Update on My Novel: Month 11

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MARCH STATS

Days Writing: 18
New Words: 5244
New Chapters: 1.75

Total Word-count: 38,857
Total Chapters: 10.75

After getting no novel work done in February it felt very refreshing to dive back into it with March. I had intended to write for 22 days of the month, and only ended up with 18, but overall I would say it was a successful return to form.

Based on my estimates I am now one-third of the way through the draft and I very much feel the sense of being in the middle of my work. During the first chapters I was able to feel my work adding up with each day’s efforts, and I anticipate that towards the end I’ll be able to feel the conclusion looming nearer and nearer. But when you sail from one shore to another, there is inevitably that time in between where you perceive little change at all. You might have moved to a different part of open the ocean, but it still just feels like the same, old open ocean.

That’s why writing my story has to be about the journey, and not just the destination. Each chapter needs to be compelling to write for its own sake, no matter where it leaves me in the overall project. Not only will that make for a better writing experience, but a better reading one as well.

For April I hope to write for 22 days again, we’ll see how that turns out. If I do, I would expect to land about halfway through the twelfth chapter. Come back on May 1st to hear if I managed that or not.

Washed Down the River: Part Two

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Part One

Daley declined the ride from Officer Hales. His conversation with Quincy had got his mind stirred him, and he needed time to muddle out why. So instead he dug his hands into his pockets, turned his feet towards the Gulf of Mexico, and began his slow walk in that direction.

It wasn’t even that he had questions to answer. Indeed, it would have been nice if he could have distilled an intelligible question out of the knot twisting in his mind. There wasn’t anything particular that he wanted to know, he just couldn’t shake the feeling that the entire affair was somehow odd.

Otto had thrown a big party for his friends, and let them all watch as he blasted himself away. He had been uncharacteristically public about the whole thing. It seemed likely that he had intentionally placed himself so that he would fall into the river and be swept away. Even an explanation like Quincy’s–that Otto had just indulged in a single moment of over-the-top drama–still left Daley dissatisfied. That was just another strange thing compounded on top of all the others.

“And he shot himself in the chest,” Daley said out loud as he kicked at a stone. That was unusual, too. Most people wanted to be certain that they would not be left suffering for a long while after they shot themselves, and a shot through the heart was trickier to get right.

Daley had encountered confusion like this before, of course, and he had come to learn what it meant: simply that he did not know enough. It didn’t matter if you were handed important puzzle pieces if the overall picture wasn’t complete enough for you to know what hole they filled.

Thus as he finished his mile’s walk he made his peace with the ambiguity. For now it was enough to embrace the uncertainty, and then wait patiently for more of the details to come trickling in. He smiled as he found that tranquility, then looked up to take in the scene unfolding before him.

The river had continued to run steadily by him all the way to the Gulf. Here it drastically widened, spewing itself into the larger body with a churning froth. In this fringe area the water spun in little whirlpools as all the different currents competed with one another. Then, after they had cancelled one another’s momentum out, the water was sucked by the underlying loop current down the southern arm of Florida, then eastward and into the Atlantic Ocean.

Three boats were lazily drifting around the coast now. Since the suicide was recent, there was still a chance that the body was caught in the churning froth. That was good in that they might snag it before it was lost to the Gulf, but it was bad in that it meant navigating some treacherous, choppy water for the boats.

“Made it, did you?”

Daley looked to his side, down the rocky outcropping that he stood on, and saw Price’s head hovering below.

“Didn’t see you there,” Daley said. “How are things getting along here?”

Price shrugged. “Dragging their nets, as you can see. Haven’t found anything yet so far.”

“Yes, well, it might be a difficult find. Hang on a second, only two of those boats are coast guard. Who’s on the trawler?”

“Some local was nearby, agreed to help us with the search.”

“Why?”

“Why what?”

“Why was he here?”

“Fishing I guess.”

Daley scowled and shook his head. “There isn’t any good fishing here, just look at this place!”

“Gee, I dunno. Maybe its a new boat and he wanted to get the hang of it in choppy water.”

“Hmm, maybe. Just a little strange, anyway.”

“So what if it is? That’s hardly anything worth getting worked up about.”

“No…but then there’s a lot of strange, little things going on.”

“Like what?”

