Having always been a hand writer and this being my fifth NaNoWriMo/Camp NaNo, I’m pretty good at estimating my word count without literally counting every word. This is why even though I have lots left to type, I can say with satisfactory confidence I hit 50K and won NaNo yesterday. (And I finished the story, more or less. I’ll explain later.) With J helping, bless his touch-typist heart, I’ll have everything typed and ready to validate soon, and if for some reason it turns out I’m a little short, I won’t have any problem finding words to add, because boy, oh boy, do I ever have a long list of additions to make to The Queen’s Tower.
Of course, the long list of additions is the offspring of writing without a detailed outline. The original outline consisted of bullet points for each of the 21 chapters and was five and a half pages long. Then a chapter got added (Chapter 5.5 to be exact—I hate having to renumber the outline), because I realized something crazy. “Crazy? I like the sound of that,” you’re thinking. No, not fun crazy, more obvious-as-the-nose-on-your-face crazy. If a lot of the tension arises from whether or not the Queen’s husband (that would be the King, for those keeping score at home) intends to let her out of her tower, perhaps there should be a scene between of the two of them. See? Crazy!
So, I started writing my novel, but pretty quickly noticed something even more insane, a problem I’ve never faced before. If my average chapter length held up, I was going to be short. Really short. Ten thousand words short of winning NaNo short. I’ve thought a lot about how this problem arose, and it’s primarily due to the lack of a proper outline (you know, the kind we’ve talked about where we put word lengths on each section of each chapter). If you plan for each chapter to run between 2,500 and 3,000 words and you have 20 chapters, you’re on pace to write a 50K-60K novel. Easy-peasy.
But my 21 chapters were averaging 1,500-2,000 words, give or take. Why was I suddenly writing such short chapters? Well, part of it is the story I’m telling—I think my chapters run about as long as the story requires, and hey, some books simply work better with shorter chapters. I know it might strike some as strange coming from a fantasy author, but I despise bloat, so if I was saying what I needed to with fewer words than usual, bully for me. If I’d been working from an outline with word counts, I probably would have planned, say, 600 words, to the Queen’s picking out clothes for the feast. But when I actually wrote the scene, I gave it around 300 and moved on, because I felt as though it had been sufficiently covered. However, if I’d been staring at an outline that suggested I write twice as much, I probably would have tried to eke out at least 100 more words.
I see pluses and minuses to both systems. In our traditional outline, I would know not to skimp on something because we decided it was important, and now on revision, I’m going to have to go back and find those spots that deserve more loving detail than I gave them. But by not having word counts, I never felt compelled to write more than I thought necessary, which is good for fighting bloat. In other words, six one way, half dozen another, as it were.
But the salient point is, at 21 shorter than usual chapters, I wasn’t going to win NaNo, and dammit, I wanted to win NaNo. I didn’t think making my chapters longer was a good solution, and I could only think of a few things (like Chapter 5.5) to add, so what could I do to make the book longer that also made it better?
Solution: Flashback jazz hands (Aside: Pardon this joke which only about 3 people in the world beside J and I will get.)
The Queen is in the tower and has been for 17 years. Wouldn’t it be fascinating to see how she got there? I sure thought so, which meant time to literally go back to the drawing board. (In this case, a dry-erase board, because I don’t think writers can have too many dry-erase boards.) I did a quick 3 Act outline of the flashback story and then plotted where chapters A-G (because, again, I wasn’t going to renumber the outline) should go. It turns out adding the flashback chapters was the best idea I had on this novel for three, completely non-word count related, reasons. One, plotting the flashbacks meant I had to think about that pesky backstory I hadn’t bothered fleshing out because I’d been in a hurry when prepping the novel. As fate would have it, a lot of interesting things happened 17 years ago, all of which changed how the characters related to each other in the present. Two, I like the flashback storyline so much it energized me to write this novel in a way that had been missing. And three, drama. Seriously, it’s a much more compelling book with the flashbacks. In fact, on revision, I’m contemplating making it its own equally weighted parallel storyline instead of occasional departures from the main story.
Which leads me to where I’ll get the extra words if I need them, and the biggest drawback to writing sans detailed outline. In order to get a better idea of how the flashbacks fit with the main timeline, I busted out a spreadsheet—one column for the present day and another for 17 years previous. But as I stumbled through, still trying to make sense of what I needed to reveal when and what I hadn’t set up properly, I added a third column that I headed Retcon! The Musical. There are nearly as many cells filled in there as in the other columns, so, as I said, I may have hit 50K and “finished” the draft, but the revision is going to be its own special joy.
Speaking of which, I should probably get back to typing!