Writing technique: let it percolate

coffeeI recently had the experience of writing a 26,000 word novella in one month. That’s fast for me because it normally takes me six months to write a 100,000 word novel. A novella is one quarter the length, so it should take one quarter of the time, right? But it took less.

The truth is I didn’t spend only one month on that novella. I had been writing it in my head for a year before I put the words on the page.

I started the novella in June of 2012. It was something I goofed around with between projects. I wrote a couple thousand words, realized I didn’t know how to end it, and then got sidetracked working on something else (probably Assassin’s Gambit revisions).

Then for a little more than a year I let that novella percolate in my head as I worked on other projects, and in the process I figured out the perfect ending. When my other projects were done and I sat down to write the novella at the beginning of August, I had the whole thing plotted out in my head from start to finish. All I had to do was write it down and flesh out the details.

After I finished the novella, which is currently titled “Archer’s Sin” (title may change), I sat down to write a completely different novella, set in a different world and featuring dragons. That novella has been much slower going. Not only do I have to do a whole lot of worldbuilding, I haven’t spent a year thinking about the story like I did with “Archer’s Sin.”

So here’s what I’ll do. I’m going to write as much as I can on the dragon novella, until I get stuck or frustrated (I have 5000 words so far), and when that happens I’ll put it away for a while and let it percolate. I can switch to another project, one that is at a more mature stage, and come back to the dragon novella when it’s had a chance to mature.

The “let it percolate” strategy works best, I think, for authors who have many projects under their belt and several more in progress at various levels of completion. I wouldn’t let a first book percolate. You won’t have anything more mature to switch to. Write that sucker!

Another thing I wouldn’t do is come up with an idea for a story, do no writing on it at all, and then “let it percolate” while you do something else. I find that when I have a story idea and I don’t start writing a couple chapters and/or a synopsis, I simply forget the idea. In fact, I have a special Word document where I write down story ideas that I didn’t have to time to do anything with at the time I came up with them. Sometimes I go peruse that file and I’m surprised by all the cool ideas in there, most of which I’ve forgotten about.

To let it percolate, you first have to start the idea brewing, and that means doing some real writing. At least 3000 words, and more is better. Writing will reveal to you what the story problem are, and then when you set it aside, your brain can work on those problems. If you don’t start the writing process, you won’t know what problems you need to solve.

When I picked up the words I’d written for “Archer’s Sin” in June of 2012, I saw that they were terrible and I threw them all away and rewrote from scratch. And I think that’s completely natural. The earliest words in a draft aren’t usually keepers; they’re intended to jump-start the thinking process. You’ll probably find a better way to present the story, after you’ve let it percolate.

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2 Responses to Writing technique: let it percolate

  1. Jessi Gage says:

    The idea of percolation really resonates with me. I tend to let things percolate between writing sessions. I’m not good about the discipline required in thinking about a story without writing it. I could maybe limit myself to just important dialog I don’t want to forget or rough scene sketches.

    Thanks for sharing your process! It’s great advice! I especially loved: Write that sucker!

  2. Lenora Rose says:

    This resonates strongly with me, if only because it accidentally became a common technique of mine to jump projects when something hijacks my mind or I get stuck.

    Training myself to “write that sucker!” and drill through to the end of certain things was harder. Sometimes it helped even to take one afternoon off to noodle with another idea and get enough down for it to percolate in the back before pushing on with project A

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