Posts Tagged ‘first novel’

Happy 2014 all.

I’m among the millions trying to stay warm inside the massive ice ball of air hurled into North America by the “polar vortex.” It’s been at or below zero with the wind chill all day and waiting for my younger son at the bus stop was pretty darn unpleasant. Mind you, I know I’ve got it easy compared to many. All of my friends and former coworkers back in Chiberia (Chicago) for a start. Or I could be stuck in an airport or stranded on the opposite side of the country from home. Or not have a home at all and be in a desperate struggle to stay alive another day in this deadly cold. So…a dollop of perspective in my cocoa.

Having come out of my usual holiday season writing slumber I am back at work on the second draft of my novel.

It’s a learning experience for sure. Gene Wolfe says, “You never learn how to write a novel. You just learn how to write the novel that you’re writing.” So I’m learning how to write this one.

The first thing I did was read the first draft through all the way. Tried not to stop for long. Tried to keep my note making and paragraph slashing to a minimum. Tried to stay away from sharp objects.

When I reached the end, I was relieved to have learned that there is, indeed, a story in there worth telling. It’s just not ready to be read by anyone but me. There are places where it goes wildly off course. In other places the story bogs down. Characters undergo personality shifts. Back story pieces and other details are in the wrong place and wind up told rather than shown. Etc. Normal first draft stuff. Except for one thing: the sheer scale.

I was a bit unprepared to discover how many people and moving parts there are in the manuscript. Keeping it all in my head so that I can focus in on a given character’s trajectory and behavior across the whole tale has proven difficult. Also, given the size, I couldn’t quite see the beats of the narrative as reliably as I’d like in my minds eye. I’ve been experimenting with ways to help myself.

I labeled an index card for each significant character in the story and tacked them up on my cork board. It looks like this:

Cards on Corkboard

I have them arranged by what section of the book they are primarily featured in or alongside characters that have the most interaction with them. I’ve been making shorthand notes about each character on the cards. Reminders about tendencies or traits.

The other tool I’m creating is something like an outline except there are no bullets. It’s more a super condensed version of the novel. Goes something like this:

Stave One – Marley’s Ghost

Summary: Christmas Eve. We meet Ebenezer Scrooge, learn about his work and life and meet some of the people around him. He goes home alone and is visited by the ghost of his dead partner who warns him he must change his life and that he will be visited by three ghosts.

P7 Narrator goes on at some length that Marley is dead and that Scrooge is a bitter, miserly recluse.

P10 Scrooge’s nephew arrives, tries, and fails to persuade Scrooge to come to Christmas dinner.

P16 Two men from a charitable organization appeal to Scrooge for a donation and are rebuffed. “surplus population.”

Etc. I’ve done this with half the manuscript so far and will complete it tomorrow. I’m finding it a useful exercise. Just the page numbers give me a sense of when the writing gets suspiciously long or suspiciously brief. I can see the major events and where they lie in relationship to one another. I can note major themes or important quotes that influence later events (or could, or should).

I’m getting my arms around the story and the characters. Or, perhaps, I’m making a map. Something to help me navigate. Because I’ve never been in these waters before.


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A Quiet Accomplishment

Stack of Printed PaperI haven’t posted in quite a while. Been busy. One of the things I’ve been busy doing is a flurry of work on my first novel…and I have news.

I finished the first draft of my first novel at 12:30am this morning. It weighed in at 111,514 words on 542 standard manuscript formatted pages. I finished it long after everyone had gone to bed, in my office in the otherwise dark and quiet house.

That feels appropriate. Writing is, most of the time, a solitary art. I’d had visions of finishing the draft over the holidays, of being able to
celebrate with family and friends. Raise a glass or two. It didn’t work out that way. And that feels appropriate, too. The whole thing took longer than I had hoped. It wandered and bogged down and almost died once or twice and then ended in a rush of energy and enthusiasm. 16,000 words since I came home from the holidays which, for me, is well above average for less than three weeks.

I have to say it was both an exciting and bizarre moment to type the last line. Having put so much time and effort and emotion into getting this story down in words, I felt joyful, satisfied…and a bit disoriented.

It’s done?


You mean…I don’t have to work on this tomorrow?

Yes. That is, in fact, what ‘done’ means.


Yes. You are hereby dismissed from working on this.


Of course not, you lummox, you have to revise it.

Can’t I do that now?

Absolutely not.

But there are things I know I should change.

Not now. Go away. Write other things. And….


For God’s sake, clean your house and get a haircut, man.

Those are completely fair and accurate observations for my inner boss to make. I committed to finishing the novel by the middle of this month. To do it, I let go of other things. My volunteer work grew spotty. My attention to household chores slid. This week I even ditched exercise and forgot to shave for a few days.

“You look like you’re finishing a novel,” my loving wife observed, surveying my wild and disheveled appearance.

It’s all worth it. Even if the book is only read by a few people. I learned and grew a lot on this project and, with the revision cycles still to come, this first novel has more lessons to teach.

The best part? I get to start something new tomorrow.

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