Drafting a Novel: a 4-Year Journey (So Far)

I’ve said before that I’ve participated in NaNoWriMo several times: 2006-2009, then 2012-2018, “winning” all but twice out of 11 tries. This means I’ve written 9 “NaNovels” – things that resemble novels but aren’t. In my case they’re not even complete first drafts, in that they don’t have a full beginning, middle, and end. But now I’m working hard on editing two of them together, hoping that by the end of October, 2019, I’ll have finished something. This is a brief summary of my journey so far.

This story, currently titled The Late Path, started with a mental image of a scholar-priestess helping a hero defeat a dragon. There were a few other mental images, coming from somewhere in my subconscious, and a few thoughts about how to elaborate on them. This is what usually happens with my stories: I start with a few scenes and have to figure out how to weave the threads together into a whole. I thought this might be weird until I had a the privilege of a 15-minute chat with Nalo Hopkinson on the 2015 Writing Excuses cruise, and she said she worked a little like that, too (although, obviously, with significantlymore skill and success than me!)
In November 2015 I decided I was ready to write the story; my scholar-priestess’ adventures accompanying a succession of heroes, trying to gather information for a dissertation about the role of the hero in popular culture. In December I wrote a brief blog post about it. I planned to edit that into a full story over the next few months, but ran into my usual problem. For most of my life since starting in 2006, I get 50k words in November and near zero for the rest of the year; 2016 was no different. I wrote something newin fall 2016.
Over the months I thought occasionally about that story, and decided I didn’t like the pseudo-medieval setting. I wanted something different, so decided to set it in a magical Bronze Age. I researched a little about Bronze Age culture, and discovered Marija Gimbutas’ since-(mostly)-rejected work on a peaceful Eastern European Bronze Age matriarchal culture invaded by a warlike patriarchal one. I decided that was a good inspiration for a secondary world; the apparent rejection by (mostly male) anthropologists was irrelevant for a fantasy novel.
In 2017 I decided there was a way I could work on the 2015 NaNovel while fitting into the NaNoWriMo straitjacketof 50,000 new words: I realized there were a couple of other viewpoints needed to tell a complete story. I developed two new characters, one a military officer, the original character’s sister, trying to organize their homeland to prepare for the invasion, and the other a civilian from the area facing the initial attacks. I wrote a couple of opening chapters that summer, and workshopped them on the 2017 WXR cruise, then spent November expanding on that start. With about 40,000 usable words from each, after discarding the usual junk I wind up with in NaNovels, I figured that editing the two together during 2018 would make for a reasonable first draft.
2018 was a disaster as I’ve documented elsewhere I did a little editing but picked yet another different topic for NaNoWriMo. But 2019 started off better; after a lesson by Mary Robinette Kowal for her Patreon supporters, I put together an outline, and I’ve been slowly but surely pulling chapters from each source and smoothing over the rough edges in a new document. February and part of March were slow, because of my sister’s health problems, and April (so far) has been tied up with a fascinating Writing The Other online class, plus the Blogging A-Z Challenge But I still feel good about the editing process, and think that I have a reasonable chance to get it done by October.
And that will mean I have finally finished the first draft of a novel. And you know the basic truth about first drafts: The first draft is the worst your novel will ever be.
After that, likely for all of 2020,is pass after pass of edits, each looking for specific things that need to improve. I expect Draft 2 will be looking for overall structural problems, continuity issues I didn’t notice when pulling chapters from two pieces written two years apart. I’ll need to cure my typical first attempt’s tendency towards White Room Syndrome A later draft will have to drill down into dialogue, making sure each character has their own way of speaking that’s different from my usualone. And then, when I’ve improved it as much as I can, I will need to find a few beta readers to tell me where I’ve thrown them out of the story , and start evenmore editing passes.
And when all that is done, I can truly say I’ve written a novel. I have no idea yet whether I’ll try to get it published; that’s a huge effort involving skills I don’t have (yet). However, even if it’s never sold, that’s a major milestone for a beginning writer.

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