Three Lessons I Learned While Writing a Novel First Draft

So the retreat to the Mojave Desert paid off, and I’ve now officially completed the first draft of my novel-in-progress. I started outlining the story this summer, and it has evolved significantly from first doodles to 110,000-word draft. As a published author and professional writer, I know the most important step is yet to come: REVISION. But let me take a moment and reflect on three indispensible indulgences I allowed my muse while writing this first draft:

  1. IMG_0161
    Taken November 13, 2018, in Joshua Tree National Park, California.

    Dedicated time to my creative side. So yes, a few days in a motel outside of Joshua Tree National Park clearly helped me get to the finish line; away from the distractions of work, family and home, all I could do was hike or write, and I’m kind of a wussy hiker. But throughout this process I’ve sought to carve out dedicated time to be creative. Sometimes it was generative, such as writing a new scene. Other times I performed revisions that I just had to make before moving forward. And still other times I allowed myself to noodle on the plot, on characters, on tone and voice, and just write notes to myself. Longtime readers of the blog know I’m a morning writer, so I’ve tried to steal an hour or so each weekday morning and a bit more on weekends. But life happens, and I’ve had to skip some days (even a week). The key was to know those were aberrations, and I’d return to my muse as soon as I could.

  2. An open mind on plot, characters, and voice. So much evolved in this story from my first conceptions five or six months ago. They include: a) The antagonist being replaced midway through the book by an even worse a**hole who showed up out of nowhere and gave the book a real kick in the pants. b) Significant changes in character back stories and motivation (my protagonist was married when I conceived the book, now he’s not). c) A major shift in POV and voice, where I allowed myself to slip into more characters’ heads and let the narrator’s voice become more prominent, which expedited storytelling and allowed for a fresher, more humorous tone (a la one of my idols, Neil Gaiman). If I had stuck with what I started with, I might not have made it to the end, because I would have lost interest. These changes have all given the manuscript life I didn’t know it would have.
  3. IMG_0137
    Barker Dam, Joshua Tree National Park. Taken November 13, 2018.

    An open mind on genre. As I blogged recently, I hate the artificial constraints the publishing industry gives us regarding genre. When I first started writing this novel–which takes place in the present, largely in our world but in part in another world–I asked creative writers on Reddit to help me determine my genre, and I was told “urban fantasy.” As I’ve continued writing the book, however, I’ve read a few urban fantasy novels. I’ve enjoyed them, but there’s a problem; my book has no vampires, no demons, no fairies, and (this is really important) no magic. Instead, my book has aliens and another planet. It’s set in the present, however, so that seems a departure from most science fiction. And it’s not a science tech thriller, involving AI or gene splicing. So I guess if the genre existed, I’d call it “urban science fiction,” which at least some online believes should be a genre. All I know is, part of the book takes place in our contemporary world and another part on a dystopian alien planet. You know what, that worked for Madeleine L’Engle with A Wrinkle In Time, so I guess it will work for me.

Oh, in case you’re curious, I am looking forward to the revision process (my muse is already shouting things she wants to do to the book), but I’m giving myself a little breather right now. One thing I’ve learned after thirty years of writing is that it can be very helpful to step away from your work and come back with fresh eyes. In the meantime, I’ve got some more science fiction to read.

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