A Tale of Two Novels

Are you stuck in the middle of writing your first novel and can’t imagine ever writing “the end?”

Maybe writing doesn’t “fit” with your life right now. Or you can’t find the time. Or the confidence.

I understand.

It took me nearly a decade to write my first novel. My second novel took six months.

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Why the difference? Did I take a course that taught me how to write faster? Is there a tip, trick, or 10-step method I can share?

Nope.

I know. You’re not surprised. Those were dumb suggestions. And you’re not dumb. You know as well as anyone what it takes to finish a writing project. You plant your backside in a chair and do the work. Writers write. Right?

Yep.

So, I don’t have a formula or any sure-fire novel writing tips, but I’d like to share my experience with you. So much of what I have learned and continue to learn as a writer is gleaned from authors who take the time to share their knowledge.  Maybe my story will help you.

Context Matters 

During the decade that I  started, stopped, dreamed about, and restarted my first novel, I had five kids, moved three times, and began homeschooling our children. I didn’t have much spare time. (Or sleep.) Any free time I had was usually interrupted so many times it wasn’t truly free. I longed to write that first novel, but for many years it seemed impossible. In the end, it took me a full year to write the first draft, and that was after years of planning, plotting,  outlining, starting, stopping, and beginning again. Did I lose all the distractions when I was writing my second novel? Were there fewer demands on my time?

Yes and no. My children were all older when I began the second novel. They were all out of diapers, able to dress and feed themselves and play alone or together for extended periods of time. For the first time in over a decade, I could work at least a half hour without interruption. If I stayed up late it was usually by choice, and I could sleep later in the morning to make up for it. However, I was still a full-time homeschooling mom of five kids. There were plenty of demands on my time. But, I had learned something about writing and time when I wrote my first novel.

What did I learn?

Every Minute Counts

I had to ditch some fantasies in order to write faster. Dreams like eight hour writing days, or week-long retreats. I will never, in this season of my life, have long stretches of time in which to write. Not consistently anyway. In fact, the only consistent feature of my writing time is that it’s inconsistent. The time I have available changes from week to week, sometimes from day to day. You know what is consistent?

I have time. It may be five minutes. It may be an hour while my kids play in the backyard. It may be five minutes five times throughout the day.  It may be two hours in the morning before everyone else wakes up. It may be thirty minutes at the library while a kid finds books. It may be four hours on a weekend night when I decide to stay up late because I can sleep in the next morning. I have time. I can write a sentence or two in five minutes. And every sentence moves me closer to typing “The End.”

Yes, you’re right. It is often hard to write in erratic spurts. It’s frustrating.

But here’s the truth. I’ve chosen this life, with these priorities. If I want to write, I either do it within the constraints of my personal circumstances or, like I did for many years, I use the constraints of my personal circumstances as an excuse not to write.

I chose to write. I wrote a few minutes one day. I wrote a few hours the next night. I mined my life for precious nuggets of time that I exchanged for words on a page. At the end of six months, all of those minutes added up to the first draft of a new novel. 

I learned another valuable lesson from writing my first novel.

What I Can See Determines Where I Will Go

When I began my first novel I just wanted to write a book. My ideas about what happened after the first draft were a little vague. Oh, I knew it would need editing, an agent, and a publisher, but in the end, I just wanted to finish the novel. And in the end, that’s all I did.

It’s true that I had other priorities and plenty of distractions during the ten years it took to write my first novel. It’s also true that elongating the early planning stages and meandering toward the finish line were natural consequences of limited vision.

In contrast, when I committed to writing my second novel, I started with the furthest end goal I could imagine. I wanted to be a published novelist and publish regularly for as long as I am able. I imagined myself fifteen years in the future with ten to fifteen published books to my credit. Then I worked backward from that point to the present day. I noted the goals I would need to achieve along the way. By the time I  began writing, I had a far different mindset than when I started my first novel. Completing my manuscript was just one step toward a long-term goal. That final destination inspired me to make the most of spare moments and write quickly.

Finally, writing my first novel gave me something I couldn’t get any other way.

Experience Boosts Confidence

Doubt poked and prodded me while I wrote my first novel. Will I really finish? Who do I think I am, a real writer? Other people write novels, not someone like me. Can I do this?