Daley ignored the question. “And each little, strange thing I have the same thought: well that doesn’t really mean anything. But all together it seems like a few too many oddities.”

Price shook his head. “You know what’s odd? You’re wanting to be here for boring body retrieval. What did you call this earlier? A hobby? What kind of hobby gets you somewhere like this?”

“I’m not bored. Why? Are you?”

Price scoffed and pulled a walkie-talkie up to his mouth. “Hey you guys find anything yet?”

Well…we would have told you if we had.

“Yeah, yeah, yeah.”

After another hour of waiting Price and Daley called the men on the boats to ask what they’d like for lunch. Then they drove off to get hamburgers and called the men when it arrived. One of the boats made for the single dock a quarter-mile down the coast, and the two detectives drove down there to join them. They remained on the boats then,  watching from the deck as they continued dragging their nets across an ever-widening circle.

They were nearing the end of the bay, which meant that the water was finally getting steady, and also that it was about to widen out into the bulk of the Gulf. Not a good sign for ever being able to retrieve the body. But then, just as they were getting ready to call it for the day, the second coast guard vessel signaled that they’d found something caught on the rocks at the corner of the bay.

“Yep, that’s a body,” Price observed as the corpse was laid out on the deck. He knelt down and opened the man’s jacket. A large, red stain covered the shirt, but the bullet wound had long since stopped bleeding. It gave Price a clean look at the entry hole. “Looks like a .45 maybe…you didn’t find the gun yet, did you?”

“Yes. He was still holding it in fact.”

“Oh wow! Let me look at that. Colt Commander…. Yep, just one bullet discharged. Hey how about that, Daley? We got it all right here. Nice and tidy for once! Hey…what are you looking for?”

Daley had finished going through the man’s jacket and front pant-pockets, now he was tipping the body sideways so that he could reach the ones in the back.

“Just wondering if he–aha!” He pulled out a thick wad of cash.

Whew! one of the coast guards whistled from the side. It was clearly more than a thousand dollars.

“What, he was going to bribe his way past Saint Peter?” Daley said pointedly to Price, but his companion did not follow. “Oh come on! You really don’t see it yet?”

Price just gave him a bewildered stare, so Daley stood up and took charge. The volunteer searcher had pulled up next to the coast guard boat with his trawler, and in one fluid motion Daley strode to the brink of the two boats and hopped over to the other. He could feel the tension among the coast guards behind him, could see it in the eyes of the volunteer. That was alright, a little tension might help him squeeze out what he needed from the man.

“Hey, I just need a quick word with you,” he said brightly, gripping the boatman firmly under the elbow and steering him towards the trawler’s cabin. “It won’t take a minute.”

“Yeah, but–”

“Just a formality, come on.”

The man was clearly very uneasy about all of this. That was good. That meant he knew something, and Daley was right to have drawn a connection from the money to him. As they rounded the corner Daley let his eyes do a quick appraisal of the man. He and his boat were untidy vessels, but uncharacteristically dressed up for the day. The man had shaved his thick stubble just this morning, evidenced by the tan line on his cheeks, his messy hair was hidden away, just the fringes of it peeking out from under the new ball-cap he had put over it. The boat was uncomfortably empty, like it had been filled with clutter which had recently been hauled away all at once. The man had been expecting company, and either it was someone important…or someone wealthy.

They passed through the doorway and into the small cabin in the middle of the boat. Price was bounding after them, so Daley quickly slammed the door shut and turned the lock, leaving his partner giving him a befuddled look through the window.

“There, no police,” Daley said as he rounded on his prey, “so hopefully you’ll be honest with me.”

“Hey man, I don’t really feel comfortable with this, don’t you think–”

“You were hired to pick up a passenger and smuggle him into another country. Probably Mexico. Just say yes.”

“What?–No!”

Daley winced and pinched the bridge of his nose. “I guess you’re not ready to be honest. What’s your name?”

“Hey man, this isn’t legal, is it? I should have that cop out there arrest you for breaking and entering! Aren’t you a cop yourself?”

“Nope, just a volunteer. Like you. So really you should be open with me. Because while I’m not a cop I do know them and I can get them off your back. I don’t care that you smuggle people, Jones–”

“My name’s Gene!”

