I’m counting, of course. I didn’t intend to find that number or even need it, really. It was an accident of curiosity and at once pains me and makes me proud…ish.
Department of Activity vs. Achievement
The story of that large number begins at a workshop held by the Brooklyn Speculative Fiction Writers (BSFW). I’m showing off current bits of the novel Walking the Darkmaker’s Way (WtDMW) there. Starting with the first chapter I showed, a common complaint keeps returning—too many names, words, places, and events to keep straight—a gusher of them. I’ve taken to call these things promises I’ve made to the reader that, if they continue reading, I’ll keep—i.e., explain each one to the reader’s satisfaction. Clearly, I haven’t been doing such a great job keeping those promises and needed to fix it immediately.
So, ripping a page from Fantasy Fiction Formula (a book I recommend to fellow genre writers), I listed all the references in the first 4 chapters—all the names, places, ideas—the promises made to the reader. In those 74 pages, I discovered 122 of these, both common and Proper nouns.
Then, I labeled each as unkept (59), partially kept (40), and fully kept (23).
By unkept, I mean a term used in a sentence without much context or explanation: “They headed to Geitdoorn.”
Who’s that? Or what’s that? Or where’s that?
Geitdoorn is a proper noun dropped into a sentence with little else. The same for common nouns.
By partially kept, the reader is told a little about the thing, person, or place: “Elder Terverg, Menno’s father.” The reader knows the relationship, but that’s it. Enough for the reader to keep oriented. As long as they don’t have to keep too many in mind.
By fully kept, this person, place, or whatever has been explained well enough the reader can understand it when it comes up again. Might include backstory or odd additional details as appropriate.
In the first four chapters, I’ve made ninety-nine un or partially kept promises. That’s asking a lot from a reader, so many more need be fully kept. Sooner rather than later.
Planning to Keep a Chunk of Promises
Then, I sketched out two flashbacks that would cover a lot of important promises so the reader can just roll along and stop wondering what the hell I’m talking about. Particularly regarding the Order of the Way. The protagonist Menno is a member of the group, and references to the Order are all over the text.
Even better, I knew I had already written up most of these ideas or at least sketched them out if not fully described. And all this text and those notes are….
I could not find most of the scenes, sketches of scenes, or notes. All these details I knew I had written. I did term searches. Kept opening and reopening files. Nada. There were just too many places these written bits could be. I cursed aloud and slapped the sofa after each repeated failure. This was clearly not working.
So, I stopped the blind stabs of opening files and hopeful keyword searches.
Using Scrivener to take advantage of its ability to internally link documents, I opened a new document to hold an index with links to each folder, document, and PDF. Next to each link went a brief description of what that location held, notes on important details hidden within, and additional keywords. That, and some formatting to group sections, has made finding things faster. (Including discovering I hadn’t been as thorough as I’d thought. More than once.)
But it also made me curious—just how much stuff is all this? And we all know what curiosity did to the cat—killed it. BUT, as the rest of the saying goes, “satisfaction brought it back.”
Eight hundred and eight thousand, four hundred and eighty-three words spread over six hundred sixty-four unique documents.
Pitifully, I have not a single page ready for a beta read, let alone for an agent or publication.
This is an object lesson in mistaking activity for achievement. Or “Looky how much I did, mommy!”
Bottom line—I’ve been cranking out the raw words 👍. But haven’t been getting much closer to publishing anything 👎.
Not One but Four
In my defense, this whole project holds two working novels Walking the Darkmaker’s Way & the Book of Visions; two planned novels, the Gloss of Zhenac and an untiled one, plus a shared World Bible for all of these at once. Yes, the index is rather long and took hours over several days to compile and make useful.
Making Myself Feel a Little Better
To recover from that discovery, I ran stats on WtDMW alone, the novel I’m working on right now. And the picture got … a little better—351,811 words across 244 unique documents.
So, What the Hell am I Doing Here, Exactly?
To get a better idea of what the reader will see vs. all of my planning and cogitating, I ran another word count on only those documents of WtDMW that will be seen by a reader. Those files still include some notes and a few miscellanies, but the volume drops to a more manageable 60,277 words or 163 pages in paperback. That seems reasonable.
Words Never Seen
That also means I’ve written about 290,000 words no reader will probably ever see. For this one book. Excluding the world bible.
A New Promise—Firstly, to Myself
I’ve promised myself not to rewrite anything until I’ve hit “the end.” I’m making the same promise to fellow workshop readers and asked for help keeping it, with the understanding, there will be a few new scenes† that need to be woven in early to explain parts of the story/plot/world. To, in fact, keep more of those promises that caused this discovery. Which I’m not sure I wanted to make.
They Won’t Let Up
†These new scenes won’t all be short. I know because I’ve written one, and it weighed in at 5,755 words (~20 pages). It was to have been a brief flashback. Half that at most. But these damned stories just take off and run, half-writing themselves at times. In fact, WtDMW started off as a novella intended as a reader magnet, a short giveaway piece for folks to sample my writing. Something about 22 or 23,000 words. It’s three times that and growing.
See, as I wrote Menno, he took over. His past. His father. The city. Who the Darkmaker is. Every time I write about a location, I see new characters there and how they each had their own story. And this novella has grown and grown and grown. I think I could have three novels just for Menno. Perhaps four.
The ideas WON’T STOP. I have a twenty-five-page-long document listing all the side stories and spin-offs that could be written based on this world and characters. (I hate letting an idea slip away, even if it turns out to be bad or just wrong.)
I mean, Menno’s a gas to write. His father is fun.
All these other characters who show up on the page… Well, they all say, “Hey, look. You put me here. Now tell my story.”
Just workshopped that new 20-page flashback mentioned above. About the day Menno goes to join the Order. The readers found it “entertaining” and “fun” and wanted more but also warned me that I must watch out—this is another whole storyline. Which could take up a full book on its own. That’s the problem.
I know I must reign this in, but it’s hard because I like that new story—it’s been implied since Menno first stepped onto the page years ago.
And I enjoy writing the characters in this world. Even the villains and antagonists.
Worse still, all the plots and stories are intricately linked—I add a person here, and suddenly I know five different ways they affect the story down the line and over there.
And well, doesn’t that deserve time on the page?
BUT, if I don’t stop the gush of new ideas, none will live on a page where others get to read them. So, I have to say no a lot more often. As in, “No, you’re a supporting character. I know you have your own life and stories to tell, but not now. Perhaps later. Someday.”
I never believed writers who said their characters start doing the writing. I do now.
But understand it’s not always a blessing.
Beta Readers for the “Book of Visions”
Join me at the Beta Readers for the Book of Visions (& Walking the Darkmaker’s Way), a Facebook group here. You can be part of one of those 3/4 of a million-word projects.