I had never written a novel before. Some days I got stuck and feared I would never get unstuck. Other days I couldn’t type fast enough to keep up with my brain. Some days I struggled to type one sentence. Many days I thought writing was a miserable waste of time. I slogged through to the end for two reasons. I didn’t want to turn forty with this dream unfulfilled, and I wanted to finish telling the story I had started.

Thanks to that experience, when I started my second novel there were several things I knew to be true. First, I can write a novel. Second, some writing days are brilliant, others are miserable, most are somewhere in between. Third, since my work needs revision no matter how well I write, it’s better to write quickly than to write like I can get it perfect the first time.

As for those questions I had while writing my first novel? When I wrote my second novel I had answers. Yes. I will finish. Yes. I am a real writer. (Exhibit A: Me, sitting here writing.) Yes. People like me write novels. People who are older, busier, less educated, better educated, less likely to do so for a variety of reasons have written novels. Yes. I can do this. (Exhibit B: Completed first novel.) Yes. Yes. Yes.

It never once crossed my mind that I wouldn’t finish my second novel. When I take my son to the playground across the street from our house, I don’t doubt that we’ll cross the street. We can’t reach our destination if we don’t cross the street. Similarly, I can’t be a published author if I don’t write a book. There was never any doubt. But I had to slog through the first book to earn that confidence.

If you’re struggling to finish your first novel, bear in mind that it might just be a warm-up for everything that comes afterward.

  • If you haven’t yet done so, clarify your goal. Are you just trying to finish a book, or do you have aspirations beyond writing “the end?”
  • Be honest with yourself about the limitations of your current context so that you can figure out how to work with them.
  • Look for untapped pockets of time to devote to your project.

While there’s no guarantee that subsequent books will be easier to write (sorry!), finishing your first novel will teach you valuable lessons about how you work best and give you the confidence that you have the ability to finish.

What comes after might just be a different story altogether.

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Cure Homesickness: Write a Novel

Two years ago I began writing a story.

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Photo by Negative Space on Pexels.com

We had moved from our home on the central California coast to Virginia, and I was homesick for the mountains, the cool coastal air, the golden evening light–the familiar beauty of our former home. For several months, I used my writing to capture memories of California, fearful that I would forget the sensory details that photographs could not capture. I wrote essays, poems, short stories, and scribbled a lot in my journal.

The plan was to write something longer than a short story, but shorter than a novella.

I even decided to try my hand at a middle-grade story for my children. Our former home with it’s three acres of old farm land, trees made for climbing, a creek, and fog rolling in from the bay each evening was the perfect setting for adventure. It would be a gift for them and a creative exercise for me.  The plan was to write something longer than a short story, but shorter than a novella.

Soon I had a collection of scenes and character sketches, but no vision for a unified story. I put away the pages and turned my attention to other work.

A year and a half later, while reviewing files of unfinished writing projects, I took another look at the patchwork pieces I had written for my kids. I edited a lot. I wrote some more. It was fun, so I continued, one scene at a time, not really sure where I was going.

Then, one day (which is how so many stories start, after all) everything changed.

I was doing something mundane like stirring a pot of chili and I  realized how the entire story would develop. There were plenty of details to fill in, but I understood enough to sketch additional characters and chapter summaries.

This was no longer just a fun story for my kids. I had a new novel to write.

Sixteen chapters later, I’m on track to finish my first draft by the end of June. I have pages of adventure for my kids and a wealth of sensory memories for me. Soon, I’ll have a complete novel for all of us.

Below is an excerpt from the current draft.

It’s one of the original scenes that I wrote two years ago involving a rather strange minor character. In it, four of the five children with whom the story is chiefly concerned meet this unusual woman–who turns out to be their neighbor–early one evening when they are on an urgent mission.


Mrs. Terry had turned her back on them and now faced the field. In the distance, a grey roll of fog crept toward them from the sea.  Birds fluttered in and out of the tall grasses, filling the evening air with their cries. Tiny finches darted, keeping away from the larger birds. Over all, three red-tail hawks circled, climbing, then gliding and banking. Mrs. Terry kept her left hand on her stick while raising her face and her right palm to the skies. In a voice that seemed far too loud and strong for her slight body, she cried out,

Draw a peace over this teeming field–

Wildlife calling, crawling, rising, taking flight.

Blanket this space in quiet, still life

Waiting on breathless wing for summoning.

Later they would all say that they had probably imagined it, but it seemed at that moment as if the noisy field before them did calm, soothed by the funny words of this strange new neighbor.

