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On Writing Technique: 25,000 Words

I’m pursuing a Master of Professional Writing degree at the University of Oklahoma. This semester, I’m taking one of the program’s three keystone classes, “Writing the Novel.” It involves two lectures on writing technique every week, but the core of it is the semester project. Over the space of just four months (almost five), I’ have to write thef irst draft of a 50,000-word novel.

That’s where I have to pause and let you chuckle. Just four months? I do that every November!

I thought of it that way coming into the class. I even considered waiting until April and just writing the whole novel then. The professor complicated that a bit, though. Halfway through the semester, she wanted us to turn in the first half of the book. In other words, I had to provide 25,000 words of a new novel — consecutive, formatted in proper manuscript format, and printed out looseleaf — to my professor at 1:30 yesterday afternoon.

As you’ll recall, I spent the first six weeks of the semester rewriting and publishing another novel. During that time I did work in a bit of prewriting — even scribbled down a few thousand words of story — but at the beginning of Spring Break (ten days ago now), I had just a hair over 8,000 words in my manuscript.

Spring Break. It has a good sound to it, but it’s deceptive. I work a full-time job, after all, so most of the time freed up by my Spring Break (four or five hours down in Norman) just went into technical writing for the Federal Government.

Still, that left me ten days to write 17,000 words. That’s 1,700 words a day, which is barely more than the 1,667 needed to finish NaNoWriMo. And I do that year after year, even with the day job. I could do it. I could tear it up. I’m good at writing fast.

But then I caught a cold. Or a flu. Or something vile. It hit me hard the day before Spring Break started. It wasn’t exactly debilitating, but I play everything so close to the line anyway that once something started to trip me up at all…everything came crashing down.

I spent a weekend laid up, trying to rest and regain my strength, knowing I’d have to go back to work (and find writing time) once Monday rolled around. I slept away a Saturday. I missed church Sunday morning (usually one of my most prolific writing times), and spent the afternoon fighting to focus at all. I didn’t get a hundred word written all weekend.

Then Monday I got to work to find out my supervisor was going away on a ten-week leave of absence. Ten weeks. And this less than two months after another of the members of our four-person documentation team had quit unexpectedly. Chaos descended at work, and I waded into it with a sore throat, bleary eyes, and way too little sleep (thanks to the coughing all night).

We had a Consortium Time last Monday night, at my house, but I was barely there. I bailed less than an hour into it, leaving Courtney and Becca to talk storytelling with Trish while I tried vainly to pass out. I didn’t write a word.

Tuesday…I felt no better. And I got to work to find a new emergency, so I was coughing into my elbow and keeping my distance from coworkers even as I tracked them down in the halls to fight a Safety document through our approval process. By the end of the day I was exhausted, totally worn out…and six days away from my deadline, with the full 17,000 words still to write.

So I had a quick dinner with the family, then locked myself in the office with my laptop and a big bag of cough drops. I still couldn’t focus, but I made myself write anyway. I pounded out 6,000 words in one night, and then collapsed onto the futon and did my sad little impression of sleep.

Wednesday went much the same. I spent my lunch break curled up in the back seat of my car, out in the parking lot, trying to catch a quick nap. It didn’t work. I went home, skipped dinner, and then forced my way through the fight scene to end the night with another hard-won 4,000 words.

I didn’t understand the significance until I woke up the next morning. In two days, I’d written 10,000 words. That left just 7,000 more. Not a small number, but things were finally ticking. I could do this. I had four days to do less than I’d managed in two.

I was finally feeling better, too. I wasn’t well yet, but the fever was gone and the headaches were clearing.

I decided at the last moment to take the day off work and finally get myself well. I figured I could spend half the day sleeping, and the other half writing, and by Friday I could go back to work without a worry in the world.

At 10:30 in the morning my laptop died (overheating due to an exhaust fan failure) and all the king’s horses and all the king’s men couldn’t put it back together again. I almost cried. Really, truly.

I did get my rest, and I did feel better on Friday, but I still needed 7,000 words. I went into work, hoping maybe I could get something done on my work computer over my lunch break or something, but we had new emergencies. Closing time rolled around and I went home without a single new word written.

And I went home to a house full of in-laws. I’d like to play that up as another catastrophe, just because it makes the story better, but really they were a blessing. They helped Trish out a lot, after a week I’d spent too sick and distracted to contribute much, and since they were visiting everyone went out Saturday afternoon to a St. Patrick’s Day parade, which left me a whole huge house all quiet. Perfect writing time.

I spent it wrestling with my computer. And coughing. And finally I gave up in frustration and took a nap instead.

That’s how I woke up Sunday morning knowing I had no choice but to write 7,000 before I went to bed. And I still didn’t have a computer to do it. I came up with a plan — borrow the Home Theater PC from the TV in the living room, set it up like a PC on my computer desk, hook it up to a wireless receiver, and write like I did in the old days, pre-laptop.

So I did all that. I’m relatively savvy. I know how to do these things. And I happened to have half a dozen old wireless receivers tucked away in different places in my house. Hah! I spent half an hour setting up my workstation, and turned it on….

And the network connection didn’t work. I ended up having to hack the firmware on an old wireless router, which took me every bit of seven hours (plus a two hour break to watch the kids and grab some dinner). In between tests, waiting for resets, I scratched like mad in my trusty scribblebook, hoping I’d have enough words written when the network was finally available. Hoping it would finally be available. Hoping I’d have time to type them….

It was 9:30 when I finally pulled up Google Docs on the HTPC. I had 18 pages of hand-written story by then. I became a new kind of feverish, fingers flying while I transcribed, and it was just turning 11:00 when I finally got to the end of that 18th page.

And pulled up my word count.


I wanted to cry. Really, truly. But I didn’t. I looked over at Trish, sleeping peacefully in our big comfy bed. I looked at the clock on my computer screen. I took a deep breath and let it out.

And then I wrote 2,000 more words on nothing but willpower. Less than an hour. I introduced one of the coolest characters I’ve ever written. I double-crossed my hero with his only friend in a foreign world. I laid a trap and I beat up a Dreamwarden and I turned a girl into a giant copper scales.

It’s not the most writing I’ve ever done in a day. It’s not the best writing I’ve ever done. But it’s the most victorious I’ve ever felt. 17,000 words in six days, the last 7,000 in three short hours.

I’m a superstar. No denying it. I did have help, though. Come back Thursday, and I’ll tell you a few of my newest tricks.

One Response to “On Writing Technique: 25,000 Words”

  1. Dude. You are insane. And I love it. 🙂