The length of stories

I first seriously started writing in 2008. I’d just learned about NaNoWriMo and has just read The Lord of the Rings, so I wanted to write a huge, sprawling epic. That November, I started writing a novel, Runes, that ended up being¬†168,305 words. It’s the longest thing I’ve ever written. I guess I succeeded.

I think a lot of writers want this: a huge magnum opus that they can be proud of. But not all stories are meant to be long. Runes was, in my opinion, a fluke: the second-longest novel I’ve wrote (the initial draft of The Book of Immortality) only clocks in at 100k words. The final version of The Book of Immortality, the one that I posted here on this website, is 75k words. That’s a much more normal length for one of my novels.

So where did those 25k words go? Well, they were padding, so I removed them during editing. And why was that padding there in the first place? Well, that’s because the bulk of my writing used to happen during NaNoWriMo. For better or worse, NaNoWriMo really encourages padding out your writing.¬†Other novels I’ve edited (that were written during NaNoWriMo) have also had quite a lot of words removed. One novel went from around 50k to 30k.

Even if you want a story to be long, a lot of the time, the content just isn’t there. That’s something I really realized about five years ago. Some stories are better off at a shorter length. There’s no shame in writing novellas, novelettes, or short stories instead of novels.

Sometimes I think that National Novel Writing Month being such a major part in my taking writing seriously hindered my ability to understand and accept that.

I think I’d like to work on a few shorter (less than novel-length) stories in the next few years. I’ve written a few novella-length works in the past, and I can definitely do so in the future. Short stories…maybe not so much. Every time I try to write a short story, it’s either barely over 1000 words, or ends up being a novelette at minimum – and not due to padding, but due to me misjudging the necessary word count to actually finish the story.

Where my story ideas come from

Over the years, I’ve seen a lot of people talk about how they would like to write a story, but they don’t have any good ideas and don’t know how to come up with them. This is a pretty weird thing for me to hear, becuase I come up with ideas all day, every day, and I will definitely never be able to get around to them in my lifetime. I have an entire word document (and a text document, and random notes in a Google doc) full of ideas, plot points, characters, etc. that I’ve never been able to use. 

So where do my story ideas come from? Well…everywhere.

Sometimes I’ll watch a movie, and think it could have worked better if it had gone in a different direction.

Sometimes I’ll read something that was so poorly made that I get offended and set out to create a better version.

Sometmes I’ll read about a historical event, and wonder how something similar would work in a similar setting, or what would could happened had things gone differently.

Inspiration is literally everywhere! Ideas are a dime a dozen.

I’ve also found that “ideas” are given a lot of weight that they really shouldn’t have. This, I think, comes from non-writers more than it does from writers, and all it’s really done is discourage people from writing because they think their ideas are too similar to prior work, or too derivative.

An idea may be the inspiration for a story, but it’s barely anything. The “idea” isn’t what makes a story good – it’s execution! If you give ten different writers the same prompt (the “idea”), you’ll get ten different stories. Good stories, bad stories, all sorts of stories in between. Ideas are not what make stories great. Really! 

Going from script to prose

The first time I wrote something in script was in 2011 when I first participated in ScriptFrenzy. It wasn’t intended to be a television script or a stage play; instead, it was a script for a comic. That was my first experience with writing something other than a novel and in a format other than typical prose writing.

I didn’t write another until 2016, when I started the script for version 1 of The Gate at the End of the World. After all, scripts were for comics. There was no reason to first write a novel in script and transition to prose later, right?

Then I started writing The Book of Immortality as a script. It wasn’t a story that was intended to be a comic. I’d considered it, but then realized the story worked best as a novel and decided against it. Despite that, I didn’t start the novel in prose like all the others I’d written before. I wrote the entire first draft of the novel as a script, with plans to write the second (and third, and fourth, or however many revisions it took) draft in prose.

I learned so many things. Scripts are much easier for me to write! I’d go so far as to say that they’re essentially effortless. I don’t have to figure out the right word right away or describe things in detail. I don’t have to come up with names right away; I can just write [PLACEHOLDER] or something like that. I can write any amount of notes to myself.