Kerith felt her face heat as she tried to think of what to say. She felt the weighty expectation of good manners, certain that she must say something polite in response to what this odd little woman had just done. At the very least, she must take charge before one of the younger children broke free of their bewilderment and said what they were thinking. Fortunately for her, Mrs. Terry was happy to continue.

“Well,” she said. She turned her back on the field and faced the low mountains that rimmed the far, western side of their property. There the sun seemed to hesitate on the mountain tops, bathing their house and the land below it in the last lingering rays of soft light.

“The whole world is a great cathedral, far more magnificent than anything man has ever created, don’t you think?” She sighed.  “It’s a wonder anyone bothers.”

She tapped her stick against the asphalt and Kerith expected to see sparks, or smoke, or something fly out from the point of contact. Mrs. Terry shrugged, and smiled at them.

“Well, thank goodness they did, yes? Create things, I mean. Great buildings, music, art. They’re so inspiring, don’t you think? I always want to create something great and beautiful to make other people feel the same way.” She shrugged. “Unfortunately, my creative talents are limited to mediocre knitting and decent cooking.”

But Kerith wanted to shout, “Yes, I know exactly what you mean!” The exquisite evening light made her want to capture something of its beauty. She wanted to run home, pull out a canvas, a sketchpad, paints, pencil–anything–and create.

As usual, though, round-eyed, freckle-faced Zelda was the first to speak. “I have no idea what you’re talking about.”

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How to Write a Novel in Ten Years

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If you’ve read it, you know. (Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com)

 

I recently read a Pulitzer Prize winner that took the writer about a decade to complete. What a coincidence!  My first novel took me nearly ten years to finish. Now, I doubt Anthony Doerr followed my process when he knocked together All the Light We Cannot See, but if you’re looking to write a novel and want to take as long as possible, here are a few tips.

  1. Spend a year or two (or more!) dreaming about writing a novel. It’s very important that you not actually write at this point, unless you write about how much you want to write a novel. Other important activities include fantasizing about any of the following: scoring the highest advance ever paid out to a debut novelist; holding a hardbound copy of your novel in your hand; winning a Nobel Prize; your hometown awarding you the key to the city; adoring fans trampling booksellers to acquire your latest release, etc. It may also help to spend time with other people who “have always wanted to write a book!”
  2. Procrastination by Preparation. There’s so much to do, it’s amazing that anyone ever actually writes a book. First, you should read about writing. Books on craft, genre-specific writing advice, industry magazines, and memoirs can keep you busy for years. Reading blogs about writing is also useful. Write short stories and blog posts to help you “develop your voice.” If you run out of ideas feel free to revisit the first step. Don’t start until you feel ready.
  3. Wait for Validation. Should you really try to write a novel? Isn’t that for real writers? If you hang in there long enough, a spouse, friend, coworker, or your mom may give you permission to call yourself a writer. Then you can start. If you feel ready. (Note: this never actually worked for me.)
  4. Begin without actually writing. Spend as much time as possible researching, world-building, creating character sketches, and plotting. Tell yourself that you’re a planner. Then spend at least a year planning to write.
  5. Allow life events to interfere as much as possible. Have five kids and decide to homeschool them. Obviously, your priorities will shift. Spare time to write will dwindle. Move three times in three years. (I’m having traumatic flashbacks, so I’ll just leave that there.)
  6. Look at the time! Realize that you have been “working” on your first novel for nearly eight years. Mid-life is not as far away as it used to be and you don’t want it to arrive before your novel does.
  7. It’s time to write. Recognize that you have planned, plotted, and sketched this thing to death. There’s nothing left to do but actually write. (Don’t panic. Keep reading.)
  8. Share your dream. Choose someone who doesn’t care if you’re really a writer or not. Choose someone who will cheer you on if you want to be a writer or a world-famous butter sculptor. They’re so supportive, they hold you accountable to your writing plan.
  9. Sit down and write. Oh. It’s hard. Wish you had started this eight years ago. Stop and write a detailed outline for the entire novel because your insecure, rickety train needs rails. This might take a month or two.
  10. Sit down again and write. It’s still hard. Do it anyway. Let your friend hold you accountable. Write some more. Repeat until you finish your first draft less than a year later. It’s pretty awful, but you read Bird by Bird when you were procrastinating six years ago, so you know this is okay.

