On Writing a First-Draft Novel


On Writing a First-Draft Novel.jpg


All over the world, people are disappearing.

They leave their normal lives.

They go into private rooms.

They step into another world.


Welcome to the world of the Sasquatch…the aliens…the monsters that no one wants to meet face-to-face, but everyone wants to know…

This is the world of the writer.

The girl who has four half-full bottles of water on her desk because her mind is so swept up in what she’s writing, she can’t remember there’s a bottle right over there…so it takes her two days to drink it all.

This is the world of a man who has seven books out from the library (due in three days!) including the latest nonfiction by Chris Palmer entitled Now What, Grad? Your Path to Success After College, but they sit half-read on his desk because his pen is full of ink and the blank pages call to him (Dude, renew your books).

When I was an undergrad, I wrote an essay for one of my classes on the phenomenon NaNoWriMo, or National Novel Writing Month (writers-check it out – it happens in November, but there are two sister events – one in April and one in July – called CampNaNoWriMo. Do it. I’ll wait here).

You back?

Good, cause you’re not going to want to miss this. What comes next is valuable information by authors the world over.

Welcome to Darlene unfiltered. This is the true story of one girl’s writing adventure. My adventure. So here’s the essay I wrote as an undergrad…maybe it’ll jog a few things for you in your writing life. I’m deep-diving here, come snorkeling with me…


On Writing A First-Draft Novel

by Darlene Reilley (a.k.a. Trilli)

I frequently ponder how I would destroy the Earth.  I contemplate: black holes, strangelets, supernovas, asteroids, cannibal galaxies, gamma ray bursts, von Neumann machines, doomsday machines, super weapons, quantum singularities, colliding parallel worlds, bombs, and volcanic eruptions.  I deliberate ripping apart the universe, destroying the sun, nulling existence, imploding matter/antimatter reaction, detonating vacuum energy, deconstructing matter, terraforming, bombing, or expanding the sun.  If the FBI ever saw my search engine history, they’d start a file if they haven’t already.

            Writing a novel is hard work.  Beginning writers are not told this for fear of scaring them off.  Budding writers are full of hopes and dreams and only see the illusion—the shiny book at Barnes and Noble which smells like magic and star dust.  They hear about the bestsellers: Stephen King, Nora Roberts, Richard Patterson, and Robert Heinlein, but they don’t hear about the millions of writers who attempt to write each year.  They don’t hear about the gritty parts of writing.  They don’t see the hundreds of hours spent typing a novel that someone may never see, or the decisions that go into one choice—such as how to destroy the planet in a new, unexpected way.  Their hands aren’t stained with ink yet.  They have not felt the heartbreak when a writer’s favorite character dies unexpectedly. 

They don’t hear about the gritty parts of writing.  They don’t see the hundreds of hours spent typing a novel that someone may never see, or the decisions that go into one choice—such as how to destroy the planet in a new, unexpected way.  Their hands aren’t stained with ink yet.  They have not felt the heartbreak when a writer’s favorite character dies unexpectedly. 

            Orson Scott Card said that “ever writer has about ten thousand pages of utter drivel in them,” and he suggests getting it out of the way as soon as possible.  Writers tell me that stories only happen to people who can tell them.  Writers tell me to listen to my heart’s vibration and to trust that iron string.  Writers tell me if I can dream it, I can do it.  Writers tell me to write the story that makes me think and that I want to read.  Prospective writers ask me what I get from this writing experience.  In this essay, I try to show it.

            It’s October.  My writing cave is not yet ready for the challenge ahead.  My writing cave is a large master bedroom split into two sections—the bedroom portion with a bed covered in a soft brown suede cover and purple pillows with leaves imprinted on them, and the work space which takes up the bulk of the room.  The room is furthest detached from the center of action in the house and therefore the quietest.  My desk is simple—walnut veneer with silver handles on three drawers.  On the left side of the desk, a circle is woven down to the original wood in one section in the outline of a teacup.  The offending white tea cup with an Irish saying sits next to the worn section, halfway through wearing another hole in the varnish.

            The room is a large rectangle.  My desk sits on the wall opposite the door and next to the window.  The desk is neat: a black organizer holds lined index cards and square engraved sticky notes with my name, a wooden-based lamp with an amber shade, a large monitor, a small blue laptop, an external hard drive, a blue mouse rests on a Starry Night mouse pad, and next to it is a black Pilot Precise Rolling Ball Fine point pen sitting capped on a black moleskin notebook.  Three massive floor-to-ceiling bookcases, stuffed to the brim with books, cover antique white walls. 