Yes, I know you can do all those things in prose novels, but it always seemed wrong to me. I’m much more comfortable breaking the rules when writing a script.

Unfortunately, this ease presented quite a problem when I started writing the second draft of The Book of Immortality. I actually had to describe things, and name things, and enough time had passed that I no longer remembered a lot of what I had in mind. I ended up spending more time on those things than I would have liked.

So despite scriptwriting being super fun and easy for me, it’s not so great for stories that should have been written in prose in the first place. For the foreseeable future, I’ll be sticking to writing my novels in prose.

My time spent drawing comics

I’ve been drawing comics on-and-off since 2008. Despite that, I’ve only ever finished one comic: Veitlen & Nymue, which I drew in early 2018. It was the first comic I ever finished, and the first that I’d scripted from start to finish before I started drawing. That, I think, is why I finished it and none of the other previous ones.

I was having a lot of success with The Land of Two Moons. I’d scripted out most of the story when I started drawing comic pages, and finished the script soon afterward. There was no way for me to get stuck and abandon the comic like I’d done with so many others.

But I had to stop anyway. I started out with a schedule of 2 pages/week and for a while, I could keep that up. Then I started a new job and switched to 1 page/week. Then I stopped drawing pages entirely once chapter 6 was finished. I was constantly fatigued and in pain from the pace of drawing. Even after I got a screen tablet and could finish pages in half the time, it wasn’t getting better.

Drawing has always been fairly physically taxing for me, and it’s only gotten worse in the past few years. The kind of constant stress that drawing comics produces affects my immune system to such a point that I get sick very easily. For the sake of my health, I had to stop.

Webcomics gave me the kind of attention I wanted and a community of people I could regularly talk to if I wanted. I know if I’d interacted with the webcomic community more, I could have had more success or more readers. I’m still a little bitter that I couldn’t do it.

Maybe in the future I’ll be able to find a way that allows me to draw comics without destroying my body. I have plenty of ideas for comics, after all, but it’ll likely be years before I can get to them.

The stages of forming a story

1. An initial premise

I get an idea from somewhere. Maybe I’d like to explore a plot, or I have an interesting idea for a character, or I saw a movie and was really displeased with how the writing/characterization/plot ended up. I spend some time, from a couple of weeks at the minimum to a couple of months at most, thinking things over in my head before I bother to start writing things down. By the time those months are over, things have typically changed quite a bit from my initial ideas.

2. Actually writing down the ideas kept from stage 1

Now I start writing things down. This either happens in on paper or in Google Docs (for some reason, I can’t do this in any other word processor). A lot of this is done in a stream-of-consciousness format. Readability or organization isn’t the point in this stage. I just want to get stuff down on paper and out of my head.

3. Proper worldbuilding, outlining, & characterization

At this point, I make some templates. These are based on the templates included in Scrivener, but formatted in a way I like. I have templates for characters and settings, as well as a general “notes” template I can use for things like magic, mythology, etc. I also make a timeline to keep track of events that happen in the story (as well as before the story, if they’re relevant).

For things like conlangs, I write up a grammar in Microsoft Word and keep track of the lexicon in Excel.

My outlines are fairly detailed; they’re essentially a description of everything that happens – scene by scene, chapter by chapter. As a result, the outline for each chapter is its own file in Scrivener.

This stage can take quite a while while I flesh things out. It also depends if it’s the main story I’m working on. If it is, then it might only take a few months. If it’s not, it could take years before I have the time to properly focus on it.

4. Actual writing

Now begins the actual writing phase! Most of the time I start off writing in prose, but something I’ve done in the past few years is start off with a relatively bare-bones script and transfer it to prose later. That way I don’t have to worry about finding the right word or describing things properly.

There is a problem with the script-to-prose approach: it takes me quite a while to add in the descriptions that should have been there from the beginning. This is something that happened with both The Book of Immortality and The Land of Two Moons.