Birthing an Elephant, or Finishing a Draft of My First Novel

My new baby.

Update: Done! A complete draft with as much love, research, drama and craft as I could squeeze in–or out. I spent so much time with my characters that when I had to kill one off I slipped into a state of grief. Then I realized yet another chapter was a wrap and felt better. Being so inside the story for that many hours a day was excruciatingly exciting, like an ongoing hallucination.

Full disclosure: I missed my deadline by two days and did wear the Cone of Shame but the reduced range of vision helped me from getting distracted and possibly chewing off a limb in frustration–an advantage a vet would have pointed out to me. I pretty much didn’t leave my writing room (aka pen) until I typed the last word, so it didn’t matter any way.

Next: More sleep, less chocolate, more showers, less coffee, more playing with my kids, less whining about the book.


As of this writing, I have 12 days, 9 hours and 42 minutes left to push out the mother of all drafts of my first novel. I have a deadline I imposed upon myself and told everyone about—even you—so that I have no choice to finish it or wear the CONE OF SHAME.  (See item 6 below for more on my convoluted but, I think, effective logic on how to trick yourself into doing what’s good for you even when it feels bad and, yes, even ridiculous.)

Sharing what I now know about birthing a book while counting my breaths (or pages) is not perhaps the best use of my time, but in the 17 minutes between contractions, I’ll share a few manic observations you won’t find in What to Expect When You Are Expecting Your Novel:

1. Post-Its are your friend and your enemy.  (See below photo of my study wall.)

2. Bathing is a privilege not a right.  If you don’t shower in the morning, you can make it a reward for getting in a few more hours (or days) work.

3. Don’t read all the beautiful passages, chapters or characters you have to cut and kill off in your quest to find “the heart of your story.”  It will bring on crying jags, and you’ll lose precious writing time.

4. As for your garden: What garden?

5. As for your children: What children?

6. Answer no calls or emails before you finish another chapter. I have no internet in my study right now.  It can be done.  You can booby trap your own dang self.  When a friend of mine quit smoking (note I did not say tried to quit smoking), she used this method: She put three cigarettes in a paper lunch sack. She wrote an elaborately timed system for when she could have her next cigarette, which she put into another paper sack.  She bought a pack of gum to get her through the in between times, and she put that in a third paper sack.  She kept a system for when she could chew the gum in another paper sack.  There were more paper bags she carried around, one probably holding a master schedule for all the bags.  Okay, I’ve forgotten what the goal was?  Oh yeah, staying off the internet.*

7. Do whatever it takes to stay in the chair.  I’ve never been able to write while listening to music until now.  I’ve never been able to write while holding my pee until now.  I’ve never been able to make it a whole morning on three almonds and tepid coffee made the day before until now.   I have a dear friend who tied herself to a chair when writing papers in graduate school (you know who you are) and I used to find that a little disturbing until now.**

8. More last minute research?  Oh no you don’t.

9. There are passages in this draft that a monkey could write better, a blindfolded, drunk monkey, and yet oddly enough I find these places in the book provide me with a whole new sense of beauty and, best of all, they often come near the end of a chapter, which means I can call it good enough and start on another chapter. (Screw “art” and the arty artful artists who taught me otherwise).

Plot points in Post-Its.

10. Give up all sense of control beyond the systems you already have in place.  Example: rearranging your post-it notes at the last minute is note a good idea. (See item #1)

11. Exhaustion is not a bad thing.  At some point on your eighth day in the eighth hour, when you have given up all punctuation, when your characters are either a) actually now sitting in the room  talking to you or b) cartoons on the level of Scooby Doo, your inhibitions will be so far gone that your story will move you, the whole notion of storytelling will be an utter gas, and you will have reached a state along the lines of nirvana or enlightenment. At the least you will have a clear clean sense that this baby is coming, one way or another, perfect or not.  The fantasy of what you’d hoped it would be will be supplanted completely by what you are capable of and you won’t care the two won’t match because you’ll be done.

12. Time’s up.   Back to work.  No catchy ending here.  I’m saving that for the novel.

*When I do check my email, I always hope I will find a full, polished draft of my book attached to a message I’ve sent myself.  I should probably see a therapist about this delusion, but by the time I will manage to make the appointment, I will have sent myself the real book.  (See above on desperate logic that gets it done.)

**There are a number of images of being bound showing up in this draft of the book.  I’d elaborate on that, but I’m a bit tied up at the moment.

4 thoughts on “Birthing an Elephant, or Finishing a Draft of My First Novel

  1. OMG. I laughed water through my nose. Glad it wasn’t hot tea!
    I’m dying to read this book, as you well know. So have your husband secure your bounds, cover yourself in sticky notes, and press that nose back on the grindstone!

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