            The bookshelf nearest the desk is the source of my current consternation.  On it, arranged in a jumble, are books on writing from Janet Burroway to J. N. Williamson.  Interspersed among the books are a striped jade and black dragon, two sock monkeys, a yellow Woodstock, a plastic blue typewriter with Snoopy, and two hand-knit plot bunnies.  I created the plot bunnies in 2009 for an English assignment in Technical Writing before I redirected them to inspire my writing group.  Muse’s Uprising blares from the laptop’s speakers as I type.  I have a channel on Pandora dedicated to writing.

            It is October 28, 2013, and I am preparing to write a first-draft novel of a manuscript in a challenge called National Novel Writing Month.  The challenge is to finish a 50,000-word manuscript in thirty days—to live a literary life for a month.  For writers, the act of writing itself is where we derive our pleasure—it’s not in the destination, but in the journey. 

            NaNoWriMo, as the Wrimos call it, began in 1999 in San Francisco, California when founder Chris Baty and twenty other writers attempted the month-long writing binge.  This year [2013] 310,095 participants attempt the feat of writing a lengthy piece of fiction [note: in 2016, there were 431,626 participants]. 

            I know I can do this because my track record backs me up.  I have attempted NaNoWriMo every year since 2006 and won all but the first.  From 2009 to the present, I have also participated in various writing challenges such as JulyNoWriMo and Camp NaNoWriMo.  In total, I have written thirty-seven first-draft manuscripts.    

            The idea of the challenge is to get past the inner editor—that devilish voice inside that says you can’t do it, so why bother trying?  To put the dream of writing a novel front and center and reach for it.  To do what writers do—sit down and write on a constant schedule.  To deal with the interruptions and hiccups in life.  To string words together to create paragraphs which lead to scenes to create chapters which add up, eventually, to a book.  That’s what Chris Baty wanted when he created NaNoWrimo—he wanted people trying to achieve their dreams.  

            As a true seat-of-the-pants writer, I don’t have a clue what I’m writing about until I show up.  Actually, that’s not exactly true—I usually have thirty ideas and more characters than a spaceship can handle rattling around, but for me, the writing can’t start until my muse shows up.  Abagail appears in the strangest of places—at Walmart when I shop for vegetables and candy to bring to the Kickoff Party.  Somehow I end up in the garden section looking for bird food and spot one of my favorite Christmas items.  In the middle of the aisle, stacked seven layers high, seven wide and seven across, are boxes and boxes of Amaryllis and Paperwhites.  The one that draws my attention is a crimson Amaryllis.  At that moment, between the Halloween rush and the Christmas kerfuffle, it clicks—I am going to write a science fiction romance novel set on a spaceship named the Amaryllis.  And as I write the novel, the flower would grow and bloom just in time for Christmas.

            I drive from Walmart to the Kickoff Party at the Parkland/Spanaway Library.  A Kickoff is an annual event held by the region’s Municipal Liaisons.  Until this year, I held the voluntary position which arranges parties and write ins, sends inspiration to the region’s writers, and answers stray questions flung in real life and cyberspace.  I am excited when I arrive—Cassandra and Shelly, the current MLs, have the room laid out with eight long tables in a large rectangle with chairs at each.  For me, it is a treat to not have to help set stuff up.  I drop off my veggie plate and bag of candy at the food table at the back of the room and find a seat, chatting with them until the other writers showed up.  In the end, thirty-three writers come to discuss their novels, get a head-start on preparation, and enjoy each other’s company.  Although most were repeat writers, there are many new faces in the crowd. 

            By the time I left the room three hours later, I have my genre, title, and my character.  It happens oddly while I look at my friend Linda who makes huge eyes at something that someone else said.  She has an extremely long face (because she was yawning), so I grab onto the look—that massive, wide-eyed look—and a color flashes in my mind.  What if I write about an alien who changes colors with her mood?  It isn’t the most exciting idea, but it is the most intriguing.

            It took an hour and a half to build the character.  I create Delfinia—a twenty-two year old alien woman—the pilot of the Amaryllis.  She needs a past, so I make her the last of her people—a girl who, at age thirteen, was the only living soul on a planet decimated by humanity.  One solider took pity on the girl when he found her alone and quivering in the deep recess of a cave.  He smuggled her off the planet in his own ship and raised her as his daughter. 

            Delfinia is a remnant of a lost civilization—her appearance is similar to our own except that her eyes are wide and almond-shaped.  She has a smattering of freckles dusting her nose.  Her skin and eyes change color with her mood.  Her translucent lavender skin shifts to light pink when she is angry or frustrated.  Her dark grey eyes shift to hot pink when she is livid or exasperated. 

Linda suggests that Delfinia should shift pink when she was in love, but I figure that it is too typical—a standard girl reaction.  Instead, I decide Delfinia should shift blue when she’s in love.  Since there was no one to tell her about her past or the biology of her people, she does not know why she shifts blue—she thinks she is sick. 

