My Dissertation’s Final Stretch: Writing Against the Clock


Hi readers. Can I give you an update about my novel / dissertation and the rapidly approaching deadline?

Last week, I finished for the first time ever a draft of the middle section of my novel. It was an amazing feeling. I had never been able to complete it before — the novel’s first draft simply had a hole in the middle. 

It took removing two major characters from the novel (on the advice of my dissertation director) before I could fix that problem.

I wrote about the lessons I learned from the re-write: The Danger of Half-Round Characters.

That was last week. It was a great moment. However, although I was now 95k words into the re-write, I still had the third and final section left to re-do. I still had another 35-40k words left, and because the character I had removed was the main antagonist of the book’s finale, I needed to come up with a completely new ending. I had basically removed my novel’s main villain! 

So the ending would have to be entirely new, while also fitting the thematic and dramatic questions the novel had raised from the first page.

However, I had very little time left. I had to send the final manuscript to my committee at the end of this month (May), by the latest, so they could read, respond, and I could “defend” at the end of June.

So the sensible thing to do would be to send them only what I had revised of the book, and take a rest until June. After all, at 95,000 words, my novel was likely much longer than the typical novel project submitted to PhD dissertation committees (my novel is a work of historical fiction, and so I feel relaxed about the book being longer than the average literary novel — that’s just the genre I’m working in). 

I had already written enough, there was very little time left, and I also still had to write a polished 20-page scholarly essay to accompany my novel.

I just didn’t like that idea. I wanted to finish. 

And then, on Saturday, after Knoxville’s biscuit festival and a trip to see Captain America 3, I rested in bed and the new ending I had been vaguely picturing came into clear, sequenced view. The themes of the ending were the same as in the first draft, but the tone, pace, and the cast of characters were quite different. I am still startled at myself for coming up with it. I think it’s going to be awesome, although I am nervous.

On Sunday morning, I sat down at a local coffee shop and planned out the revised story. I emailed my director, Michael Knight, and nervously said that if he was willing to risk it, I would hand in the entire novel — by the end of this month. 

The committee has bravely agreed with this plan.

Since then, I have revised more than half the section — 27,000 words. I am only 13,000 words from completing the entire novel, and right now the going feels very good indeed.

I have no idea if my newly conceived ending will work, but I am going to give it a try. With luck, I will have a completely revised draft by the end of next week.

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