The Magic 50,000

One of Stephen King’s clas­sic nov­els, The Stand, took me about six months to read. It’s a tale about post-apo­ca­lyptic America, where the sur­viv­ors of a dev­ast­at­ing plague form two ant­ag­on­ist­ic groups for a final battle between good and evil. The book is stag­ger­ingly long. Really, really long. Length is, I would guess, one of those things first-time authors find most daunt­ing about writ­ing a nov­el. In his pre­face to second — uncut  — edi­tion, King replied to fans who asked him how he could write such long nov­els. ‘One word at a time, man,’ he wrote. ‘The Great Wall of China was built one brick at a time and you can see that fuck­er from the moon.’

Though I’m past the point where I’m daun­ted by the blank pages ahead of me, I admit to feel­ing relief when I pass a par­tic­u­lar word count. The fact is that, if you’ve man­aged to write half a book, there’s a good chance that your choice of char­ac­ter­isa­tion, situ­ation and theme have worked out. I write without a syn­op­sis, so I nev­er really know wheth­er the story is going to ‘work’. On the oth­er hand, because I make it up as I go along, I’m closer in my per­spect­ive to that of a read­er; like the read­er, I’m exper­i­en­cing the story for the first time, and it makes decisions about pacing, ton­ing, and over­all story arc more straight­for­ward. I’m not forced to write duff set-up scenes. I write the scenes I think will be fun and, in the second draft, I cut the ones I don’t need.

This morn­ing, I passed the 50,000 word mark on my new sci­ence fic­tion nov­el, a sequel to Déjà Vu. According to my excel­lent nov­el-man­age­ment soft­ware Copywright, I began the manu­script on November 3rd, 2005. I’ve spent 290 hours writ­ing it. All just num­bers, of course. Is there some­thing spe­cial about the fig­ure 50,000?

For those of you more used to page counts than word counts, 50,000 words is, roughly, just over half the length of the aver­age nov­el (as a rule of thumb, Terry Pratchett reg­u­larly comes in under 100,000 words, Stephen King reg­u­larly over). I can now regard the half-writ­ten nov­el as reas­on­ably suc­cess­ful. Though I do not yet have an end­ing, I’m well into the second of three acts, and the nar­rat­ive has its own energy — in oth­er words, the char­ac­ters are driv­ing the story through their own motiv­a­tions. This is some­thing that a cre­at­ive writ­ing teach­er will tell you expli­citly: char­ac­ter-driv­en stor­ies are gen­er­ally more effect­ive than plot driv­en stor­ies. Where the finale of a story is con­sidered by the read­er to be the inex­or­able con­clu­sion giv­en the pre­requis­ites of char­ac­ter and situ­ation at the start of the nov­el, you know you’ve got a tight story. Whether or not it’s a good story…that’s anoth­er mat­ter, and will depend on read­ers’ indi­vidu­al reac­tions to char­ac­ters.

What else goes through a novelist’s mind at this stage? Somewhat sur­pris­ingly, I’m think­ing a lot about the title. I write ‘sur­pris­ingly’ because, in one sense, the title is tiny pro­por­tion of the over­all work that a writer has to plough through per book. But the title is also bound up with some­thing cru­cial about the nov­el: its iden­tity. It will become the name of the pro­ject, and if it’s a good name, it can even be inspir­ing. The genre of my cur­rent pro­ject is ‘thrill­er’ (sub-grenre: tech­no­thrill­er) — though I con­sider it to be sci­ence fic­tion (I’ll hold these thoughts about genre for anoth­er post).

Here are some of the titles I’ve come up with: The Magic Bullet, Keystone, Black Box, Game Over, Femme Fatale (God, that one’s awful), The Rosetta Division, Freefall, Firebrand, Thin Air, The War of the Ghosts, Meridian, Guardian Angel, Contact Lost, The [insert word here] Trace, Final Transmission, Afterimage, Flashback, Thin Air, Black Box, Wake Vortex, and Memoriam.

