The Twelve (No, Eight) (Scratch That, Nine) Days of Christmas

by JT Ellison

On the first day of Christmas, I wrote furiously… 2148 new words.

One the second day of Christmas, I wrote furiously…rewrote 2148 words, and wrote 2741 new words.

On the third day of Christmas, I wrote furiously… rewrote 2741 words, and wrote 4817 new words.

On the fourth day of Christmas, I wrote furiously… rewrote 4817 words, and wrote 4236 new words, which equaled the end of the first draft. Much celebration ensued.

On the fifth day of Christmas, I wrote furiously… rewrote 4236 words, and wrote 2044 new words.

On the sixth day of Christmas, I wrote furiously… rewrote 2044 words, and wrote 2872 new words.

On the seventh day of Christmas, I didn’t write furiously… rewrote 2872 words, which added 479 new words, before having an ocular migraine which I was convinced was a stroke, dragged my husband out of a meeting to take me to the eye doctor because I was afraid to drive, who told me this was a most common experience, and checked my prescription, which hasn’t changed in over six years, wahoo!, to which I responded with an Ativan and subsequent glasses of wine at a holiday party, where good cheer was in abundance and I got to thank my lucky stars that it was simply an ocular migraine and not a serious issue, then ate chicken tenders and went to sleep.

On the eight day of Christmas, I got back down to work… wrote 2829 new words and declared the second draft finished, so I printed the bitch out.

On the ninth day of Christmas, I looked back on the work of the past eight days and felt slightly faint. Knowing a stroke was out of the cards, at least for now, I put all my research away in the book’s box, thought about what I wanted to write next, got a latte from Starbucks, wrote this post, and dove into the big revision.

Is Christmas over yet?

So you don’t have to do the math, that mess above represented 22176 new words in eight days on my newest book. That averages to 2272 new words a day. It was a two steps back three steps forward process. Each day, I’d read through what I wrote the day before, get caught up, then write new words. So I effectively edited the mess whilst writing it, something I rarely do to this extent. The book is now due December 22, thanks to a tiny extension, but will probably get submitted December 13, which might mean that my editor and I don’t have to work over Christmas vacation. Which would be a Good Thing.

I’ve talked about writer’s block here before, the fact that I believe it’s your story’s way of telling you you’re going in the wrong direction. Well, I had a whopping, massive case of block on this book. I’ve never experienced anything like this. I’m betting it’s similar to what many writers experience on their second novel, that soul sucking fear that the world is going to swallow you whole and you will never, ever produce anything that remotely resembled a finished novel, much less anything that real people would want to read, much less pay actual money to read, and you’re the worst writer in the world, with no discipline, and you can’t remember exactly how you wrote the first book, because looking back, you think you must have entered a fugue state and the gremlins in your brain exited, stage right, onto the page and when you woke each morning they appeared as tiny little black scratches on a white background which most of the world’s people have been exposed to because in Europe learning English is mandatory but to you it looks like Cyrillic, which sends you into new waves of spasm because seriously, the whole world can read this but it makes no sense to you.


I am not a perfect creature. As much as I’d like to be, I’m just not. And this book proved it to me, over and over and over again. It humbled me. It refused to work. As always, I like to challenge myself by writing in new forms, new subgenres, new locales. This book is mostly set in Scotland, and is a gothic suspense. Which, and I know, poor me, necessitated two trips to get the research right, one in July and another just before Thanksgiving. I had such grand plans when we booked the second trip—I’d have the draft complete, and I’d just be filling in the blanks. But the muse is a fickle wench sometimes, and she had other plans for me.

The book wouldn’t work.

No matter what I tried, it just wouldn’t. I talked before about how I was going to write the whole book in Scrivener. After outlining (which I’m convinced didn’t help things at all, but instead made them ten times harder) 30,000 words in I had to switch back to Word. Things started moving along again then, but I got stuck. I was writing words, adding to the page count daily, but it was crap. True, absolutely crap. I don’t normally write like that, but I knew I had to get through it. I went back to the beginning twice and started fresh. Suddenly, it was October, my fifth book came out, and I all stopped to do the promotion (because I suck at creating and promoting at the same time), and then in a blink of an eye, it was November 1. The beginning of NaNoWriMo. And I knew if I had any chance at making the deadline, I needed to figure this out.


