Let’s Write a YA Novel – Part 4 (The 20,000 Word Hump)

PRE-BLOG POST ANNOUNCEMENT: Castor is now available for pre-order from Harmony Ink. So go pre-order it! You know, if you want to. I guess you could also wait for it to come out and get the Amazon preview thing before paying any money. That’s a good strategy. I do that all the time.

(I’d really like it if you pre-ordered it though.)

And now on to the blog post!

I have a strong suspicion that most published authors start a greater number of novels than they ever finish. There are probably exceptions, from the hyper-productive bestsellers who can turn out a new installment of a series in a matter of months to the labor-of-love types who work on the same book for a decade, but that particular maxim is certainly true for the authors I know.

I’ve seen a lot of anecdotal support for the notion that the twenty-thousand word mark is where you’ll often begin to see the signs of a troubled manuscript. It’s the point at which that shiny new idea that seemed so full of promise begins to feel like a frustrating puzzle box that you can’t seem to crack. The characters who started out so clear and distinct begin to blur and merge into each other; that all-important ‘voice’, the one thing you were sure would come easily this time around, is beginning to fall flat; the plot is going nowhere.

And oh look, this other shiny new idea has started coming to the forefront of your mind every time you sit down to write. Maybe if you just put this current project on hold for a few days…

I’m not going to say that you should never abandon a book that you feel is going nowhere. Sometimes an idea just isn’t as good as you thought it was. Sometime it is good, it’s just beyond your abilities at present. That’s okay – shelve it and come back to it later if you feel like it.

What I’d caution against is ditching a manuscript as soon as it starts to feel like a slog, especially if you’re around the twenty-thousand word mark. (I’m harping on the 20k word thing because it’s my own personal difficult spot – substitute as necessary with your own.)  There will always be other ideas to tempt you away from whatever you’re working on.

I’m not a huge fan of the term ‘plot bunny’ (for the same reason I’m not a huge fan of the word ‘pantsing’), but it’s a good metaphor for how alternative ideas to whatever it is you’re currently working on have a way of multiplying out of control. You probably started writing because you were generating ideas that seemed worth writing about for years – there’s no reason to think you’d stop just because you happen to be actively working on one. Or, to put it another way, borderline-obsessive mental tics don’t always stop when it’s convenient.

Standard advise is to power through the 20,000 word hump until the urge to quit begins to fade, but there are other options.

If you’re staring at your manuscript and wondering whether you should stop writing it, there’s probably some reason why beyond the temptation of a shiny new idea that has yet to be subjected to the unflattering light of reality. Maybe the main character isn’t as interesting as you thought they were. Maybe you have the main character altogether. Maybe your decision to write in future-tense second-person was, in this one instance at least, more trouble than it’s worth.

In other words, the 20k word hump is a good place to stop and take a moment to review what you’ve done so far. Maybe you need to make some changes. Maybe you don’t. Either way, why not step away from the keyboard for a few days to perform any minor course-correction maneuverers you need?

With Castor, that course-correction involved deleting about 15k worth of writing and essentially starting over from the beginning. Fun times, right?

The problem, as I saw it, was that I had made the mistake of thinking that the characters needed to be ‘on the road’ as soon as possible. This is something a lot of authors struggle with, I think – you need to have some kind of action going on in the middle part of your book, and what better way to guarantee a never-ending parade of action than to eject your characters from their familiar surroundings and force them onto a road trip?

It turned out this was not a good idea. (Or at least not at the stage of the story I was at.) What I realised was that I had a strong idea of how I wanted the beginning of the story to play out and a fairly good idea of the ending, but the middle parts were hazier than I had expected.

Don’t get me wrong – I knew what I wanted to happen, roughly speaking. But a loose collection of poorly-connected events does not lead to compelling middle chapters, and forcing the characters into an ill-advised and protracted flight from the authorities would have resulted in the whole story feeling rushed and messy.

So I went back to the drawing board, ditched over 10k words of already-written material and worked out what the middle sections actually needed to accomplish. A painful process, certainly, but imagine how much worse it would have been if I had written tens of thousands of words of material only to realise that I had taken the story in the wrong direction from the beginning.

1 thought on “Let’s Write a YA Novel – Part 4 (The 20,000 Word Hump)”

  1. Good and very timely advice since I’ve just started the third first draft of my current WIP. One of these days I’ll get it right 🙂

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