“I don’t care that you smuggle people, Gene. I really don’t. What I do care about is that the police don’t get the wrong idea and think that you’re involved with a murder! So help me out, we’re on the same side here.”

“Involved with–what?! Those guys–” he jabbed his finger towards the coast guards “–they told me that guy was a suicide!”

“Yes, to keep you around until they could pin you with some hard evidence.”

The man’s eyes went wide with horror and Daley had to make a special effort not to smile.

“There’s too many suspicious things up at the crime scene,” Daley continued, “and the biggest of them all is a random boat that just happens to hang out where the body turns up.”

“Oh come on, if that man was murdered and I had something to do with it, you think I’d just be hanging around here waiting to get picked up?”

“No, I don’t. That’s what I’m trying to tell you, I think you’re innocent! But I’m not the one that has to be convinced.”

“I didn’t have anything to do with this,” Gene folded his arms and furrowed his brow. “So let the cops take me in if they want, the truth’ll see me through.”

“If you want it that way, sure. But then the truth means telling them why you were really here instead, doesn’t it?” Daley paused to let the weight of that sink in. “And even if you weren’t here for murder, you still don’t want the cops poking into the real reason, now do you?”

Gene remained silent, so Daley continued.

“You got a call, right? Pick some guy up at the mouth of the river, he’ll have a pocketful of cash for you. You just got to get him out of the country and into somewhere else without going through customs?”

“Why are you doing this?”

“Huh?”

Gene paused, weighing his next words carefully. “So…if, theoretically, things really were like how you just described…why are you trying to get me to tell it to you now, rather than to the police down at the office?”

It was a fair question. Gene didn’t want to be conned and he could tell that Daley’s explanation didn’t quite hold up. Daley would have to be a little bit honest with him to win his trust.

“Because, Gene, the police have to operate within a system. And I hate that system. It’s far too slow and far too encumbered. That makes for a lot of uncertainty. So maybe they would question you right now, but maybe they wouldn’t for a few days. Maybe by then the trail’s gone cold. Maybe by then you’ll have thought up a story and you’ll lie to them because they won’t put the right pressure on you. Honestly…maybe they don’t even question you at all. It’s entirely possible that you could sail away today and never hear another word about this again.” He paused and clasped his palms together in front of him. “But if you did that, then a man would have been murdered today and it would never be set right.”

Gene looked down at his feet.

“I don’t think you’re a bad guy, Gene. I really don’t. And I don’t think you want to stop us doing right by that poor sap they just pulled out of the water. His name is Otto, by the way. Don’t know if you knew that. And really, I just want to help Otto out, Gene. I really don’t care one bit about whether you’re a smuggler or not. Just tell me that that man was planning to meet you here, still alive, and that raises enough uncertainty for us to keep this case open. You won’t have to make any official statement, you won’t have to talk to the police. The detective out there is my personal friend and he’ll take my word for it. He’ll bend the rules that much because he just wants what’s right like you and me.”

Gene cleared his throat slowly. “And if he did want to talk to me, it would just be your word against mine.”

“That’s right. And if you changed your story, they’d throw out anything I said as inadmissible.”

“You’re not wearing a wire or anything?”

Daley pulled his shirt up.

Gene exhaled slowly and looked at his feet tapping on the deck. He looked up. “Okay…it’s like you said.”

Part Three
Part Four
Part Five

 

On Monday I spoke of how a story often includes multiple layers, including meta-commentary on its own subject matter. Very often characters will discuss themes on the side, and then playing them out in their own drama. A classic example of this is the conversation between Captain Kirk and Spock in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. The two are debating as to whether no-win scenarios really exist, and what the correct behavior in such a position would be. Unsurprisingly, the action of the movie brings them face to face with that exact quandary.

I have tried to put over the mystery of Otto’s death another layer of mystery, that of Daley’s choice to stop working on the force. We did not see much development of that in this post, that will be further pursued in my next section. For today, though, I decided to try another form of multi-layering with the conversation between Daley and Gene. The conversation here is layered and also interwoven. Daley is telling lies, telling truths, and telling half-truths. He is taking his own perspectives and putting them in the mouth of the police. He is making up false accusations that Gene might be the murderer…but he is expressing a true opinion that someone has played foul.