I can’t guarantee a Pulitzer Prize, but if you follow my plan, you will certainly take many years to complete a novel. If you’re lucky, you’ll learn a few things along the way. Writing your second novel may just be a different story altogether.

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Spring (Finally)

This poem lay dormant for months, seeded in the waning days of autumn, when I wrote Anthem.  Finally, spring is here with “A shout of triumph / An anthem of joy.”


Tight, verdant buds dot the naked limbs laid bare in winter,
and a chartreuse film covers the ground greened in new grass
raised from the teeming dark.

K. Ashby

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What’s So Great About Wuthering Heights?

photo of mountains surrounded by pine trees
Photo by ASHISH SHARMA on Pexels.com

I first read Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights when I was eighteen, more than two decades ago. And, until recently, I’ve never wanted to repeat the experience. My recollection of that initial reading is not pleasant: a winter-dark moor; a disappointed, malevolent lover; a lot of death.

However, when my two eldest children were assigned the novel for school, I began to wonder if a second reading might change my opinion. As a fiction writer, I figured Bronte had plenty to teach me, whether I enjoyed her book or not. Also, I  wanted to know why it’s considered such a great work of literature.  So I read it again, and began to find the answers to my questions within the first few paragraphs.

From the hearty enthusiasm of the narrator to Heathcliff’s glum countenance and his aged servant’s cranky piety, the characters immediately engaged my emotions. As a reader, I was, in turn, curious, amused, wary, and repulsed, all within just a few pages. Character after character was introduced, each as distinctive as the last, and I heartily despised most of them, yet still found myself interested in the resolution of their stories. In fact, my interest held–no matter how I felt about each character–long after the final word was read.

As a reader, I was in turn curious, amused, wary, and repulsed, all within just a few pages.

Yet, Bronte was more than just a clever portraitist. Nearly every principle character suffers and reacts accordingly, changing in appearance, attitudes, and actions. She has wrung from them any contribution they could make to the themes and progression of her story. Yes, there is a background character or two that serve little more than to nudge the plot forward, but considering the depth of more than a half-dozen characters, the insipidity of an occasional minor role is hardly worth mentioning.

As a writer, I found myself wondering if the characters in my current work are as vivid. Would they grip a reader’s attention like Bronte’s cast? Are they really changing as the story progresses, like Heathcliff, Cathy, and Hindley, or are they just propping up the plot? I  recalled equally potent characters from other works and made a note to examine them as well: evil Cathy Ames from East of Eden; despicable Dolores Umbridge from Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix; the virtuous and stalwart heroine of Jane Eyre, by Emily Bronte’s sister, Charlotte.

Bronte’s use of setting is just as skillful as her characterization. Throughout the entire novel, the two divergent homes, and the moor with its similarly contrasting seasons, consistently mirror the struggles of the characters and communicate themes of suffering, hope, and redemption. As a reader, I enjoyed the sensuous details because they did more than supply helpful images.  They complemented the complex characterization, unifying the whole story.

As a writer, I marveled that Bronte endowed her setting with as much emotional heft as her characters. I realized that I too often use setting as a frame for my narrative–a pretty but simple bit of orientation for the reader. 

Throughout the entire novel, the two divergent homes, and the moor with its similarly contrasting seasons, consistently mirror the struggles of the characters and communicate themes of suffering, hope, and redemption.

I’ll risk the accusation of hubris to venture one criticism. Bronte’s narrative technique was sometimes distracting. She uses a first-person narrator to relate the story, but he reports most of the narrative as it is told to him (in first-person) by another character, who at times relates to him what has been told to her by several other characters, both in person and by letter. (Yes, it was rather confusing.) More than once I had to look back a page or two in order to remember which character had taken over the first-person voice. As I writer, I think I would look for an alternative way to overcome the limits of first-person narration or choose a different perspective altogether.

In the end, Bronte won me over completely. Her settings are masterful and communicate nearly as much to the reader as the characters. That is significant indeed because even the most disinterested of readers will not remain impassive when encountering her characters. A reader may groan, laugh, despair, exult, or throw down the book in disgust, but they will respond. As a writer, I couldn’t ask for more.

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Wuthering Heights is FREE for your e-reading device or app:
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Holy Week: Hope and Resurrection

How does the hard and frigid soil,
packed from winter’s brutal toil,
think that spring will ever show–
unfurl above, thread below?