I debate working on my English paper, which Shelly kiboshes.  I think about my education for a second because of something Linda says.  I am an Anthropology major at Pacific Lutheran University; creative writing is my minor.  While I have read many books about writing, before and after pursuing higher education, I find that going through the challenge with other writers and learning from them helps me face my own difficulties when writing.       



            It is 5 AM on November 1, 2013.  I have to write 1,667 words per day, or 10,000 words per week regardless of the length of the week, to accomplish my goal.  I read one of the Pep Talks sent by the Office of Letters and Light which runs NaNoWriMo to begin my writing session.  This one was written by one of my favorite authors, James Patterson, the bestselling author of the Alex Cross series.  I sip Moroccan Mint Tea before reading his advice:

Has anyone told you you’re crazy yet?  You’re not crazy, I promise.

Outline.  Lie to myself.  Get into a routine.  Don’t do it alone.  Don’t stress.

But the best advice he gives me—and the one that makes me want to sit and put my fingers on the keyboard is the last.

Stop reading this.  Start writing.  Now.  (Or at midnight your time).  James.

I do exactly that because I also have a homework pile to tackle.  I run with his advice—I need to work on the Amaryllis first.  I decide it is a cargo ship delayed due to mechanical issues.  It should have been destroyed in the coordinated attack on all human settlements by an alien population.  They need a name and a history, but first I focus on the Amaryllis which is the last vestige of human existence in the Milky Way.

            Within two hours, I have my first scene and the setting.  I have Captain Thelonius Hollister (who, strangely, looks like Chris Hemsworth), and his crew—a hodge-podge mass of humans, aliens, and robots.  I sketch the ship—a short cylindrical ship with three levels of cylinders which rotated to simulate gravity.

            Orson Scott Card’s story requirements are: “a world no one has ever seen before,” “a fresh (new) universe,” set ground rules and use them, set the stage carefully, and remember that “anything is possible, everything has to be explained.”  Later that day, I hole up in Mordvedt Library’s quiet third floor to create the explanation of who the aliens are, why they invade, and why they terraform all nineteen human settlements in the galaxy.  This is a massive coordinated strike by the Martuvian peoples because they want the land and resources for themselves.

            Writers advise me to give my main character more than anyone should have to handle, and throw the world at them and rise to the top.  But I don’t want Delfinia to be the hero of the human race.  I want the opposite for her—I want her to hate humans so much for what they did to her people that she would think they stank, avoid them at all cost, and almost wish them dead.  I want humanity, in the form of her love interest to have a moment of redemption. 



            James said not to stress, but I do nothing but that for the next two weeks.  I don’t write the entire time.  While I knew it was going to happen, I was not prepared for the tight feeling in the pit of my stomach or the reality of my situation. 

            My brother Carl’s family from Utah invade for a week to celebrate our mom’s 70th birthday.  I have two midterms . . .  and when I say midterms, I mean study-for-three-weeks-and-still-feel-like-crap because even though I read the Anthropological Theory book, I have a hard time differentiating Malinowski and Radcliffe-Brown.  I also study for and take the General Requirement’s Exam.  I do not do so well.  The old war in my head rages again—anthropology or writing, writing or anthropology?  Which would make me happier, create a good life, and allows me to take care of myself and my family?  Mom cooks a traditional Thanksgiving meal for her birthday—she wants to cook because that’s what she loves—so I get stuffed with Turkey and vanilla cake with flower frosting and it isn’t even Thanksgiving yet.

            November 15th is my hardest day.  James Patterson is wrong—I can’t do this.  I have 1,229 words—the same 1,229 words I had on the first day.  The only good news I have is that I have the rest of the month in front of me; besides homework and one family obligation, my slate is open. 

But I still have knots in my stomach.  I do what I always do in this situation—I turn to the internet for inspiration.  Googling “books written in under a month,” I got an awesome 1.44 billion hits. 

            Kerouac penned On the Road in three weeks.  A Study in Scarlet, the first of the Sherlock Holmes stories, took three weeks.  Dostoyevsky wrote The Gambler in twenty-six days while also writing Crime and Punishment (and no one really likes him because of it, the glorified overachiever).  Dr. Jeckyll and Mr. Hyde took Robert Lewis Stevenson six days.  Sarah Gruen wrote Water for Elephants as a NaNoWriMo novel.  Marissa Meyer swears by NaNoWriMo: she wrote Cinder, Scarlett, and her upcoming novel Cress in November. 

