Friday, May 3, 2013

On 2500 Word Scenes

Depending on how you define "work in progress," I currently have anywhere between 14 and 34 of them. And I expect to finish every last one in due time. 

Just how I’ll manage this at first seems a mystery of faith, but looking back, I’ve had twenty pots on the broiler for as long as I can remember. It's not always the same buffet being cooked—I finish one piece and start on the next. For a while I had a rule that I could only count as many WIPs as I had "live" submissions pending with markets. After too many rejections that I didn’t bounce out again, when my Duotrope page showed 14 submissions and I was trying to write 15 stories…either I needed to write a new cover letter or I needed to finish something. For a while, this was very effective, but then I began to write novels, which take much longer to sell and cannot be finished on the spot.

All the same, I have finished novels (whether I finish editing them is a completely different question). I’ve also finished novellas, novelettes, and at last count something like eighty short stories. I manage this by trying to avoid getting stuck, by switching to a different story when I am stuck, and by trying very hard not to think about everything I have yet to write. This doesn't mean I don't get overwhelmed sometimes. 

But recently, I've had a breakthrough:

You can write a 2500 word scene.

If you're really stuck, you can write a 1000 word scene. And then another one. And then a half.

People write 2500 words all the time, often in one sitting. At the end of it your wrist starts getting sore and that’s your signal to stop (it really is. You can get repetitive strain injuries if you keep going without at least adjusting your posture). NaNoWriMo participants are supposed to get down around 1,665 words a day, so you’re pushing yourself a little harder than them. But you probably have much more to get done than a short 50,000 word novel. And maybe you’re not doing this every day. Maybe it’s 2500 words every other day, every four days, every week. But you can easily do 2500 words.

Two thousand, five hundred words is a short story. A bit on the short side—maybe even a single-set piece—but you can tell a full story in 2500 words. You can fill out a novel scene, which is a short story with open ends, in 2500 words. It’s brief for a chapter in some books and about right for a chapter in a fast-paced thriller.

Two 2500 word scenes (which you can write if you can write 2500 words—it might not even take you twice as long) is absolutely a short story. Maybe you write two 2000 word scenes and a 1000 one. Or six 750 word scenes and nice transitions.

Three 2500 word blocks and, if you’re trying to write a short story, you’re getting rather overlong. You now have the problem of writing too much. Congratulations. 

If you write another 2500 word scene you have a novelette, and depending on your genre, an ebook.

Ten 2500 word scenes gets you a novella.

Twenty of them means you’ve won National Novel Writing Month (am I suggesting you shoot for 2500 words a day and then take ten days off? Well…no…but you could. If you really wanted to).

Thirty of them is 75,000 words, which isn’t bad for the first draft of a novel, depending on your genre and how much you expand or contract while revising. If you write forty 2500 word scenes, your story is getting epic and you’re in danger of writing too much. Unless they’re forty really rocking 2500 word scenes.

Now Zahara, the writer I intern with, recently remarked that longer stories get progressively more difficult in an almost logarithmic pattern--it's harder to write one 75,000 word novel than it is to write ten 7,500 word short stories. It's true: in a novel, each 2500 word scene is going to have to connect to and build on the preceding 2500 word blocs and lay a foundation for future ones. But each time it's still a matter of getting 2500 serviceable words down on the page. And you can do that.

If 2500 words is completely pushing it, try 1000 words. Try 500 words. Five 500 word scenes make a 2500 words. They're all building blocks of each other. And if you sit at the keyboard or with your journal and sweat, weep, and bleed for hours, and at the end of it you have a thousand words--congratulations! Assuming your novel is anything less than monumental (seriously. 100,000 words is about the limit for a debut novel, and even then only when the story involves a lot of worldbuilding and textural detail), 1000 words is a whole percentage point or more of it completed. That's measurable progress. Write on!

The advice in this blog post, plus much more--including several other solutions for writer's block, revision advice, and methods for submitting and marketing your finished stories--can now be found in The Starter Guide for Professional Writers. It's a 97,000 word compendium of my best information on publishing from the new writer's-eye view. I wrote it over the course of about nine months, 2500 words or so at a time.