it is, I don’t have things as tightly planned as I would like. I tried. I’ve made many plot outlines for this project, but haven’t been happy with any of them. When December 31 rolled around and I saw the turn of another gosh-darned year without a finished manuscript to show for it, I decided to do something ridiculous. I still didn’t have a plan I felt great about, but enough was enough. I’d write the book anyhow.

I know my big plot points, more or less. I know where the story is going. More or less.  My screenwriter friend Kim Sparks would pull out her hair over this approach.

I know some characters we’ll meet along the way, but I’m sure others will pop up to surprise me. Some will stay, some will probably end up being cut in later drafts, but they’ll all help me navigate to the end of the story.

Right now, I’m writing every day. Right now, I start each writing session with something easy — I write by hand in a spiral-bound notebook. If nothing else, I jot down what pen I’m writing with, what has happened so far today… mundane details that I don’t have to think too hard about. It makes a nice, low barrier to entry. Then I keep writing in that notebook, and turn my attention back to my main character and what just happened in the book. Again, that’s easy, because it’s whatever I wrote the day before. From there, I write about what might happen next, either in the same scene or in the new scene I’m about to tackle. I usually keep writing until I feel as if I have a handle on at least what might happen in the next 500 words, and then I start typing. Because that’s all I have to write — 500 words. That’s my brick.

Sometimes it goes well and I write more. Sometimes it goes well and I hit 500 and feel good about it. Sometimes it goes terribly and those 500 words take forever and stink like something even my dog wouldn’t bother with (and you don’t want to know what she was eating in the back yard this morning). I write them anyhow, and then I give myself a little checkmark in my agenda and move on to the next step.

Back to the spiral notebook, back to writing by hand. I jot down some thoughts on the scene I just wrote, some things I might need to go back and check or seed in, and some thoughts about what might happen next. Those thoughts are going to help me out the next day, when I do the whole thing over again. And then I put it away.

I’m not sure how well it’s working. I’m writing way too much right now… length-wise, I wrote more than an Orca Sports novel in January alone, and in terms of plot structure, I’m not even at the end of the first act. But that’s okay. I know that a lot of those words I wrote were me figuring out the world and the characters, and that later on, I won’t need them. There will be a hack-and-slash revision some time in the future, where I figure out what every scene is for and take out the rest.

Every now and then, I step back and look at the whole thing and move some scenes around so it flows better. I make notes on what I might need to add later, to join things together. I don’t think about taking things out yet, because I’m still not sure which pieces I’ll need later in the book. I don’t want to eliminate any possibilities too soon.

Mostly, though, I keep writing, one brick at a time.