Of these, my cur­rent favour­ite is ‘Flashback’. Not only does it have a hint of time travel about it, it also fore­shad­ows the nar­rat­ive struc­ture of the book, and it’s nicely dra­mat­ic. It’s also the name of a bril­liant old Commodore Amiga game that I spent hours play­ing with my mate Edward. As a point of little interest, I named a char­ac­ter in Déjà Vu Jobanique, fol­low­ing our teen­age mis­pro­nun­ci­ation of Jobanque, a char­ac­ter who was the boss of time agent Falcon in the excel­lent Falcon game­book series (note to law­yers: I only took the name! Everything else I made up.)

A good title can help motiv­ate you when times are hard (i.e. when a scene is just plain shit, or you’re ill (as I am now)) and give you an over­all feel­ing of what the book may look like. Having a sense of its final form can help with decisions about chapter length, pace, and tone.

One final, cru­cial thing is the jack­et blurb. The word ‘blurb’ is used to refer to dif­fer­ent things: some­times snip­pets of review that grace the cov­er of your book, some­times the hooky sum­mary on the back (or inner flap) that entices you to buy the book. In this instance, I’m refer­ring to the sum­mary on the back. Terry Pratchett, no less, has claimed that he writes a jack­et blurb before he begins the manu­script. This might seem a little nar­ciss­ist­ic, but it’s a anoth­er good way of enter­ing the world of your book. One sad fact is that, unlike Mr Pratchett, if you can’t come up with a good blurb for your book, the chances of get­ting your com­plete manu­script to an agent or pub­lish­er will drop. They don’t read manu­scripts routinely; they need to be hooked.

Well, I’ve had a stab at the jack­et blurb for ‘Flashback’. It does not even begin to describe the story, and needs bet­ter ‘top­ping’ and ‘tail­ing’, but it’s a start. Just post­ing it on this blog has forced a little rewrite, and this can only be a good thing.

A fifty-year-old mys­tery is about to be solved.

September, 1947: Converted Lancaster bomber ‘Stardust’ reports a suc­cess­ful trans-Andean flight from Buenos Aires to Santiago, and sig­nals its inten­tion to land. Four minutes pri­or to touch­down, it sends the let­ter sequence ‘S-T-E-N-D-E-C’. Queried by puzzled ground con­trol­lers, the young ex-RAF oper­at­or aboard the Stardust rap­idly keys ‘STENDEC, STENDEC’. Then silence. The Stardust van­ishes along with all pas­sen­gers and crew.

October, 2003: German Air flight A628 impacts ver­tic­ally with the Bavarian National Forest. The only clue to its fate is the co-pilot’s final trans­mis­sion, spoken against the roar of fail­ing engines: ‘Stendec.’

Within hours, air safety invest­ig­at­ors have been dis­patched to the crash site. Investigator-in-charge Hrafn Óskarson has more ques­tions than answers. Who erased the flight data record­ers? What is the true iden­tity of pas­sen­ger Saskia Dorfer, whose doc­u­ments have proved fake? Who torched her Berlin apart­ment? Why did Saskia’s English friend Nina Shaw refuse to board the flight?

The mys­tery of German Air flight A628 will be solved by a start­ling con­spir­acy that reaches twenty years into our future — and fifty years into our past, to the final moments of the Avro-Lancastrian ‘Stardust’.

So there we go. Now all I have to do is work out what the bloody mys­tery is. It had bet­ter be good.

PS: There really was a Avro-Lancastrian called ‘Stardust’ that crashed in the Andes in 1947. You can read all about it here.

Current pro­gress on ‘Flashback’

Zokutou word meterZokutou word meterZokutou word meter
52,939 / 110,000
(47.0%)

Author: Ian Hocking

Writer and psychologist.

3 thoughts on “The Magic 50,000”

  1. Wow, you have writ­ten 50,000 words in less than 2 months. I’m jeal­ous mate! I’ve struggled to write 10,000 words of my nov­el since October 1st 2005. You must share your secret some­time!

    Jay12 (UKAuthors)

  2. Congratulations on reach­ing a com­fort point! And Happy New Year (and good luck with the rest).

  3. Take a peek at RadDecision.blogspot.com for an example of a dif­fer­ent way of present­ing a techno-thriler nov­el. (It’s 93,000 words, by the way.) Regards, James Aach.

    Author of Rad Decision, the insider nov­el of nuc­le­ar power.

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