Wednesday, July 15, 2015

On Writing a Novel

I'll warn you right away. This will be a...different blog post. I'm sleep deprived and descending from a manic high. My brain is fried to extra crispy, and I am all. out. of. words. So no 3,000 word blog beast today. Lucky you.

The reason? It is finished:

The bottom left hand corner reads thus:
"Page 1 of 425" "115286 words"

You might think I'm proud of that word count. I'm not. I really wanted my novel to be 90,000 words, which is a good word count for a first time novelist. 90k words is marketable. My novel wanted to be 115,000 words. We are still in a fight.

You know what I'm proud of? FINISHING. And the fact that it's nothing like the first draft.

Oh, lawd, that first draft.


Draft two (three?) is a very distant cousin of draft one. Like of the fifth or sixth variety. They could marry, but shouldn't because that first draft is good for one thing. Bonfire kindling. That's right, folks. Draft one is scheduled to burn at the stake this fall.

And no, you can't talk me out of it. My greatest fear right now is that draft one will outlive me.
So...what is writing a novel like? Rainbows? Unicorns? Sometimes. Not really.

Flannery O'Conner describes it best:

It's also six speckled notebooks falling off the hope chest at the foot of the bed, scaring the crap out of you, every night. (Right, B?) It's also sleep deprivation and evolved self-flagellation. It's lonely and frustrating and terrifying and hard and one of the most exhilarating things I've ever done in my life. As in "Oh my gosh, I'm addicted, can I PLEASE subject myself to this sweet torture as long as I live because I will never be able to stop and I don't want to and I don't think I should" exhilarating.

It's also a lot like walking with Jesus. Some days, the sun is shining, the birds are singing, the flowers sweeten the air. Other days, a tornado rips through and you face the fragility of what you built. But most days are slow, steady work.

You show up at the appointed time and you write. Or try very hard to write. And you learn to be satisfied whether you wrote 500 words or 1,500 words, all the while realizing those words may or may not serve your story and you might have to light them on fire before you're through.

My favorite part of this experience is how it has enriched my walk with God. He inspired the story during August 2013 while I was reading an entry from Sarah Young's Jesus Calling. An image came to mind, and two years later it's just as clear.

(Stephen King doesn't know where his ideas come from. I do. Mine, anyway.)

At the time, I wasn't well enough to jump in, so I filled a notebook with maps, character names, and plot ideas until I was well enough to write. I began June 16 a year ago. Today, I'm two (three?) drafts down with a minimum of two more to go.

Beyond inspiration, the Lord supplied me with incredible sustaining grace to see me through the process. Being the kind of sick I am, it's a big deal for me to give up my rest time while the kids nap. But I did. And it was hard, but not impossible. The Lord held me up because He's been in it since before it began.

And here's the best part. I began going to Him in prayer with my story problems. I would hit a plot hole or a weak character motivation and just couldn't figure out a solution. During my prayer time, I took the problems to the Lord, and more often than not, He would have it solved before it was time to write that afternoon.

The most noteworthy instance happened about three or so weeks ago. I was a few thousand words shy of the ending and totally stumped. My confidence had plummeted because so many problems had arisen. My entire manuscript suffered an ailment I couldn't diagnose and had no idea how to fix. So I told it to Jesus.

Two days later, while I was in the tub (where I talk to Him), clouds parted and angels sang. (Not really. Well, maybe if I was a cartoon.) The Lord presented a solution that not only filled my plot holes and helped me write my ending, but also added intrigue to the story and put the plot points just where they needed to be.

(Well-timed plot points are part of story structure, which is the science behind the craft. You can't write a good book without it.)

Wonderful, right? YES and ugh. Because I had to go all the way back to the beginning and make changes. (Hence the reason the draft I just completed may really be draft three and not draft two.) Some changes were small. Some were HUGE. Like I had to rewrite sections, obliterate others, and create brand new scenes. A new character came into being. I love him. And I now have room for a trilogy, an option I just may take if not right away.

And my story grew about 15,000 words.


But it's so much better, so much closer to the story I'm trying to tell. I'm really proud of it, and that's a big statement for a self-deprecating perfectionist like me.

What's next?

For now, I'm on vacation. While Brandon and mom alpha read, I'll catch up on Call the Midwife, Mr. Selfridge, Wolf Hall, and SYTYCD on the DVR, watch a few movies I've been wanting to see, read someone else's writing. I'll nap.

And after they get back to me with their critiques, I'll begin work on draft three (four?), which will go out to beta readers sometime in September. I hope.

While the beta readers work, I'll plot out my next novel! Woohoo!!!!

I'll revise again based on what the beta readers tell me, and then begin agent hunting. Seems like a good autumn activity, don't you think?

Okay, that's enough words from the wordless wonder. Tired now.

And very, very happy to be DONE.


cindi said...

Congratulations, Melissa! I am so proud of you! My screenplays are much shorter than any novel...and certainly your novel. But I definitely identify with all of the emotional highs and lows you experienced on your writing journey. Enjoy your've earned it:-)

MelissaKeaster said...

Thank you! And I know you know. Screenplays may be harder because you DON'T have the "time." I plan to watch the indie movie and documentary Len recommended while I'm "off."

Ms. A said...

Congratulations! Undertaking anything of that magnitude and finishing it, must be truly gratifying! Especially not being in the best health and having kids.

MelissaKeaster said...

Thank you, Cora! It is gratifying. It also makes me shake my head in wonder at how the Lord has sustained me. As for the kids, nap time is writing time. It's hard, but it works.

Len said...


I'm just now catching up on email...HOORAY for YOU! You did it! What an fantastic accomplishment!! (Do you KNOW how many people start and never finish?)

I used to sort of quietly envy my friends who compete in and complete (literal) marathons or triathlons. Now I realize that's what we writers do--only with words.

SO thrilled for you! (As I told you, I've never been a big fantasy reader, but I'm glad to help out if you need me to.)

MelissaKeaster said...

Len--thank you!!! And yes, if you are up for it, I would appreciate your thoughts. I want to know how accessible my story is for non-fantasy readers. Besides, you'll have good things to say about my characters, pacing, and flow.