On Word Counts and Dropping F-Bombs

So last night we had a cocktail party with a few old friends and some of my new friends at McIntosh & Otis and Orbit.   It was insanely fun.  My old friends were incredible and it was so good to see them.  And my new friends were exactly as I’d new they’d be.  Awesome and hilarious.  My kidneys hurt from the laughing.  And yes, we managed to preface most things with “the” for the entire night.  Which I thoroughly enjoy.  Pictures will go up soon on facebook.  

Anyway, two exceptionally funny things occurred (amongst many funny things), the first being a picture taken of me by my friend Kristin.  Our friend Greg and his wife, Susan, are both VERY TALL.  I mean TALLLLLLL.  Kristin and Sam are tall, but Greg and Susan are TALLLLLLL.  Meanwhile, I am very, very, short.  Greg had brought this preposterously tall hat (the theme of the party was oversized accessories, although I made mine into overpriced accessories in honor of my recent, beloved purchases) which made him EVEN TALLER.  So they thought it would be hi-larious to stick me in the hat, next to Greg and take a picture.  It’s one of the funnier things I’ve ever seen, not least because I’m 5’2″ and Greg is 6’4″, but on top of that already ridiculous discrepancy, Kristin somehow foreshortened the photo so that Greg has no head and (hat and all) I just come up to like mid-way on his chest.  PLUS I’m somehow smooshed in the frame so I look like a dwarf.  It’s amazing, and as I love self-deprecation, I’ll totally post it on facebook soon.

The other funny thing was the language in that room.  Holy moly, it would have made a pirate’s eyes water.  And most of it came from me and Devi, my editor.  We were like bombers during the Blitz with the f-bombs.  We were founts of foul language.  It was breathtaking.  That said, Greg was dropping f-nukes, but he’s large and it’s probably more expected than when the tiny women start cobbling together dirty bombs using only English.

Which made me think about language and then I remembered I wanted to talk about the issue of word counts.  A lot of people work by setting word count expectations for themselves, but I don’t.  I work by chapter, which – as my chapters are inevitably about the same length – I guess means I could call it word count.  But I like to think of it as working by chapter, and I’ll tell you why.  

One of the things I always talk about in my freshman comp classes is the idea that each paragraph in their short essays is like a little universe.  It must be complete, on its own, but it must also balance out with the other stars that make up its galaxy.  In a novel, this is how I think of my chapters.  Each chapter should, without exception, be written so that if it were plucked from my work and read out of context it will still make sense.  Okay, there will be questions about exact details, but a reader should be able to summarize the chapter, its purpose, and imagine “where” it might be on a plot arc.  

So I try to write a chapter in one or two sittings.  That way I don’t lose either the rhythm of the chapter or my intentions for the chapter.  Then I start editing that chapter.  I polish it up to a fairly decent standard, upon which I send it to Dr. James Clawson, who is one of my Alpha Readers.  He reads everything chapter by chapter, raising issues and flogging grammar.  Once I have a few chapters done like this, I send them to Christie Ko, my other Alpha Reader.  She looks for continuity, proofreads, and gives me new ideas for stuff.  Last, but certainly not least, it goes to Judy Bunch, my former high school English teacher.  She is not a reader of UF, and she’s a grammar fascist, so she’s a perfect reader.  She raises the questions that non-nerds would need answered and can wield a semi-colon like a stiletto.  

So by the time I have a rough draft, it’s actually been edited, piecemeal, quite a bit.  Which means the second and third drafting processes are a bit shorter, even if the initial writing of the rough draft is a bit longer.  

I don’t know if it’s the best way to do things, but it’s what I do.  I’m learning so much as I go.  I never intended to be this type of writer and I don’t know “the craft,” as it were.  I just know what worked for me the first time and my dad always raised me to believe that if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.  

That said, I’m making adjustments.  I know I don’t have to outline quite as pedantically as I did for the first book.  That things will come and that I end up making changes – adding stuff, taking things out, and getting inspired by ideas – as I go along.  Maybe in four books I’ll have a totally different process.  But right now this is what I do, and I’m sticking to it.  

And on that note, I gotta get to steppin’ and do some writing.  Ciao for now.