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How to write a totally unplanned book in a year

So Stardark/Sterrenduister is a story I never intended to write. And yet it is here. How did that happen?

Let me explain with the help of a timeline.

March 2020

Corona happened. Which has nothing to do with the story, but it gave me more free time than I'd normally have.

February 2021

In my previous blog, I explained that one of the sources of inspiration was a piece of artwork. I made this in Februari 2021 for an art contest and, after some people pushing me to please make a costume out of it, the woman depicted in the artwork became more and more alive to me. I'll admit, I never intended to write a full-size novel about her, but perhaps a short story would be fun. That never happened (though I did write a short story involving stars), but something was brewing in my mind.

April 30, 2021

Zilverspoor, a publisher of Dutch fantasy and sci-fi stories in the Netherlands, announced a writing contest for speculative stories. Winner gets a publishing contract. Great fun! But... The novel had to be a standalone, hit a certain word count, could not be part of a series or be set in a world that was already published. Oh, and it had to be in Dutch, of course. In other words, I could not simply translate "a State of Equilibrium" as it wouldn't meet a single requirement. And I have no other book projects running. In other words, I would have to start from scratch. The deadline was the 1st of May, 2022, so I had a year to start from scratch. I'm a slow writer, so I just laughed in utter sadness and told myself I should wave at the other contestants as they pass by.

May, 2021

Remember when I said that something started brewing when I was working on that artwork? Well, that writing contest deadline sped up the brewing process. From the cauldron came Isra, the main character of Stardark, and she demanded her story to be written down. If you'll read the novel, you'll learn this woman doesn't back down easily. So I gave in. On May 19, 2021 I created a document called 'astra', the working title of the manuscript.

June, 2021

I say June, but July might also be part of it, I can't remember this part that well anymore. Anyway, Thank goodness I'm a plotter, that makes it so much easier to work with a tight deadline. Instead of writing the story, I wrote summaries of it, preferably chapter by chapter. I also know my chapters tend to be 4000 to 5000 words in length. The contest said the manuscript had to be between 70,000 and 120,000 words, so I set a goal of roughly 17 chapters. I always aim low for my first draft, as I tend to add words with later revisions.

But more importantly (well, for me) - I figured out the ending first. I normally struggle with that so much. I can plot everything, except the ending. But now I knew where I needed to go, which made the whole process a lot easier. I was inspired by Mary Robinette Kowal's 'Ghost Talkers' (and her stories in general). She's really good at mixing fantasy with historical time periods and establishing older, steady romantic relationships. So no youngsters falling in love, but people who have been together for quite a few years already. And then Kowal puts said relationship under so much pressure it makes you cry. Perfect study material for Stardark!

Second half of 2021

Writing writing writing writing writing... Which I did in Scrivener. I absolutely adore that program. You can set a deadline and word count goal, so the program will keep track of your progress. It will tell you how much you need to write each day, and show a progress bar at the top of your screen. and it is so satisfying to see that thing grow! It really helped a lot.

This a screenshot of the final word count: 104,779. The first draft was a lot skinnier, though! I think it's word count was 80,000? The novel gained weight in later revisions.

January 2022

First draft done! Which was far from readable. The overall arc was there, but I had to add details and change quite a few things. I added a few flashback chapters, for example. And near the end of the first draft (I write chronologically) I realised my antagonist didn't make sense. He was both the kindest person as the biggest asshole in the book. That's silly, so he got split up into two people. Which, of course, meant that earlier chapters had to change too. The second draft fixed these large errors.

March 2022

Where the second draft eliminated large errors, the third smoothed out the smaller ones. Even though this version was still riddled with spelling/grammar errors, it was readable. So time to summon external help! I have a wonderful friend who is somehow crazy enough to read my work. I implemented her feedback in the fourth draft, while getting rid of the most obvious grammar errors.

April 2022

Last month before the deadline! Here, I asked for the help of my boyfriend. He's also done some proofreading for me before, so I knew he is far more focused on individual sentences than entire plot arcs. So he helped me out with finetuning draft #5. I also let my computer read out this draft aloud. That's a great way to check if you haven't skipped any words (I tend to do this a lot) and if your sentences run smoothly. I mean, if even a robotic computer voice can make your words sound fine, then a living person will probably read them without too much of a hassle too.

April 30, 2022

The day before the deadline! And the moment I handed in the documents. Yes, documents, plural. Because the judges didn't just want a manuscript, they also needed a list of characters and a synopsis... Which was harder to write than the manuscript itself. It made me realize how bonkers my story was. For the first time ever since I started the project, I had more doubts than fun... But with less than a day left before the deadline, there was little I could do about that. I told myself that there was a market of at least three people for this manuscript: my proofreaders and me. And I like the story, so the fact that two other people like it as well was already a bonus.

November 26, 2022

The day the winner of the contest was announced! And it was done in a fancy place in Rijswijk, the Netherlands. The day was filled with workshops. Great fun, and only slightly stressful when the manuscript countdown started, going from the lowest ranking one to the highest. You're going from 'yay, I was not disqualified!' to 'woohoo, I made the longlist!' to 'OMG I made the shortlist!!!' to 'OH MY FRIGGERDY FRYINGPAN I'M IN THE TOP THREE?!!?!'. And then my brain malfunctioned when I was announced as the winner. I still can't believe it happened, but I've got a super pretty award and a fancy-looking document that say otherwise. So amazing!

Of course, the manuscript I handed in is not ready for publishing yet. It needs a professional editor (or two...), a cover, a blurb, etc, etc... But that's something for a different blog post.


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