Urquhart Castle, Loch Ness

So three weeks in, past the midpoint but not much further, we headed for Scotland for a week. Thank God we did, I had all sorts of things wrong. So when we returned, after a day off for Thanksgiving, I dove back in, thinking it was all going to come together.

It didn’t.

It was Sunday night, November 28, at about ten. I had been banging my head against the wall all weekend. Big word counts, the story was progressing, but I could feel, in my soul, that something was wrong. And that’s when I put on my headphones and dove into the soundtrack, trying to figure out why I’d put each song in, what it meant to me, to the story. I got to the end of the soundtrack when I heard it. A late addition. The song that had been so incredibly seminal in helping me figure out the end of the book. (And I can’t tell you what it is because it will ruin the story.) As I listened, I realized the massive, huge, ginormous mistake I’d made. All the way back on page 60. It hit me like a ton of bricks. A revelation. A lightbulb.


Monday morning the 29th I went back to the beginning. The very first page. I rewrote 175 pages that day, rewrote the next 70 the 30th. I added nearly 11,000 words. And suddenly, there it was, in all its glory. The story finally, after 4 months of head banging, worked.

Hence the massive word dump that led to the finishing line, which isn’t rare for me, I usually write a substantial chunk of the book in the last few weeks.

Writing Secret #859 – Sometimes, when a book isn’t working, you must open yourself to the universe, drop your preconceived notions of what you’re trying to do, and let something magical happen.

Some of you saw this on Facebook. I put it up at the end of the day Tuesday. I feel like I was given a gift, that all the praying and moaning and teeth gnashing finally paid off, and the Muse, who is a fickle wench, but can be a really lovely woman if treated properly, given gifts and sacrifices and not cursed but nurtured and loved, tiptoed down from her mount on high and touched me on the shoulder.

The Muse Collection

There are just housekeeping details to take care of now – I’m reading through for my first major revision, will send to my betas today, will take a day off to buy Christmas presents and send cards, then buckle back down with their suggestions before sending it to New York Monday or Tuesday. Ahead of the revised schedule.

By the way, the new book? It’s called WHERE ALL THE DEAD LIE.

So my question for you today: Have you ever prayed for something that was subsequently delivered? What blessings have you experienced this week?

Wine of the Week: Bivio Tuscan Red, a DOCG Chianti, because we drank a lot of it Tuesday night at the Dutch Lunch Literati Christmas Party, and I think the grapes might have naturally occurring Ecstasy in them, because it made me love everyone, so, so much.

43 thoughts on “The Twelve (No, Eight) (Scratch That, Nine) Days of Christmas

  1. PK the Bookeemonster

    Wow, what a roller coaster. Sometimes the more struggle involved, the bigger the reward — or at least the appreciation of it. Good thing a holiday is right around the corner, you deserve it.
    I experience small miracles but they add up to acknowledging life is wonderful if you allow it.

  2. Grace

    Thank you for this post! It must have been hell for you but you didn`t give up and came out on the other side. Sharing your struggle is a real godsend, especially for me, an unpublished writer. I threaten to give up and give in time after time but haven`t yet. With this post, I have the courage to keep on writing.

  3. billie

    I'm glad you stuck with the process and got to the magic! I have similar issues, but, and this probably goes against all the writing rules that speak to the ego of the writer, but it's true for me: I don't consider or refer to any of the writing I do as "crap." I look at it as "discovery" or the layers of earth one digs through when looking for artifacts or treasure. It's simply Part of the Process – not anything more or less.

    Crazier still, I love this part of the writing. (granted I'm not under deadlines per se, so I realize that adds pressure and stress) However, the reason I love it is because I've done it enough times to trust completely that that magic revelation will happen at some point – and for me, writing toward that, thinking about that, and letting my unconscious help me out with that are all part of the wonder of writing a book.