Gene is obviously lost in the layers. By the end of the conversation he has a bit better idea of what Daley is really about, but still not complete. However the audience has been given enough context (I hope!) to see through the whole rigmarole and understand what Daley is really driving at. It was fun to try and write a layered piece that would be confusing towards a character, but be illuminating towards the reader.

In a recent post I shared a little bit about how storytellers try to obfuscate facts to make their final revelation a surprise to the reader. In my next post I’d like to look at that idea in greater detail, particularly how it is used in murder mysteries. While there I’ll also point out which of these murder mystery tropes I am using in Washed Down the River, and which ones I am not. See you next Monday!

Update on My Novel: Month 10

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FEBRUARY STATS

Days Writing: 0
New Words: 0
New Chapters: 0

Total Word-count: 33,297
Total Chapters: 9

I mentioned last month that my family would be starting February with the birth of our second child, and that I wasn’t sure how much time I would have for writing my story. All of this month I have been on paternity leave, which is a great blessing that I am most grateful for, but having that dramatic shift to my surroundings meant that all consistency went out the window. I find it very demotivating to do projects unless I am able to fit them into a regular schedule, and so I decided to wait until March to get back to my novel. There were odd moments here and there where I could have written, but it would have only depressed me to tease at the story, never being sure when the next writing session could happen.

Anyway, things went perfectly well with the birth, mother and baby are doing wonderfully, and I really enjoyed the extra time with my family. I think it was very good for all of us. But here we are now in March, and tomorrow is my first day back to work and normalcy. I will start back up my goal of at least 30 minutes writing every weekday, for a total of 22 days.

I have missed this writing quite a lot. I did manage to maintain my blogs during February, due to their being more bite-sized, but it just isn’t the same as working through a big, meaty novel. It’s honestly been very encouraging to see that I miss With the Beast so much, rather than feel relieved to have had a break for it. Hopefully I’ll be able to go at it with that much more vigor then! I guess we’ll see when I give my next report on April 1st.

Update on My Novel: Month 9

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JANUARY STATS
Days Writing: 18
New Words: 6,360
New Chapters: 1.5

Total Word-count: 33,297
Total Chapters: 9

January had me writing quite a bit more than in December, so that was nice. Of course my goal was to write for 22 days, and I missed four of them, so not 100% but I’ll take it. I did complete the chapter that I was working on in the middle of in December, as well as write out one more. Chapters 8 began the transition from the first act into the second, and Chapter 9 concluded that switch. It feels very good to have that part down, and be off to new things.

I have now spent three-fourths of a year diligently working on this book. It took a little bit to find my cadence, and I obviously haven’t hit every goal, but I am consistent and dependable overall. At last I really have a sense of confidence that I will complete this story, and that is a very empowering thing to feel. In the past my writing was a fling that would come and go, and I was always frustrated at my inability to finish anything. Now I know that I will get this done, even if there are momentary disruptions….

Speaking of disruptions, let’s take a look at February, shall we? Right now, my wife and I are less than 48 hours from the induction for the birth of our second child.

Hello disruption!

I have no idea what I’ll be accomplishing with this novel during the month of February. I have no idea how whether I’ll even be able to keep up with the regular postings on this blog. But I do know that when we piece back together the new normal for our family, that writing and this story will be an ongoing part of that plan.

So I won’t be making any goals for February, I’ll just get done what I get done, and I’ll give you an update on March 1st for how the month went.

Update on My Novel: Month 8

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DECEMBER STATS
Days Writing: 7
New Words: 1,964
New Chapters: 0.5

Total Word-count: 25,907
Total Chapters: 7.5

Well, I knew that in December I was going to be limited in my work on With the Beast, and perhaps having already made that expectation it became easy to not prioritize it each day. I think I could have accomplished a bit more if I had tried, though just how much I can’t really say.

To be fair, though, it’s not as if I wasn’t writing anything during this month. I am rather proud of how I was able to maintain both this blog, and the spiritual one that I write. After doing those, and all the many other family/holiday activities, I simply found myself sapped of energy to write my novel.

And the section I am working on now definitely requires energy. I am about 25% of the way through the story and coming out of the first main transition. This is the point where we change from the first act into the second, and I am introducing the problems that will shadow the main characters from now until the very end.