            I scroll through my News Feed on Facebook and a stray quote from J. K. Rowling punches me in the gut: “Don’t choose to live in narrow spaces.  Live in your imagination; the monsters are afraid.”  I return to Marissa Meyer’s pep talk which she wrote in 2012 for NaNoWriMo.

Never fear.  Anyone who has ever written “The End” on a manuscript knows that sometimes, inspiration eludes us.  No one looks forward to those lulls in the writing process, but they are natural, and they can be overcome. Marissa Meyer

This reminds me of the novel I wrote wherein Park City, Utah got hit by an avalanche because a writer got writer’s block.  Marissa suggests that the manuscript needs “an injection of the Unexpected” and encourages writers to make a list.  I list.  In the black moleskin notebook after “Unexpected,” I write: Aliens attack.  The ship breaches.  Everyone dies.  Twelve items later, I circle one: She falls for an Earthier. 

            My mind races.  What if she—the space girl who pilots the ship—falls for one of the planet-dwelling smelly people who is their fare?  What if her enemy—one of the people who destroyed her planet—is the one male in the entire galaxy for her?  What if she is the only person who can save the civilization?  What if it happens when the aliens are attacking and the alien’s spaceship breaches and everyone on it dies?

            They need to run and hide, but there is a subspace emergency—the life support systems weren’t designed for fifty-two people.  When Delfinia meets her future sweetheart, she despises him on the spot—she knows from the vids she isn’t supposed to watch that he was there at the fall of her people.  She blames him. 

            I write:

“Delfinia, I don’t think that’s what the Captain had in mind,” Max said. 

She shot him a piercing look, her eyes turned hot pink.  He held up his hands as she turned back to the console.  The collision was eminent.  As the shields scraped the shields of the other ship, she increased the reverse thrust pulsar and the shields repelled the other ship, pushing them away.  She deftly turned the ship to the right and headed toward the other ship.  Once they saw she was on a collision course, they darted to the right and the ship behind them tried to come around to swarm her other side, but she inverted, heading in another direction; their attackers were C-class Martuvian vessels that didn’t have the maneuverability that her ship did—she knew the ship’s system better than anyone but the Captain.  She knew they could outrun anyone—once they were in open space.  But there was so much crowding there, they couldn’t do anything but bounce off the others—they were intentionally crowding with intention of boarding.

            Orson Scott Card wrote that writers should, “hit him where it hurts the most.”  I decide to do just that—to use Delfinia’s hatred of the Earthers and her loyalty to the Captain to tear her apart inside. 

            But I’m not the only writer who has a quirky process.  Sarah Jayne Carr, author of Revealing Hamilton and Embracing Hamilton, says for her it “usually starts with one spark of an idea and flourishes from there.  Characters are birthed, settings manifest, and plot lines weave their way throughout.  When I write, I tend to create a rough outline and usually, I determine the end of the story before the beginning.”

            I wish I were that orderly.  Instead, I go where the whim—and the characters—take me.  Delfinia, in this case, decides to scare the Dickens out of me:

She made a calculation in her head that would take the pirates hours, punched in a sequence of numbers on the Kit in front of her and hit the max light button.  The ship shuttered against the shields of the nearest ship and then bolted directly toward the system’s sun.



            It is November 16th, there is a write in: a group of writers show up at a predetermined place and time for conversation, camaraderie, and writing.  Usually it’s more of the first two, but I am so behind at this point that I can’t see Morgan, the person in front of the pack and a sixteen-year-old girl with fingers that type light lightening, if I wear high heels on stilts.

            Shelly tells me to come.

            I arrive at Starbucks at 2 PM—an hour before the meeting—and order a triple Grande Vanilla Soy Latte.  The place is packed when I sit down at one of the long tables with two students from Pierce College, Puyallup.  It was the only seat and I need the power socket.  Students are always willing to share a table; never, ever sit down with strangers who are with their family—they will leave immediately and stare daggers at you until they are out the door. By the time Shelly shows up, I write 3,521 additional words. 

            The write in actually takes place in the back room of the café—a small room with two long tables, eleven chairs, and three outlets.  We carry power strips with us, and the Starbuckians are cool with it because we bribe them with candy, cookies, and an occasional jar of homemade jam.  As soon as the MLs show up and the room is available, I sit against the wall across from the door.  The only occupants of the room are Shelly who sits on the end seat at the right in front of the white board, and Cassandra who sits at the other end in front of the back counter.  I pop in my ear buds, and type.

            One minute I am in the room with just the two girls and when I look up, I startle.  The room is full to capacity—okay, over at twelve, but if the Fire Marshall came in, we would shove someone out into the café.  Linda sits on my left and Tina sits on my right.

            I take out an ear bud and listen—apparently there is a friendly competition between the Tacoma region and the Spokane region of NaNoWrimo and one of the people from Spokane is accused of cheating.

