2013 will always be remembered as the year I wrote four middle-grade novels. (Not to mention edited those novels, plus revised two others. But never mind those extra things for now).
The dates were tight for this middle grade series, and I can't deny it scared me a little. I do understand, however, there is something to be said for having books come out quickly, one after the other, creating excitement (hopefully) about the series. I took a couple of days to think about it, and then said - yes, I want to commit to doing this.
When I got the contract, I may have panicked just a little bit. Seeing the dates in print made it all so real. I really did have to write four books in ONE year. So I let myself have that moment of panic, and then I said, there's no time for that. You have books to write.
I told myself this would not be hard if I did just three things.
1) A chapter-by-chapter outline for each book.
2) 1,000 words a day (min) while drafting, w/ the goal of finishing in a month
3) Make each book FUN to write.
I'll break these down and talk about them each a little bit.
I gave myself two weeks to do the outline. That's a lot of time, I know, but this is where all the creativity is happening, and often I find that, for me, it's the hardest part. I have to come up with good scenes that will make for a fun read, move the plot forward, develop characters, etc. etc. I might have spent hours getting only two chapters figured out, and then I was tired and done. So I gave myself permission to take a while with the outline. As I wrote each outline, I kind of used the screenwriting book SAVE THE CAT as my guide.
Here's a look at what one of these outline pages looks like:
Each outline was about three pages long. I printed them out, I checked chapters off as I wrote them, I scribbled notes on them. The outline was my map and I am positive I could not have finished this journey without each one of them.
Did I veer away from the outlines? A few times in a small way with the first three books, and in a big way with the fourth book. I ended up scrapping what I had planned for about the last six or seven chapters and wrote by the seat of my pants. It was the right call. What I had planned was boring, and what I ended up writing was much better. As a result, the last book took me a little longer, but I still managed to make my deadline. Whew!
THE DAILY WORD COUNT:
I knew 1,000 words a day would be doable for me, because I've now written quite a few books and I know what I can do. Sometimes the 1,000 words gets done in an hour, sometimes three or four. It just depends on how focused I am and how well the writing is going for the day. But I knew myself well enough to know this was very, very doable. And it was. On tumblr recently, someone asked Neil Gaiman how many words he writes in a day, and he said he can consistently get 1,000 good words a day. He may write more, delete more, etc., but he feels like 1,000 is about his average. So I'm in good company.
The key for me is to write every single day while I'm drafting. I've learned over the years that the more I can stay immersed in the story by coming back to it day after day after day, the better. Stay away too long, and reentry is difficult. So yes, this means I wrote on Saturdays and Sundays too. Often those are the days I can get my words written in an hour or so, though, because I get up early and the rest of my family likes sleeping in.
THE FUN FACTOR:
When you have deadlines, it can definitely take away the "fun" in writing. It really is much more like work. So with each book, I tried to create a story that was unique and fun and gave me something I personally would enjoy writing about. I was fortunate in that I had a lot of leeway with the plot for each book. Together, my editor and I came up with the four girls who would make up the main characters of this series, and then the rest was all up to me.
Because this series features a fun charm bracelet, each girl had to select a charm she wanted to add to the bracelet by the end of her story. I loved having something tangible to think about as I tried to figure out what physical and emotional journey each girl would go through.
I used the setting of each book to help me brainstorm as well. Setting is so important to each story, no matter what we're writing.
For example, Mia, the main character of the second book is from Southern California. When we think of Southern California, we often think of Hollywood. So, I thought, what if Mia met a famous teen actress? What might happen between the two of them that would be fun to read about? I then went down the list of possible charm ideas and thought - what if the actress goes birdwatching with her grandma every Sunday morning to kind of "get away from it all" and she asks Mia to come along with her one day?
As a result of brainstorming like this, I have a tween actress who I can have fun with as a character (I had SO much fun describing her fancy house and what Mia thinks the first time she visits). And, I have an activity that will be fun to research - bird watching.
I'm trying to think of what I might have done differently if I had to do it over again, and I can't think of anything. It was actually reassuring, in a way, to have work all year long. Every day I knew what needed to be done, and so I got up and that's what I did. I still did all the activities that are important to me alongside the writing - exercising, making dinner for my family, chilling in the evenings with my favorite TV shows. The one downside was that I wasn't able to read as many books this year.
One interesting tidbit - I write my YA novels much differently. I don't have an outline at the outset. I am much more of a discovery writer when I'm writing YA. I don't know why this is, but I accept that I have different processes for different kinds of books, and that's okay. That's not to say that I don't stop at some point and do some plotting and brainstorming. But I rarely have something concrete at the beginning, like I did with these books.
So, there you have it. Questions? Hit me up in the comments and I'll try to answer them.
The first two books come out next May, 2014! Aren't the covers adorable? I just love them. Can't wait for young readers to read them!