How Not to Finish a Novel. (Or Contracts Exam.)

Hello . . . is anybody out there?

When last we talked, I’d started NaNoWriMo with two goals: write 1000 words a day and finish my first draft by November 30.

The month of November I powered through 28,389 words and came close to completing the draft.

After a shallow, deep breath on December 1, I revised my goal to finish by year’s end. To do that I felt I only need complete two mandatory scenes.

No sweat.

Well, I’m 7,651 words into the month and haven’t finished the first of those two necessary events.

What’s the problem?

My characters.

Let me explain. Last September I had the treat of helping my friend, author Deborah Mantella, lead a discussion of her debut novel My Sweet Vidalia for her book signing at Foxtale Book Shoppe in Woodstock.


At one point, the discussion turned to obstacles writers face.

I mentioned my need for stillness and how it is the opposite of our world today. Even when sitting, we flip through phones filling our brains with the chatter of news or social media.

Looking to the woman who asked the question I said,

“If I wanted to get to know you, we’d go out for coffee. Spend time talking. To find out what makes you happy or sad — and how through life’s journey you arrived at what makes you happy or sad — I’d take time to listen. That’s the way it is with our characters. We need stillness and time spent writing so they can tell us who they are and how they got there.”


That’s my problem with finishing these last two scenes.

I’ve put a Southern character briefly in Chicago in the 1950s. She’s young; she’s African American. I’m getting to know her, having her tell me what those years were like.

Code for time spent researching and not writing the important scene that comes when she is an adult back in the small Southern town — many years after she lived in Chicago.

I’ve studied on the Great Migration and the history of African Americans moving from the South to places like Chicago, New York and Philadelphia. Her time in Chicago is necessary to move the story but I don’t need to get bogged down researching the history of the Chicago school system and desegregation because she was of school age at that time.

I want to get to know her. I need to get to know her.

But I also want this flippin’ thing finished in 2016. Because it’s year’s end and that would be symbolic. I’m a writer and we live for symbolism like starting edits of a first draft on January one.

Sick bastards we are.

That’s where my first year Contracts final comes in. Way back in my law school days, Contracts was a four hour class (most classes were three hours) and its grade was weighted as such.

There was only one four hour test at the end of the semester with three questions.

Ten minutes before the exam was over, I was reviewing and refining my wonderful answers.  Then I turned a page and saw  . . .

an entire question that I had missed.

HOLY MOTHER OF BATMAN. There were FOUR questions.

Ten minutes left in a four hour exam and I found a question I should have allotted an hour to complete. My brain misfired so I couldn’t read the words.

I looked to my good friend (and great writer) Bob and dared a panicked whisper, “I DIDN’T SEE THE LAST QUESTION.”

Channeling every great drill sergeant in movie history he barked, “OUTLINE. OUTLINE. OUTLINE.”

Which I did.

Got a 73 on the exam which was okay considering my answer for a quarter of the grade was an outline. My law professor understood the basic points of the fully-developed answer I would have written had I taken more time.

I figure the same counts for finishing this draft. Outlining the scenes, leaving a structure to develop when there is more time.

Like January 1.




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7 responses to “How Not to Finish a Novel. (Or Contracts Exam.)”

  1. That sounds like a great plan! Congrats on Nano! I think I wrote 1000 words. Here’s to finishing on goal and developing structure starting January 1! Way to go, Jamie!

    • Jamie Miles says:

      Yes. Here’s to finishing this step. I’m figuring this out the long way around – but hopefully I’m learning how to be more efficient for next book. 🙂

  2. Jane Gassner says:

    NANOWRIMO is just meant to get people writing something, anything. What it got you writing is a novel. With characters. That are real and have history and–wow! part of what you’re doing in writing about them is making those characters real for your readers. How long it takes you to do that is…how long it takes you to do that. If drafting an outline of what you think happens when is a helpful tool, then do it. Otherwise, forget the neatness of deadlines. What you’re about is serious work, and that can’t be rushed.

    • Jamie Miles says:

      I agree. Truly I do Jane. I just want to keep things moving and goals help somewhat. But like I said to Julia, I’m walking the long way around this first go at a novel. Not that I recommend that if someone is naturally more efficient. I’m invested in the lives of these characters and feel an obligation to doing the best I can to tell their story.

  3. jani says:

    Yep. Give it your best shot and don’t fret if every word isn’t on the ‘paper’ by December 31.
    You are amazing!

  4. Miz Yank says:

    Belated Happy New Year, Jamie! “We need stillness and time spent writing so they can tell us who they are and how they got there…” is a terrific observation and the kind of thinking that leads to truly compelling characters. Character-driven books, rather than plot-driven books, are the ones that stay with us. I’m late to the cheerleading party, here, but there’s no doubt you’re gonna finish this. None. And there is no long way or short cut, there’s just whatever way you make work. And you’re doing it!! I’m so impressed, and so not surprised. (Thank you for the great law school story, btw!)



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