            “How’s it going?”  Shelly asks. 

            I shake my head.  “I don’t think I’m going to finish this year.”  I’ve shocked my writing group.

            “Yes, you will,” Shelly said.  “How can you increase your word count?”

            Several options are immediately offered.  I should toss all lawyers out of the airlock.  I should create a space octopus with a tattoo of a human wearing a sombrero on one shoulder that attacks the Amaryllis.  Suggestions get more bizarre from then and the conversation degenerates into a Thor versus Loki contest.  I excuse myself to percolate. 

            As I left the room and shut the door, I asked myself how could I make it work?  I head to the counter for a cup of water and a snack.  I don’t know how.  But on the way back from the counter with a bag containing a chocolate chip cookie in one hand and a plastic cup with ice water in the other, a connection occurs.

            What if I combine my two loves?  What happens if I give the research and questions I have for anthropology to my character?  What if she obsesses with finding out why the humans decimated her planet?  What if she fixates on humanity? 

            Back inside the room, I broach the idea with Shelly who gives me a devilish grin and says “Why the hell not?”

            I am already considered a rebel—my word count is so far behind, I have no way of making it up unless I forget about sleep and homework and life for the rest of the month.

            I read somewhere that a person can only go eleven days without sleep before they die.  And I’ve never found anything to contradict that, so 24-hour marathons are out of the question.

            Shelly leans in closer and whispers, “Just don’t tell Cassandra.”  Cassandra at the opposite end of the other table asks what she shouldn’t be told.  I fess up. 

            Cassandra frowns.  “Work it into the plot—don’t just copy and paste it, but work it into the story.”

            I make my English and Anthropology homework Delfinia’s homework.  I plan to convert several papers to Delfinia’s train of thought.  Delfinia studies East Asian Cultures because the bombs that decimated her hometown were made in China.  Delfinia studies the history of North America because of the track record of its people—when they took over the continent, they decimated a population.  Delfinia studies the history of England because the Division of Earth Corps which decimated her planet—ravaging, raping, and murdering over two billion people—came from the Royal Family of the United Kingdom.  She writes about the Peopling of the Americas.  She writes about acts committed against the native inhabitants.  She writes poetry.

            By the time I add up my word count, I have a potential 75,461 words.  But that isn’t kosher—it feels too much like cheating.  I don’t want it to be that kind of a win—it would feel empty.  So I translate the papers into another document and think of adding them as an appendix.  I have never seen that done and wondered if anyone besides myself would like it.  But completing the exercise gives me the confidence boost I need to get to the next section—that’s what I need—momentum.

            I am not the first, nor last writer to get a block.  Some consider anything spent away from their writing a block.  Others stare at blank pages for hours. 

The trap into which all writers have, will, or should fall into, of writing the Great American Whatchamacallit, is such an uncluttered and inviting one that from time to time I’m sure even the greatest have to pull themselves up short by the Shift key to remind themselves that it is story first that they should write. Harlan Ellison

           I decided that aiming low—not high—is my goal for the month.  I am not looking to finish a Pulitzer winner (yet).  I pull inspiration from those around me—the writers I surround myself with.  I spend time with writers online and in person to figure out how they overcome the distractions in their lives.

            Chris Weigand, author of Palace of Twelve Pillars and Palace of the Three Crosses says her distractions are “life, mostly family commitments” and that she attempts to overcome them by “try[ing] to get to write-ins or participat[ing] in online-write-ins.”  Even so, she admits that there are some distractions that she can’t avoid: “sometimes the family commitments like volleyball games or activities that my daughter participates in cannot be sidestepped.”

            Kristen Monk, a Wrimo and 2013 Pacific Lutheran University graduate says: “Since I’m a music major I have a ton of practicing and rehearsals  that get in the way of me finding time to write.  Aside from that, work, television, surfing the web, hanging out with friends are also major distractions.”  She overcomes them by “listening to music…[and] discuss[ing] my story ideas with other people.”

            Sarah Carr says her major distractions are “the internet and sleep.”  She overcomes them by “changing my atmosphere/scenery and drinking more tea.”  She cannot sidestep one distraction: “My son, but he isn’t a distraction, he’s a priority.  Writing usually happens after he’s in bed at night.”

            In fact twelve writers I poll online said their major distraction was homework or work.  That said, they can’t avoid it—it was something they had to work with.  In an interview through messaging, Marissa Meyer tells me her distractions are “[t]he same major distractions I have all year long, which tend to be the non-writing related aspects of my career.  Blogging, social media, promotion and publicity tasks, travel, school visits, Skype visits, etc.  November is also the start of the holiday season, so there tends to be a lot of social happenings this month that pull me away from writing.” 

