I never studied creative writing, not formally. Once, in high school English, I was so frustrated with our meaningless writing assignments and our vacuous teacher's vapid praise of them that I wrote a poem designed to fuck with him, to make him think there was a lot of subtext and nuance that wasn't actually present in my intent. What creative spark I had only fueled the fire of my rage against the institution of modern education.
One could argue (effectively) that reading fiction is, itself, an education in creative writing. Stephen King, in On Writing, recommends that a writer spend at least as much time reading as he or she does writing, and more if it can be helped. Reading establishes a framework, a presentation model for the written word. It directly informs story structure, setting, characterization, dialogue choices, everything.
That's not what I mean when I say, "studied." I mean that I never took a course on writing effectively, I never sat in a lecture hall and listened to the world-building techniques of Flaubert or the pains Faulkner took to capture the Mississippi drawl of his characters.
When I decided to write The Total Manageability of Everything, I had a lot of options about how to educate myself. There are college- and graduate-level courses that I could have taken, there are hundreds of volumes on The Art of the Novel and other titles, and countless authors offer seminars on how to write like them and taste the success they now enjoy. The world is full of people and literature who want to teach me how to write.
Since this was my first attempt to tell a story of my own creation, I didn't want to follow any of those tried, true, tested, tiresome techniques. Eventually, once people caught on that I was trying to write a novel, I received several books on the craft, but I shelved them until I was finished with my first draft. I didn't want anyone else's influence on my first earnest attempt at telling my own story, my own way.
Instead of consulting the ancients and the experts, I called up my best friend of all time, the Real Cal. He told me to write the parts that were exciting to me, the highlights of the story as it was taking shape in my mind. I wasn't supposed to worry about chronology, the ordering of events would come later. If the thing that felt most present on my mind was the conversation Cal and Jason had on mushrooms, then I should start with that and make it as detailed as I could stand it.
The "Writer" and the "Editor" are two completely different roles to take on, and each has their place. For the Writer, every detail, every nuance, every word in the scene has significance and meaning and could not be any other way. The Writer writes without inhibitions, in that lovely flowing stream of prose that sometimes topples from head to fingertips. The Real Cal encouraged me to be the Writer first, to write down everything that I thought was important in the moment of writing.
I was free to meander through any part that I felt like writing, and that resulted in a lot of time travel through different parts of the book. It was overwhelming to have such a command of set and setting, to drop a story line and pick up another one whenever I wanted. It really was liberating, but my draft buckled under the weight of all the disjointed scenes.
An outline was necessary. I knew what happened first (chronologically,) and I knew what happened last, but connecting the dots without any pre-existing hierarchy was too difficult. There was just so much story, I had to structure it somehow. With notecards, I arranged summaries of the parts I had already written and sat down with a notebook to write the master plot outline. The Real Cal helped me over hours of late-night phone calls, me explaining the different parts that had to fit together and him suggesting ways to relate them to each other.
I finished my first draft of Part I on August 27th, 2012, roughly two years after I started writing the book, at 41,600 words. My outline called for four more parts just like it, bringing the first draft estimate to just over 200,000 words. The finished piece, as it stands, is only 71,934 words, if that gives you any sense of perspective. I printed it out and shipped it to the Real Cal to review and provide his thoughts.
While the Real Cal was reading the first part, I frantically rushed to finish the draft, but it took me two more years to get the rest of the words down. My initial estimate was accurate, the final word count was 199,154. That's over eight hundred pages, and it accounted for all five years over which the story took place.
Of course, not every single word that finds its way to the page is golden, but that wasn't my concern as the Writer. My goal was simply to write down what I felt, at the time that I felt like writing it, and come back later as the Editor to whittle it into shape.