Thursday, December 27, 2012

Drafting: A Numbers Game

After reading Leign Ann Kopans's blog about Fast Drafting over at argyle central YA Misfits, I wanted to share my crazy strange method for writing first drafts. For me, it's all about the numbers. When I think about writing a book, I'm overwhelmed by the sheer size. Hundreds of pages! Thousands of words! All coming from me? I prefer to break one big book into lots of little sections.

[WARNING: I'm a bigtime plotter, so I don't think this method will apply to pantsers.]

For those fantasy and sci-fi writers who can churn out 100,000 words -- even writers who can reach 70,000 words -- I am in awe of you. I just can't write that much. I aim for my book to be 60,000 words. That's a solid length for contemporary YA.

1 book = 60,000 words

First, I create a chapter outline, breaking my story into chapters. I make myself create a minimum of 30 chapters. If the story needs more, fantastic! But 30 is an acceptable amount that falls within genre standards. So for my 60,000 book, each chapter will have to hit 2,000 words.

1 chapter = 2,000 words
I think I can do 2,000 words, but it still seems like a lot. So I break it down even further.

I create scenes within my chapters. Instead of each chapter consisting of 1 scene, I include multiple little scenes. The scenes don't have to be interconnected, but the final scene of a chapter should propel the story and make the reader want to keep reading. I aim to have 4 scenes within each chapter. I'll split big scenes in my head even if it's written as 1 scene in the book. For instance, if there's a big "party" scene where the MC talks with some friends then gets in a fight with her boyfriend, that may all happen in one scene, no break. But mentally, I'll count the friends part as 1 scene, and the boyfriend argument as another scene. So in a 2,000 word chapter, each scene needs to be 500 words.

1 scene = 500 words
I can do 500 words. That's manageable. That should take under an hour to write. But sometimes, 500 words can seem like a lot. There may not be enough going on to justify 500 words.

So I look at sentences. On average (based on my unofficial research), 5 sentences equals 100 words. And since it's a first draft, I allow myself to write longer, rambling sentences and break apart my contractions. One extra rambling sentence can net you 30 words. And if you're at 19,940 words, those 30 words can give you the motivation to get you to 20,000.

5 sentences = 100 words
We can all write 100 words. Scribble it on a notepad during a boring meeting, or on a short bus ride. Every little bit helps. I will finish this book 100 words at a time. Each 100 words gets me closer to that 500 word scene, which gets me closer to finishing that 2,000 word chapter.

Will writing this way produce beautifully crafted prose?

It's a first draft. My main goal is to get the words on the page, to get the story from beginning to end. Nobody said it had to be good. Thanks to overstuffing and stretching out the first few chapters, I usually manage to break 60,000 words, but barely. The words hardly come easily to me. In revisions, I cut the fat. It's better to have fat to work with than to try and create it.

Microsoft Word has the word count ticker at the bottom of the page, so I am forced to look at it. I can't not look at it. And for me, this works. It's a way to feed the analytical part of my brain while I'm being creative. I like to have something to obsess over accountability. This method may not work for you, and that's fine. But if you're a numbers person like myself, feel free to give it a shot!


  1. I kind of wish I had your brevity. I tend to write too many words. My last novel came in at 162,000...

    1. Whoa! I will never be able to write 162k. It's easier to cut than to add, so you're in good shape.

  2. Great post. I also aim for 30 chapters at 2k a chapter for my first drafts, I like how you have broken it down even further though!

  3. This is great. I also barely manage to get out the words and have to really work to write enough. I'm a reforming pantser. I swear every book that THIS time I'm going to map out chapter-by-chapter and, you know what, I'm getting closer. I like the idea of breaking it into less intimidating chunks. Plus, You're right, it encourages the mindset of getting stuff done in the nooks and crannies of your time when you can write and just letting that add up.