Because of the narrative importance of these chapters, I have found myself writing and rewriting each passage over and over. It is slow, but it is progressing. With January I should be able to get myself firmly into the second act, and hopefully the work will pick up more quickly there. Even if it doesn’t though, that’s alright.

For this month my goal is to write during 22 days. I want to finish the chapter that I’m in the middle of, and add at least one more, maybe two. I’ll see how it goes, and will give you an update on February 1st.

Update on My Novel: Month 7

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NOVEMBER STATS
Days Writing: 17
New Words: 6,577
New Chapters: 2

Total Word-count: 23,554
Total Chapters: 7

This was my first full month of new draft-writing material, and it felt great! This month I wrote out two chapters that have only existed in outline-form for years. It was surreal to see them suddenly become so much more full-bodied, and so exhilarating as well!

One element of writing that excites me is how familiar of a place my story has become. When I talk about my explorers in their camp, I feel like I am talking about somewhere that I am very intimately aware of. I have visited there so many times, such that I feel I know it better than many real places. Indeed the image I have for it in my mind is very specific and unchanging.

In these two new chapters I also got to write the first real inflection point of the story, the point where we shift from Act 1 into Act 2, and the real meat of the tale. I feel it might have taken a little long to get to it, its something I might try to cinch up with later passes, but for now I’m just happy to have arrived.

My goal for November was to write for 19 days, I ended up with 17. I expected 7,500 words, I was a thousand less. I did, however, manage to achieve two full chapters, which is exactly what I had hoped. December is going to be a bit different of a month. I am taking a lot of vacation plan, and have a lot of plans taking up those days. I frankly have too much uncertainty to make any sort of reasonable goals. As such I’ll simply write what I write, and then let you know at the start of the new year what it ended up being. See you then!

Update on My Novel: Month 6

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OCTOBER STATS
Days Writing: 20
New Words: 2,671
New Chapters: 1

Total Word-count: 16,533
Total Chapters: 5

Last month I finished correcting my outline, which finally allows me to focus on advancing my first draft. As such, I am going to start these monthly updates with some statistics. I will report how many words and chapters I have added to the draft, and then what the totals for the entire draft are.

Writing 2,671 is quite low for me, I average about 475 words per day. The reason I only wrote that many was because I decided it would help switch back into my draft-writing context by reading through and polishing all four chapters of my previous work. I ended up making some extensive rewrites of those passages, which word-count I did not take the time to record. This process definitely did help me get back into the draft-writing mindset, and those 2,671 words came out pretty smoothly during the last week of the month.

There seem to be two philosophies for how one should write their novel. One is to write everything out from start to finish, and only then go back to the beginning and smooth the entire thing over. The other approach is to draft as you go, writing one chapter, smoothing it out, and only continuing to the next chapter when the first one feels right. There are pros and cons to each, but I’ve decided to take the latter approach. It will slow me down for finishing this first draft, but it will hopefully result in that draft being closer to a publishable quality.

My goal for October was to write for 22 days, I ended up with 20. Not quite on the mark, but not terrible. In November my family is taking a vacation, and so my writing will be a bit limited. I am going to shoot for 19 days in all, though I might only hit 18. I’m hoping to add about 7,500 words in that time. Come back on December 1st to see how it all turns out.

Update on My Novel: Month 5

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On September my goal was to work on my blog every weekday for a half hour, which would result in 20 days throughout the month. I’m pleased to report that for the first time I hit my goal exactly!

My other goal was to finish all of the outlines that I was refactoring, so that moving forward I could focus solely on the first draft of my story. I’m pleased to report that I hit that goal as well! It took 18 of the 20 days to do, but for October I am all clear to just draft. The other two days were spent rereading that draft so that I could back into the feel of it.

I do realize that taking a month just to finish an outline might sound like quite a lot. Though what I call an “outline” is probably a great deal more exhaustive than what most people think of. This outline weighs in at just over 36,000 words, and provides a very clear direction for every scene of the story!

It feels really good to have reached this point. Refactoring is important, but it feels a lot like running-in-place. A lot of energy goes in, but the word-count of your draft doesn’t go up at all. It feels a lot better when day-by-day you see the numbers moving closer to a full-fledged novel.