What tiny hope stirs in the deep
to resurrection’s vigil keep?
What life beneath is waiting there–
renewal’s meat, drink, and air?

It’s Adam’s dust, from Adam shaken,
soil to flesh, the flesh then taken
back to earth for life above–
warmed, reborn by perfect love.

K. Ashby

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Previously:
Holy Week: Nature Tells the Truth
Holy Week: Perfect Love

Jacksie & Zelda

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Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

A few weeks ago, I sat with my youngest daughter in a doctor’s waiting room. She had forgotten to bring a book and was bored. Very bored, and very restless. I pulled a pen and notebook from my purse and suggested we write a story together.  We made it through the opening scene before we were called back for our appointment. Later, I finished off the story for her Christmas present, an homage to our favorite make-believe land, Narnia.


In a soft blanket of new-fallen snow, two sets of footprints coursed side-by-side over a meadow and disappeared into the shadows of a forest. One set of prints was larger than the other. They were broad, deep, and tipped with the tell-tale marks of a bear walking upright on its hind legs. The second set of prints was much smaller. They were made by snow boots weighed down by no more than a young girl.

The bear and the girl walked hand-in-paw, deeper into the forest, which was not as dark as it seemed when one looked at it from the meadow. The trees were bare. Cold, white sunlight picked its way through empty limbs and lit the forest like a lace-curtained room at midday.

“Jacksie,” the little girl, whose name was Zelda, stopped suddenly, “are you sure you know the way?”

The bear turned his great shaggy head down toward the girl. His eyes were as dark and shiny as his glossy fur. When he spoke, his voice rumbled up from so deep within him the girl thought it must start in his massive, fur-covered belly.

“I know the way.” Then, having compassion for her eagerness and her fear of disappointment, he added, “It is all true. I have seen it many times, and I can find it in any season.”

Still, she did not move. Her freckled face was tilted toward him, though she kept her eyes on the way ahead.

“Are you the only one who knows the way?”

He was silent for a moment.

“Some others do. But not every bear that walks on his back legs and speaks in a friendly manner does know. Some would willingly take your hand and lead you a different way, one they think is better.”

“Do the foxes know? The squirrel we just saw?”

His laugh rumbled up like his voice. “Some. Some do.”

“What about the trees? Do they know?”

“Yes,” he said, solemn. “But they’re not allowed to tell you.”

“Why not?” She looked at the trees as if she pitied them, stripped clean of their summer beauty and not allowed to share what she was sure must be their greatest secret.

“Well, we each have our part, and telling is not for the trees.”

He continued walking, and she grasped his paw tighter, scurrying to catch up to his lumbering strides.

“What about you?” Her long dark curls bounced into her face as she looked up at him. “What’s your part?”

“I simply show the way to anyone who asks.”

“But what about the trees? What part can they have if they know, but are kept silent?”

“Little one!” This time his laugh was nearly a roar, and bits of snow fell in little clumps from the trees. “These are questions too great for such a little mind, surely.”

He looked down at her and noted the set mouth, her eyes fixed on his face.

“Ahem. Well, it’s a fair, honest question, and it deserves a fair, honest answer.” Pausing briefly to sniff the air, he then gestured to the right to indicate a change in direction. “It’s true the trees know and don’t speak. Their charge is to stand.”

“That’s it?”

He did not have to see her face to know that she was disappointed.

“Yes, little one. That is exactly it. They stand, and because they do, we can always find what we’re looking for.”

They walked in silence after that, the girl stepping twice as many times to keep pace with her guide. Their feet shushed through the snow. Every now and then, the girl looked hard into the distance, looking for the forest to open again, hoping for a hint of what she longed to see.

“Here now, this way.” The bear turned sharply left then immediately began ascending a small hill.

          When they reached the top, they both stilled and looked down. Jacksie stayed quiet, his breath blowing gentle clouds about his head. Zelda squeezed his paw with both small hands.

         “I knew it was here,” she whispered.

Below them, a clearing in the trees lay still and quiet beneath a pure white covering. On the opposite side of the clearing, against a backdrop of fragrant evergreens, stood a lamp post as bare and black as the winter trees behind Zelda. The lamp cast a pool of warm golden light upon the snow. And away from the lamp post marched two sets of footprints made by a young girl’s sturdy shoes and the delicate hoof prints of a woodland faun.


K. Ashby

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