Joy and Insomnia, or How to Bring a Novel to Life, Kicking and Screaming

Meg Gardiner

TKZ is thrilled to welcome Edgar Award-winning author Meg Gardiner, whose latest thriller The Nightmare Thief was just released today!

Some writers love first drafts. To them, starting a novel feels like hitting the highway for a summer road trip. They toss the map out the window, crank up the tunes, let their characters take the wheel, and sit back to see where the story goes. To them a first draft means freedom: blue skies, unlimited potential.

I’m not one of those writers.

I love the part before the first draft. Brainstorming is terrific. Brainstorming means flinging ideas at the wall like spaghetti, to see what sticks. And when an idea gets under my skin—stings like a hornet, itches, keeps me up nights—I know I’m on track. I have the fuel that will drive a thriller.

That’s how I felt with The Nightmare Thief. An “urban reality game” goes wrong and traps a group of college
kids in the Sierra Nevada wilderness, fighting for survival along with series heroine Jo Beckett. That idea did it. Yep, brainstorming, and then sketching a synopsis—Jo and the kids are trapped, bad people are closing in on them, and my other series heroine, Evan Delaney, has only hours to find them—that’s fun.

But then I have to actually write the thing. And for me, writing a first draft is like pulling my own teeth with pliers: slow, painful, and messy.

The plot takes form, and it’s fat. The characters sit around a lot, thinking. When they do speak, the dialogue needs spice. Worse, everybody on the page sounds exactly the same and, worst of all, exactly like me. And all those plot twists that were so exciting to sketch (“Evan discovers a deadly betrayal”) stare back at me from the synopsis, going: Well, how?

I cringe. I couldn’t show this stinking mess to my dog, much less my editor, and oh, sweet Lord, I still have three hundred pages to write.

And I need to write them at a rate of 2,000 words a day, because I have a deadline.

That’s when I remind myself:

  1. My critique group has a rule for reading out loud: We all think our rough drafts are crap. It’s stipulated. So don’t waste time quailing that your piece sucks. Just read. Well, the same goes for actually drafting the crap. Just write.
  2. My job does not involve cleaning a deep fryer. I should stop being an ungrateful moaner. Just write.
  3. If I spew all these wondrously awful first-draft words onto the page, they will at least exist. And words that exist can be fixed. Words in my head cannot. Just write.

So I keep going, for months, until I reach the end. Then I run through the house with my fists overhead like Rocky, while the stereo blasts the Foo Fighters’ DOA. “I’m finished, I’m getting you off my chest…”

In the five-stage writing cycle (excitement, delusions of grandeur, panic, compulsive eating, delivery) this is known as the False Ending. Because now it’s time to rewrite.


I can hear some of you shouting, Rewrite? Don’t make me. Stab me with a fondue fork instead. Repeatedly. Please. B
ut I mean it: Joy. As I recently heard Ken Follett explain, revising means making a book better—and who wouldn’t want the chance to make something better?

And, to be serious, I have a method. Tackle the big issues first.

This is a technique I picked up from Sol Stein’s Stein on Writing, and it has turned my editing inside out. It’s saved me months of wasted work. Stein calls it triage: Fix the life-and-death issues in a manuscript first.
  • Is the conflict stark enough?

  • Is the protagonist strong enough?

  • Does he or she face a worthy antagonist?

In other words, when rewriting, don’t simply start at page one and go through the manuscript fixing every problem as you spot it. It’s counterproductive to spend a morning fussing over sentence structure if the entire scene needs to be cut.

So I identify all the triage issues and outline a plan to address them. Then I return to my miserable first draft. I attack those fat, introspective scenes. I build in unexpected twists. I obstruct the protagonist’s path. Throw down impediments that are by turns physical and psychological, accidental and deliberate. Breakdowns. A monkeywrench. A landslide—literal or emotional. I cut endless swaths of verbiage, like so much kudzu. It’s gratifying.

Admittedly, revision isn’t all fun. I’ll wake up worrying that I’ve done insufficient research. Maybe some howlers have slipped through. (Anybody seen Lord of War? An Interpol agent strafes Nicolas Cage from a fighter jet. That kind of howler.) So I hit the reference books, and contact some experts, and revise again. And I have a fail-safe plan: write a rip-roaring story, so that if all else fails readers will miss any mistakes. Put the pedal down and nobody can see the errors as they blast through the novel.

Meanwhile the deadline continues to loom. Eventually I reach the stage known as Revise! Or! Die! It comes down to a cage fight between me and my story. With major revisions on The Nightmare Thief, I’m happy to say I won—which is to say, the story won. The lumpen first draft was flick-knifed into a sharp revision. Or sledgehammered, where necessary.

When I finished, I sent it to my editor and pitched face down on my desk. Then I sprang back up like a jack-in-the-box, thinking of all the changes I still wanted to make. Then I pitched forward on my desk again.

Eventually I sat up, picked off all the paperclips that had stuck to my face, and staggered to bed, where visions of Jo Beckett and Evan Delaney danced in my head. Well, they didn’t dance—they opened a couple of beers, clinked bottles, and put their feet up, waiting to see what I would do to them next.

I love this job.

Meg Gardiner was born in Oklahoma and raised in Santa Barbara, California. She graduated from Stanford University and Stanford law school. She practiced law in Los Angeles and taught writing at the University of California, Santa Barbara. She lives with her family near London. The Nightmare Thief is her ninth novel.