    I think I end up combining spiritual practice with writing.

    This week I glanced out my window to see my entire equine herd gathered in a group outside my window. We're having very cold weather for this time of year, and their coats were all puffed up to keep them warm. Salina, our senior mare, was standing in front. All the boys were flanking her, protecting her from behind. She has only one eye and arthritic knees, so I appreciate that they do this for her.

    The two big horses were lying down side by side. The pony and one donkey were on either side of them, facing in so that each was keeping watch in a different direction. The youngest donkey was like a satellite guardian – he was managing the entire perimeter. I don't know why but it made me so happy to see this little scene. That I get to live with these animals is blessing enough, but to be home and able to observe their herd behavior, for them to set up outside my window, is an even bigger blessing.

    That I can write about this also means my family are healthy and that other things are good, so I am really grateful that when I get to the work of writing, there is nothing nagging at me. I can just jump in the stream of the process and flow along with it.

    Hope you have a wonderful holiday, JT. I always enjoy your posts – you engage totally with each one and I look forward to your Fridays here.

  4. Zoë Sharp

    Wow, JT

    Once again, I'm in awe of your dedication and output. I usually know that when the book is just not moving, it means I'm trying to shove it in the wrong direction and it's digging its heels in.

    I'd be very tickled to hear what misconceptions you had about Scotland, though…

    And did you manage to bag any haggis when you were there? I believe it was right at the end of the haggis-shooting season, but there may have been a few rogue ones still roaming the hills?

  5. MJ

    Well, earlier this year I was pushing and pushing on one group of contacts for a chance to teach law school – and got a much better offer (that came to me – I didn't go to it) from another, unrelated school. Almost no money but I have a full time job and what came will be good for a lot of career and personal development reasons.

    I have been WAY blocked for a lot of the reasons you touch on for some time, but went to a local library over Thanksgiving (a very nice 1920s one in a ritzy part of town that was the center of local wealth for years). Sitting in the little "state history reading room" with its wood paneling and art tile fireplace and portrait of the library's founder, I started looking at local history and earliest French/Indian local legend books, and realized how much material I have – and unblocked and started writing up a storm. So, thank you Universe and thank you Martha the library founder (who was watching me from over the fireplace).

  6. Louise Ure

    Wow, indeed, JT. Congratulations on pulling it all together … yet another time.

    But what impresses me almost as much is the fact that you can do your Christmas shopping and cards in only one day!

  7. JT Ellison

    PK, you're right, there is a level of satisfaction, but mostly it's just plain and simple relief that the book actually came together. It was a scary road for a while : ) And I agree, life is such a blessing, letting it unfold gracefully is highly underrated.

    Grace, i think it's important that new writers understand that it isn't all roses and chocolate once you sign that first publishing deal. It gets harder instead of easier. I'd heard that many times but didn't believe it until the past couple of books kicked my butt. The only thing to do is maintain the discipline of writing, and believing that things will work themselves out. it's a confidence issue as much as anything..

  8. JT Ellison

    Billie, it's funny that you mention the "crap" issue. I never, ever, EVER, throw any of my writing out. I believe it's gone onto the page for a reason, and I have to find a way to work with it. Which is where being a Taurus has it's drawbacks, because sometimes, it should get thrown out. But I can't bring myself to, so I write around it, up to it, backwards toward it, until I find a way to make it work. So when I say that it was crap, that's what I meant – outside the flow of the story, creating a nightmare for me, but still there, on the page.

    I really should learn how to use the delete key.

    Combining spiritual practice with writing is vital, truly. You must pour yourself onto the page, slit that vein, and get the satisfaction and succor from the work, otherwise, what's the point?

    I love the visual of your herd. They're precious.

  9. JT Ellison

    Zoë, I nearly had a haggis bridie, but I couldn't do it. Just couldn't do it. But the biggest issue I had was the colors. I'd assumed it got dead and brown int he winter like we do, but no, it was gloriously lush and green. All the rain. And that changes the "look" of the book tremendously. At least until the snow.