          Meyer overcomes distractions the way we all do: “I make daily goals (the Nano-specific goal is 1,665 word/day, but I tend to go by how many chapters I will write that day), and I plan when and where I will have time to write at the beginning of each week.  Though my daily schedules don’t always work out exactly how I plan, it ensures that writing remains a priority.  I also like to schedule time with other writer friends – having an ‘appointment’ to write forces you to keep it.”  When asked via e-mail about distractions she cannot sidestep, she responds: “Any publisher demands – checking copyedits, writing a promotional blog post, responding to a media interview . . . these are all necessary aspects of my job and are usually on pretty tight deadlines.”

            I decide that the only way to get it done is to duct tape myself to a chair, kick myself in the pants, and do what it takes to get the job done.  I start by procrastinating—I went back to years past and realize that what was missing this year was what I had every year—my goody basket.   

I decide that the only way to get it done is to duct tape myself to a chair, kick myself in the pants, and do what it takes to get the job done. 

            If I make a goody basket, I wonder if other do too, so I interview a few to see what they have to have in their goody baskets.  Brenda Johnson, a new Wrimo, says she must have “chocolate, a warm blanket, and a laptop.” Rachel Hanville, a five-time Wrimos, says she must have “word wars and write ins” to succeed.  A word war is a writing duel between two or more writers; they often happen online in the NaNoWriMo chat space where Timmy, the beloved robot and unofficial NaNoWriMo mascot, enjoys serving writers the virtual drink of their choice before defenestrating them. 

            Shelly Schulz needs her “Eric Church station on Pandora.  I love Eric Church.  It’s like more modern country and I turn everything off and just write.”  She also needs a Bath and Bodyworks Mint Chocolate Coffee Candle which she says smells like “coffee and chocolate and just goodness.”

            Marissa Meyer must have “something to drink – usually water, but sometimes coffee or wine.  Warm feet and hands – I’m a big fan of fluffy socks and fingerless gloves.”

            Inspired, I made my own list: chocolate candle, peppermint chocolates, Nivea hand lotion, lip balm, an inspirational toy, Folgers coffee, French Vanilla creamer, fingerless gloves, a Pandora music list, and three dog bones. 



            Between November 16th and 22nd, I have several days off of school, ostensibly to work on homework, but I throw myself into writing.  On the 19th I take a break to read the Pep Talk from Lev Grossman, author of Warp, Codex, The Magicians, and The Magic King.  He also works for Time magazine.  Lev compares writing a novel to being a character in the Hunger Games when he wrote:

Keep your nerve.

The weapons of a writer, James Joyce once wrote, are silence, exile, and cunning, and probably he wasn’t thinking of the Hunger Games when he wrote that…

Screw the odds.  There are no odds.  You’re a writer and writers make their own odds. Lev Grossman

I like those odds.  His pep talk propels me over the top—I have 10,000-word days.  I sleep in stolen snatches of time.   I imbibe way too much Folgers with French Vanilla Soy Milk at 3 AM.  My new routine—which annoys my snoring dogs to no end—is to write in the early morning.

            I decide that after Delfinia scared me, she needs a talking-to.  I send the Amaryllis to a distant outlier space station and flirt with the idea of changing the title of the book to Outlier.  I introduce Delfinia to Ben, her future love, in an unusual way: she is in the middle of a shift and she turns cobalt blue. 

“Delfinia, you better get to the Doc; you don’t look so good.”

“What?” she asked as the men walked off the bridge.  She looked down at her hands.  They were blue—a dark blue the color of the picture of the cobalt sea on the Captain’s home planet that he had vids off.  She paled and the cobalt shifted to a shade lighter.  “What’s wrong with me?”

            She is weak and blue, but she can fly.  She gets them out of the sector and past roving patrols to the space station.  While refueling and taking on supplies, Delfinia is thrown together with Ben again—and she shifts to an even darker blue shade.  He thinks she’s sick, she thinks she’s dying, and the aliens who were chasing them find the space station.  She misunderstands when Ben flirts with one of the barmaids; he means only to chat, but Delfinia takes umbrage that he did it while in her presence.  She runs off and gets into a barroom brawl, but he saves her.  They race to the Amaryllis and escape the space station, which the aliens destroy.

            Delfinia has mixed feelings—she misunderstands Ben’s intentions toward another girl—a passenger this time—as the Captain sets a course for Cerulean, the first planet in orbit of the star Dolphin in the Aquarius sector of space.  They flee for Cerulean.

            I read somewhere that a writer should never save anything—that they should spend all that they have—talent, creativity, knowledge—in the book they’ve wanted to write since childhood.  In a moment of honesty, I realize that this isn’t that book yet, but it’s the one I’ve got now, so I decide to throw everything at it. 