16 thoughts on “Joy and Insomnia, or How to Bring a Novel to Life, Kicking and Screaming

  1. Meg, thanks for dropping by TKZ. The “triage” approach is a terrific tip for tackling rewriting. Thanks for sharing. And I agree with you, this is a great job–making stuff up and getting paid for it.

    Great to see you at T’Fest!

  2. Meg,
    As I rub my bleary eyes open this morning after writing all night, I thank you for this post.

    I draw a deep breath of relief and know that after reading your process I am on track.

    Thank you,


  3. Welcome Meg. I love the triage approach and will now adopt this as I usually enter revisions like a wild, knife wielding psychopath with no clue where to start!

  4. This is great and sage writing advice, thanks for the guidelines. I write a complete synopsis before beginning writing and try to tackle the conflict issues there, but revisions are always needed. Like you said, it’s easier to fix what’s on paper so get the first draft done.

  5. Welcome Meg. Great to have you here at TKZ. Your post was like a trip through my own head. I track completely with you. In fact, I’m in the “cage fight” to the finish right now with a manuscript, and that’s exactly how it feels. The only comfort is knowing we’ve done this before and, somehow, will do it again.

    Great post.

  6. I usually love writing the first draft…if I can get my lazy butt into the chair and my fingers clacking away. Rewriting is pretty fun, too, though…if the “words exist” already, as you said.

    Thanks for the post; it’s good to know that “professional” novelists still struggle with these same issues just like the rest of us. 🙂

  7. Thanks, everybody. I’m glad you find the editing suggestions helpful.

    Jim: is it wrong for me to imagine your man vs. manuscript cage fight taking place while Star Trek battle music plays in the background?

  8. Good stuff!

    Thanks for allowing me to travel with you on your edu-journey through the novel creation process. Engaging, entertaining and instructive.
    Hope to hear from you on this blog in the future.

  9. I absolutely love the triage recommendation, Meg–I frequently make the mistake of getting bogged down editing passages that end up on the cutting room floor. So thanks for this.

  10. This was fantastic! I’m one of those people who loves first drafts until about 30,000 words, then I hate it and the editing of it. And at some point later after it’s been edited and has sat in the dark corners of my C: drive for about a year, I like it again. I love writing!

  11. Due to a technical failure at my day job which consumed a portion of my brain like a rapacious Velociraptor bereft of unguarded Allosaur eggs I failed to make a witty comment in a timely fashion such that it would both fit within the context of other comments and yet be comical.

    inner editor: that sounds too official and dry, spice it up

    Due to server crash that sucked my time and energy like bunch of teens trying enter the Guinness book record for slurping cold lumpy oatmeal through a straw….

    inner editor: that image is kinda gross…and lose the “Due”…it sounds like doo

    My servers crashed and I spent all day fixing them rather than posting comments on The Kill Zone.

    inner editor: uh…wrong direction…getting worse…put the raptor back…they’re cool

    Having my brains sucked out by a pot-baked raptor with the munchies all morning, aka my servers crapped out on me, I was unable to write anything for TKZ that was either intelligent or witty up to this point. Okay well, not even at this point from the look of things.

    inner editor: better…getting there

    Therefore I will simply say that I love drafts…literary drafts as opposed to cold wet winter drafts that put a chill in your bones by simply brushing up against ones already tense skin when sitting in the comfy chair a little to close to the great big old window in the living room that has needed new caulk since 1989…

    inner editor: umm…what are you doing?

    …yes…not like that at all. I love making stuff up on the fly, again not the literal kind because they are far too tiny to write on with any sense of comfort or neat penmanship…although I did see a fly reading once, but that’s quite different …and flies don’t have keyboards… although I did once write on my zipper….but that’s a not the same kind of fly is it.

    inner editor: dude…time to stop…and don’t you dare reference the Jack in Box…I see what’s in your mind, don’t forget I’m in here too!

    I’m going to shut up now and do something non-verbal. Perhaps I will take a walk in the sun, which is very high, and nice, and set in a clear blue sky and not as hot here in Alaska as those parts down south where it is very hot indeed, and people are literally evaporating just by walking out of doors, as in it’s as hot as a……..

    inner editor: On behalf of the producers and management of the Official Basil Sands Entries to the TKZ Comments Section I would hereby like to apologize to anyone who found this comment difficult to understand, follow, enjoy, or laugh with, etc, etc. Also let it be known that this particular type of writing is not now, has not ever been, and never shall be the type that gets by the inner editor department residing in this half of Basil’s brain except for when it actually does get by…which is not very often, except in specific circumstances, with specific characters and only under licensed supervision or when Basil has a bit more Guinness than he ought.

    In other words…

    Well said Meg, very useful way to manage manuscript editing. I look forward to trying the triage method myself.

    inner editor: talk about jumping like a Jack in Box…sometimes this head seems way too crowded.


  12. Huh . . . Basil made me forget what the post was about.

    Oh yeah! How to get paperclips off your face. Cool! Thanks for the advice.

    ::wanders off mumbling about Jack-in-the-boxes::

    PS: awesome! hope they invite you back!

  13. Hey, Meg! Just your description alone makes me glad you write!! Can’t wait to read the book. And, FYI, I just can’t imagine you writing a “miserable” first draft. Sorry. Just. Not. Happening.

    Welcome to TKZ!

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