Stroke by Stroke

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Having cannon-balled into the deep end of the swimming pool otherwise known as my second novel, I surfaced and started paddling toward the shallow end, where flags fluttered over the finish line. I wanted to taste victory, but my mouth was full of chlorine.

Rather than being distracted by other swimmers, I took a minute to observe them. Some demonstrated perfect strokes; others trotted out doggedly imperfect—yet nonetheless effective—dogpaddles; still others clotted on the side of the pool, talking about swimming, practicing their moves, but remaining closer to a beginning than any finale.

That third group reminded me of me a couple of decades ago when I dove into a similar pool with knowledge of neither swimming nor writing.

I wanted to write. I’ve always wanted to write. One of my earliest memories is being about four-years old, stomach pressed into the family sofa, pigtails pinched beneath Buster Brown bangs. Dust danced in the late-afternoon sun. With squinty eyes, skewered lips, and crumpled nose, my chubby fingers clenched an even chubbier pencil. I huffed, puffed, and scuffed curls, dots, and bars onto a scrap of paper. Though merely random flukes, I see them now as runes that foretold my future. In rapt curiosity, I ran to my mother. Praying the alchemy alive, I asked, “Is this a word?”

Now I ask, “Is this a book?”

My first novel, Ghost Girl, took more than 20 years. Admittedly, I didn’t know what I was doing, but I took Anne Lamott’s advice. In her seminal book, Bird by Bird, she said, “Start by writing.”

The title changed, characters drifted in and out, and the initial Chapter 1 became Chapter 17. But I kept at it. My dogpaddle morphed into a crawl. My ramblings coalesced into an award-winning novel. Not bad for a beginner, a pantser, as in written-by-the-seat-of-my-pants.

I don’t have 20 years to write my next book. That would be Hounded, the second in my series of middle-grade novels based on Celtic mythology. It’s moving along at a steady pace. Because I listened to those who know more than I do. Because I share my knowledge. And because I transitioned to planner, otherwise known as a plotter. Sort of.

According to Josh Bernoff, author, coach, and blogger, pantsers are spontaneous. Planners are, well, planners. They like plot lines, character arcs, minimum words to write each day—preferably at the same time of day.

“Both ways work,” he said in a recent blog post. “But the people who start with writing suffer more. If you’re okay with suffering, go for it.”

I don’t want to suffer. I want to finish. And start the next book. And the one after that. But I like to color outside the lines.

Enter V. L. Cooke, author of the Custodian of the Golden Assembly series. She offered a third option—plantser.

Plantsing, she posits, combines the bonuses of planning with the spontaneity of pantsing.

That solution splashed over me like a tidal wave. Rather than limiting myself to breaststroke or crawl, I can employ every stroke I know to swim the length of the pool—as long as I keep my eyes on the prize and my head above water.

But how long will it take?

Scott McCormick had a few thoughts on that in a recent post on BookBaby Blog. It depends on several factors, including:

  1. Book length and complexity. A novella (10,000–40,000 words) generally takes less time to write than generic adult fiction (70,000–120,000 words). An upper-middle grade novel comes in between those categories (50,000–70,000 words)
  2. Speed and discipline. At a thousand words per session, three sessions per week, a 50,000-word book can be written in four months. Discipline and consistency also contribute to the pace of progress.
  3. Realism. Assess your availability, structure your schedule, and make a realistic commitment to your writing project.

Pantser, planner, or plantser, I’ve got a strategy for reaching my goal. I’ve set clear goals and realistic deadlines, developed a consistent writing schedule, and seek accountability with my writing groups. I will have a good draft by year’s end.

More than any other techniques, writing groups keep me on pace. I belong to two—one meets weekly to generate creative juices and hone technical skills, the other monthly for constructive criticism. I also attend regular meetings of a local writing organization and volunteer as a judge for an annual writing-awards program. Helping others to be better writers makes me a better writer.

Ghost Girl was a fun adventure. But with a tip of the pen to Lamott’s Bird by Bird, I now write stroke by stroke. No more mysterious runes. No more year-long dates with a single character. No more false starts, although Hounded took three first chapters before I found my voice and pace. I plotted scene-by-scene outlines, drafted traits and arcs for each character, and set realistic deadlines. That last item is the hardest to maintain, for I’m a plantser.

Come to think of it, though, my eyes are on the prize. Back in the pool, I reposition my goggles, take a deep breath, and begin my crawl—stroke by stroke—to the finish line.

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