            I go to sleep each night and dream of the plot—the story is written in my head in invisible ink as I sleep, and when I wake I transcribe. 

Authors of so-called ‘literary’ fiction insist that action, like plot, is vulgar and unworthy of a true artist.  Don’t pay any attention to misguided advice of that sort.  If you do, you will very likely starve trying to live on your writing income.  Besides, the only writers who survive the age are those who understand the need for action in a novel. Dean Koontz

            I decide the characters need to make a stand—and try to get the aliens off their trail.  If they are going to have any chance to live without the threat of eminent doom looming, they need to get as far away from the Martuvians as they can and never look back.

            But the ship is old and wire and prayers patch it together.  One attack makes the ship almost loose containment.  The passengers are put into a coma-like state in order for anyone to survive.  Some must be sacrificed to lead the aliens off the trail.  Ben is one of the few who volunteers for the job; he thinks that he has nothing to live for.

            Only after Ben leaves in a salvage pod does Delfinia come to the realization that the hints he has left over their time together—bringing her dinner, checking on her, the chats in the middle of the endless boring hours while engineers worked to keep them alive—were flirtations.  And that she has feelings for the Earther.   She thinks he has gone to his death.  Her heart shatters.

            “If you’re going through hell, keep going,” Winston Churchill once said.  That’s what I have Delfinia do—keep going, regardless of what’s going on.  She’s numb, but she must hold it together. 



            It is November 23rd, I run out of writing juice.  I sleep the entire day and prepare for a Quiz in East Asian Culture.  When I review the history of the Samurai of Japan, I get a text from Christina, my life-long writing buddy [who writes under a pen name and made me promise not to say her name here].

            She double-dogged dares me.  Again.  

            I started this whole writing thing because of her.  She was the one who told me to put my money where my mouth was and try to write instead of just dreaming about it—to actually sit my butt in a chair and put my fingers to keyboard.  I’ve gone through several computers and a few stacks of manuscripts between then and now. 

            But she dares me… and I can’t resist double-dog dares.  Even though it’s crazy, I think maybe I could do what she suggests.  To get me out of my doldrums and to add pep to her adventure, she thinks we should aim for 100,000 words.  At first I think she is nuts.  Certifiable.  It is time to call Jerry, her husband, and tell him that he should have their doctor give her a CAT scan.  But then I look at my word count—the real one, not the blown-up one—it was 67,921.  We text back and forth and after a few seconds, her next challenge pops up:

A bottle of home-pressed Limoncello versus a bottle of organic strawberry-rhubarb jam to the first person to cross the 100,000 word line.           

            I debate before texting her.  Yes.

World-famous Anthropologist Margaret Mead wrote, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world.  Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”

I take her advice and make my rag-tag band of earthlings, aliens, and robots the David versus the Maruvian fleet the Goliath.  There is little hope for survival for the people on the ship, and even less for the people left behind to redirect the Martuvians. 

            Ben thinks he has gone to his death. 

            But someone—or something—out there is looking out for the humans—something beyond their ken.  

            It is also beyond my knowledge—I don’t know what the heck I am getting myself into when I throw that bit in—it wouldn’t be a romance if the Alpha male was killed while protecting the female lead.   I need something to stop them and another vessel of humans could have been interesting, but it would have compounded the unreality issue—readers would see it for the long-shot it was and poke a hole right in that line of thought.  So I add a note at the beginning of the novel to “go back through and add spiritual stuff” to make the line believable.

            Some writers say a sense of spirit inspires them when they write.  Sarah Carr’s muse is a “horrid bully with braids and freckles.  When I want to write something, I have to acquire her blessing.  If not?  The writing goes to hell.  She tends to knee me in the stomach and kick me in the teeth if she doesn’t get her way.”

            Abagail, my muse, is also a pain in the keyboard—she shows up when she wants to, needs caffeine and chocolate, and won’t work unless music is playing.  And she has the most awkward timing—like when I want to sleep or when I’m supposed to be studying or when I’m in class.  I’ve taken more than my fair share of notes not on the topic at hand, but on whatever plot she cooks up on a specific day.  I wish she were more organized and methodical and would stick with an idea to its completion—that would make my life easier, but her job is to inspire me, not to make me happy.

            The Martuvian force sends a ship to rendezvous with Ben’s container.  Not suspecting there were people onboard, the Martuvians are caught off guard.  The Earthlings fight, but they are outnumbered.  Just as they are about to be killed, a being intervenes. 

            The being stops the aggressors and transports all of the Martuvians back to Earth.  The ship, a B-class scout ship, is theirs.  Only no one knows how to pilot it.  The ship is moved through space to the area near Cerulean. 