If I had one piece of advice from all of this it would be to avoid changing gears when writing as much as possible. I went from outlining, to drafting, back to outlining, and then back to drafting again. And at each switch there was an amount of dead time where I had to ask myself “now what was I doing here again?” Especially with something like a novel where maintaining a consistent tone is so important, leaving and coming back again needs to be kept to an absolute minimal!

I’ve always loved the month of October. The Autumn season has such a ponderous magic in the air, it seems to exhale deep story. I’m very excited to work away during this season, and look forward to giving you my next update on November 1st. My goal is to write for at least 22 days during the month. That’s every weekday except one, which I will be on vacation for. I’m not going to make any goal for how many words to write, but I will keep track of how many I do. See you then!

Update on My Novel: Month 4

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For August I said I wanted to work on the blog each day, but at the very least wanted to reach 20 days. When all was said and done, I finished the month with 19. It really hurt to get so close but not quite make it. More positively, though, for the last two-and-a-half weeks I faithfully did my writing on every single weekday.

As I’ve thought things over, trying to work on my story during the weekend just doesn’t work for me. Perhaps it does for some people, but for me it doesn’t. Moving forward I accept that I will only be working on this Monday-Friday and not on holidays. That means for the month of September a “perfect” work-month would be 20 days, and that is going to be my commitment.

Before describing what I accomplished during August, I need to explain a little bit of how I craft a story. I personally like to use three levels of detail for my outlines. The first is just an extremely brief set of bullet points, one for each major arc of the story. It reads a lot like an elevator pitch.

When I have that first layer feeling just right, then I move on to the second. For that I expand each of those arcs and now detail all of their subcomponents. So in the first layer I might say the explorers make a camp out in the wild and test different crops to see which one the island can produce best. In the second layer I add that during this period Clara grows more bold, at least until she breaks her mother’s brooch and becomes weighed down with guilt…etc.

In the third layer I am detailing out all of the individual scenes that will happen. I explain who will be present, what their motivations in that moment are, and what the resolutions will be. After the third layer is complete all that remains is to start writing the actual drafts of the story.

I like this approach, but one issue with having three separate layers is keeping them in sync. Last month I shared how I had remolded the middle of my story after discovering significant structure changes that it needed. That remolding was done on the third, most detailed level, which changed it so drastically that then I could not find how to attach it back to the final act as described by layers 1 and 2.

After struggling for a little bit, I realized that for August’s work I just needed to take this structural overhaul down to layer 1, and rework the ending at that simplest level of detail. Then I percolated those changes up to layer 2, and brought it to completion as well. In August I got both of those done, and also started updating the final act of the third layer. My hope for September is to finish that update, and finally get back to the first draft of my story. I’ll let you know how it turned out one month from now!

Update on My Novel: Month 3

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Wow these months sure go by fast! For July I shifted my commitment to be time-based, specifically I wanted to be working on my novel for a half hour each day. This time around I diligently tracked by progress, and in the end I met my goal 15 out of 31 days. There’s definitely room for improvement, but at least by having the metrics I’ll know whether my consistency is trending up or down now. For August I’m going to maintain a goal of 30 minutes every day, and at the very least I hope to hit 20 days.

So what did I accomplish with July? Well, I wrote at the end of June about a problem I had found in my plot. In the middle of the story I suddenly introduce a dozen new characters whom I never develop in the least. They were meant to only be background characters to the main cast, but I felt their arrival would create an expectation in the reader that they were important. So I decided to remove those characters, but that meant certain other developments had to be changed as well. Those new characters had been going to help the main characters build a large mill and divert a river, monumental tasks that no longer seemed feasible with their absence.

So I took those parts out of the story, and everything else related to them…which turned out to be a lot! I won’t go into all the details, but just one example was that the entire layout of the island where the story takes place had to be reshaped. One change rippled into another, and several scenes and side-plots were chopped off entirely. This, of course, left the story considerably lopsided, and so then I had to go over my entire outline and balance it all out again.

That’s what I spent all of July on. I’ve got about two-thirds of the new outline complete, and I’ll do the rest in August. And honestly? I’m liking this re-crafted story a whole lot better! Turns out that the novel needed far more pruning than I realized, and the whole thing seems a lot tighter and better focused now. I can hardly wait to give you my update in another month!