    MJ, that's the single best thing to do if you're stuck – go somewhere else to work. I'm waiting for the Schermerhorn Symphony Hall to reopen, that place just fills me with the spirit for some reason. Not just the concerts, the building itself. It was damage dint he flood, we were actually there the last night it was open. It reopens Dec 31 – I can't wait!

  10. JT Ellison

    Louise, I actually sat down and did my shopping last night. I knew what I was getting everyone, and from where, so it went quickly. I do pre-planning to make life easier ; ) The cards are another matter – they will take a while. I can't bring myself to not send a little note in each.

    Dusty, I did sprinkle fairy dust on this post so all who read will have a bit of magic sent their way today!

  11. toni mcgee causey

    Yeah, I'm with Louise on being impressed with that Christmas shopping / card / one day thing. 😀

    And am gobsmacked at the output of words and so glad you had the epiphany. I've had those and when you get them, it's almost like a 2 x 4 to the back of the head, it's so stunning.

  12. Zoë Sharp

    Hi JT

    We've had a bit of a thaw here and the grass that's reappeared from under the snow is looking very dead and brownish. Still, we're forecast more snow next week – that should hide it all again for a while ;-]

  13. Alafair Burke

    I am going to steal Toni's choice of words – I am gobsmacked, your progress is indeed stunning. Congratulations.

  14. billie

    JT, funny – I don't save things when I edit – will happily delete many pages in a single click if I'm in revision mode and realize they aren't working – mainly b/c I don't want to try to keep track of what draft is what – I have one draft that keeps getting edited until it is the final draft, and that's that.

    All those earlier written pages get me to the end, though, so they were valuable and did their job.

    You are so good at looking at your process and making it work for you. Thank you for sharing it here!

  15. Debbie

    When I dump content, it goes into a file with the 'booksworking title-edit' as the doc name just in case. Seems to me I need something five minutes after I donate it or the garbage collector dumps it in the truck. With that experience guiding me, and knowing I can't just pick up the identical idea' and phrasing at the store, I save.
    Questions about answered prayers and blessings…one of the greatest blessings in my life to date, is the opportunity to support another's family (through prayer and dialogue, since we live to far apart for me to help in another capacity(. It's helped me keep perspective and is personally supportive because I realize I'm not alone out there. Whatever you're (I'm) going through, somebody else has, and friends, even efriends can touch you.

  16. JT Ellison

    Toni, a small, practical family who give lists of what they want is truly a godsend. Oh, did I mention I do all my shopping onine? I stopped going to stores years ago. Makes it much easier. Point and click and Bam – Christmas!

    Zoë, what blew me away too was the variety of colors. It's like the most exuberant fall New England ever had, but close to the ground. Wild, really. And you just won't convince me on the haggis. I won't eat anything that comes from a lamb or sheep. My own personal Silence of the Lambs OCD.

  17. JT Ellison

    Alafair, you know how inspiring deadlines can be… : )

    Billie, I literally got all itchy at the thought of cutting forever. Every time I look at the manuscript, even if one word changes, it gets a new draft. I start with Working Manuscript, then go to V1, V2 – it's easy to keep track. And you never waste words. I used to do the whole draft in one revision, letting the earlier drafts go, but changed on my second book. So glad I did because I can farm the past drafts, like a well stocked pond.

  18. JT Ellison

    Stephen I MUST get this painting. The site's been down for two days, but she needs to come home with me now.

    Debbie, that's just it. Sounds like we have a similar process. And you're right, thank God for phones and email. I hate that I live so far from my parents and brothers, I still talk to my parents multiple times a day. And that is a HUGE blessing to me.

  19. Dudley Forster

    I have to go along with the gobsmacked crowd. I’m happy the magic happened for a purely selfish reason, I want to read the book <g>. When we lived in the UK my mom could not get over how everything was always so green. JT you can just say,"I can't "stomach" haggis."