            It is November 26th and I open a pep talk from Ralph Peters.  I don’t make it past the first line because he wrote two of my favorite words—The Shining.  Stephen King’s book On Writing moves from the bookcase to the prominent spot next to the computer.  The pages in the book are dog-eared and marked in a variety of colors and phrases.

            I open it to a random page and read: “get ten pages a day.”  I flip ahead and read, “the most interesting situation can usually be expressed as What-if question.”  I play the game.

            What if?  What if the planet they’re heading to does not exist?  What if she realizes that she loves Ben and is too terrified to act?  What if the Captain (her father figure) doesn’t approve?  What if there is a place past the inhabited planets where people can live together in harmony?  What if it’s all baloney and there will always be discord?  What if this is just the beginning—and the Earthers want to retaliate?  Can they even try?  What if she thinks he is still just a fare and they part ways once the ship drops off the settlers?  Could she ever live on a planet, or is she a spacer for life?

            I write.

            When the Amaryllis shows up, they think they are done for because of the enemy ship.  The Captain orders ramming speed, but the other ship hails them.  The sleeper ship and its hold is safe and they need to rescue the people on the other ship before claiming Cerulean, the abandoned First planet, for their own. 

            Somewhere along the six-week voyage, Delfinia turned purple again.  But when she and Ben meet for the first time in person, she shifts to a dark blue.  The Amaryllis makes it to the planet and lands on a continent near the equator the size of Europe. 

            The last words I type on the project were on November 30th.  I have 108,981 words.  Real Words.  Christina wins the side bet.  In a text later that night, Christina asks me when I plan to work on the novel again.  I admit that it has to wait until December 20th—Christmas Break—as I have to step back into my real world of studies.



            It’s December 16, 2013 and I thought the beginning writer might be wondering what we do with the 50,000-word manuscripts after we write them.  Some people don’t do anything—they consider it a challenge just for themselves, a lark.  Others edit it and give it to family members as gifts.  A few proof-read, edit, and send it to a Beta reader before reediting and publishing it online.  Some even publish it traditionally.

All good writers write [terrible first drafts].  This is how they end up with good second drafts and terrific third drafts . . . I know some very great writers, writers you love who write beautifully and have made a great deal of money, and not one of them sits down routinely feeling wildly enthusiastic and confident.  Not one of them writes elegant first drafts.  All right, one of them does, but we do not like her very much.  We do not think that she has a rich inner life or that God likes her or can even stand her. (Although when I mentioned this to my priest friend Tom, he said you can safely assume you’ve created God in your own image when it turns out that God hates all the same people you do.  Anne Lamott, Bird by Bird: Some instructions on Writing and Life

Right now the pile of my manuscripts sit in the corner of my room next to my guitar.  They are stacked as high as my bookcase.  I’ve tried self-publishing and editing routes, but realize that I am not ready for publication yet. 

If I tell them they’ll want to be really good right off, and they may not be, but they might be good someday if they just keep the faith and keep practicing.  Anne Lamott, Bird by Bird: Some instructions on Writing and Life

My advice is to listen to the heart—and follow the dream of writing.  Do with it what you want to, but if you are going to publish, make sure you have it critiqued, proofed, edited, and polished before you send it out into the world.  The results depend on the effort a writer puts into the project.  Tell the world in your loudest voice that it doesn’t matter what they think—if you have a novel in you and the willingness to put your fingers to keyboard to create it—be it in one crazy month or in a year or two—do it.  Don’t let the darkness win.  Don’t let the shadows claim your dream without trying.  Reach for your dream.  Only then can you land in the vast empty black and blue reaching for stars.  Take a sleeper ship out to a distant star, have a moment of redemption, and start a new life on a faraway planet.

Write on,


[who is now going to write her CampNaNoWriMo novel.]








About Darlene Reilley

I'm Darlene, a Book Author, Associate Editor and Journalist. I am the author of 16 books including Gliese 667, Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of It, and 1,001 Plots to Get You Started. I'm an Associate Editor and Journalist with more than three years of experience creating content. My work has been published in The Vernal Express, The Uintah Basin Standard, The Basin Nickel Ads, the Harbor Light Newspaper, FFPRWA, Hearts Through History RWA, and DarWrites. Before I became a journalist, I was a freelancer creating content for websites and individuals. I now cover a variety of topics including travel, history, anthropology, business, politics, and current affairs. I am a geek turning jargon into plain speech.
This entry was posted in Adventure, Creative Writing, Romance, Science Fiction, Sock Monkey Writer's Group, Writers, Writing Secrets and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to On Writing a First-Draft Novel

  1. Pingback: Setting Writing Goals: April 2017 | Dar Writes

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s