Before I met my partner I was never good at writing lists. When I lived alone I’d try to remember what I needed to buy at the supermarket, and if I forgot something, I’d just run to the supermarket and get it. I found myself eating the same things, week after week, to have to think too hard about what I needed to buy.
Things changed after I started cooking for two people. My partner hates endless trips to the supermarket — doesn’t everyone hate going to the supermarket — and he quickly taught me the beauty of writing a list of groceries to buy for the week. I write the list, we go to the supermarket, and then we’re done for the week.
For the first few weeks of novel-writing I was applying this very principle to writing the first draft. On a sheet of paper I’d write a list of the scenes I wanted to write for that week, and then, every morning, I’d consult that list and write. And for a time that worked. Before I started writing the actual draft I’d written enough notes to figure out how I wanted the novel to start, how to construct the initial situation; and so those scenes came easily.
But now I’ve launched into the novel’s much longer second act, and here the list is failing me. I still set a marker for where I want my hero to wind up by the end of the week, but writing out daily assignments is now more elusive. Like a good chess game, where the number of different outcomes multiplies exponentially with each move, I’ve been finding that the further I wade into my new story, the paths I can take are branching out and then branching out some more. Where should I go? Which path should I take?
And yet I spewed out more words last week than any other week of this experiment. Instead of trying to figure out scenes ahead of time, I just started putting the characters together and bouncing them off each other. The results are a mess, but I can still sense glimmers of what I want the final product to feel like: the characters are saying things I didn’t expect them to say, doing things I didn’t expect them to do. I have no idea if what I’m doing will make sense. But with the deadline now just a few weeks away, I just keep writing. I’m groping in the dark toward a conclusion I simply don’t know yet.
And you know what? I don’t care. I want to explore all the possibilities these new characters are presenting me, and I’m curious to know where they’ll take me –with as little interference from myself as possible. Writing a novel isn’t like going to the supermarket, thank God. And what reader wants to read a shopping list?
I now have over 40,000 words written. But by April 25 it won’t matter if I’ve written 400,000 words. Unless the draft has a beginning, a middle, and an end, the draft will not be finished. And that’s what I need to keep in mind in order to win this bet.