    JT & Steve – I too was intrigued by the print of the muse. The artist is the alter ego of a famous illustrator. He has a set of prints in this collection tied together only “by the common theme of the erotic nude and relationship between artist & muse.” You can order all the prints here

  20. Alexandra Sokoloff

    Now what am I always saying about writers having to go through the same "all is lost" moment as their characters, at the exact same point in the book?

    Not that it ever gets better for me, either. BTW – how bad can a Dark Night Of The Soul really be if you're having it in freaking SCOTLAND???

    Congratulations on the breakthrough. It always comes, somehow, the miracle.

  21. Chuck

    Hi JT!

    I've had more prayers answered than I could begin to name. But I appreciated your blog today. Very cool stuff…thank you!

    (And post that muse any time you want!)



  22. JT Ellison

    Dudley, you are a God among men for finding a link that worked – thank you!

    And after doing NaNoWriMo – you know 22K isn't much. That's standard November output!

    Alex, darling, you have no idea. I went to find ghosts, DID, and immediately wanted them to go the hell away. Freaked me out. Figures. So it was quite a dark night. It is amazing that we all have the all is lost moment though. Mine just lasted longer than most.

    Reine, exactly. UGH!

  23. Reine

    And of course, being of theological bent, I would forget the blessing of the week. For me that would be Medicare allowing me to reapply for my rehab-level power wheelchair that they and my private insurance paid for on June 4th – but was never ordered by the wheelchair provider – who decided it would be tons more fun to just fucking keep the money. Last week's blessing was way better. The doctors at Rancho Los Amigos Rehab in L.A. said the lump behind my knee is a cyst (caused by my old chair) – not a tumor – yay. And yes, I did pray for both those blessings, as "challenging" as is the first to swallow.

  24. Catherine

    I prayed for the measles in Grade 1. I'd been sick for about half the year getting a slew of successive childhood ailments. Mum's way of dealing with the required bed rest was to give me books and water and a little crystal bell (to ring when I needed her). Oh the power. All my needs met at the age of five.

    So when I overheard her telling a friend that the only thing I hadn't caught was the measles….that's what I prayed for…and received. I still treasure the look she gets on her face when she retells this story.

    Blessings. My daughter's red border collie only barked in my ear once through peak hour traffic and a longish highway drive from the city to my house. Oh and we've had a break in whats been constant rain just long enough for my mowing guy to come before I have a party tonight. It was called a gathering last week, but the numbers suddenly spiked so it's got upgraded to party status.

    Oh and I rediscovered a wine at the bottle shop that is great on a summer evening….

    Racers & Rascals, Yarra Valley. Pinot Noir 2008 from the vineyards of Killara Estate.

  25. JT Ellison

    Chuck, I know exactly what you mean. I feel the same way. Too many to count…

    Reine, what wondrous news! I'm so glad to hear it. May all your medical news be good from here on out!

    Alex, darling, anytime. You're so overdue for a Nashville trip – in the meantime, I'll email a pic…

    Catherine, you just cracked me up. When I was little, I prayed for three things: braces, glasses and a cast. I was destined for geekdom, I'm afraid. That wine looks divine, thank you!

  26. KDJames

    Very impressive output, JT! And good grief, I'm glad you weren't having a stroke. That must have been scary. I tend to write in big bursts, usually on the weekends. And then I need time (sometimes too much time) for more words to build up. I'll never be one of those X-number of pages a day, every day kind of writers. But whatever works, right? Very happy for you that it all came together.

    I've never considered whether or not I had a muse. If I do, I suspect it's not female. Might well be scantily clad, though… and perhaps even a Scot. Hmmm, must give this further thought.

  27. JT Ellison

    Debbie., I'll get them up on my blog… but probably in conjunction with this book's promotion.

    KD,girlfriend, you know why we all like men in kilts so much, right? According to Diana Gabaldon, it's so we can have them up against a wall in seconds. Mmmmm….

  28. Pari Noskin Taichert

    Wonderful post, JT.

    I pray daily. Lately it's been for other people's health. And, though I wouldn't necessarily credit my little lit candles with much effect, some of those prayers have been answered.

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