41,000 Words | A Lesson In Pacing

“Harper Lee, author of To Kill a Mockingbird, spent twelve hours a day at her desk and produced one page of text per day. ‘Contrary to what most people think,’ she once said, ‘there is no glamor to writing. In fact, it’s heartbreak most of the time.’”

Do you ever have one of those serendipitous moments when the universe hands you the perfect token of encouragement? I read these words in Reader’s Digest earlier this week and holy cow, they are exactly what I’ve been needing. In the world of novel writing, 12,000 words in half a year is serious snail’s pace (for reference, 70,000 words is considered minimum for a novel), but with four kids and a full-time job, it’s the pace at which I’ve been operating for the last six months.

And then, this – Harper Lee, renowned author, twelve hours a day, one page – and I’m reminded that pace, however slow, is still progress.

// novel excerpt | 41,000 words in //

One drag and his head’s already making space for tomorrow’s apology. A harmless scuffle, my girl. A lapse in judgment. Onward, shall we? He exhales, taps the ash into an empty mug. It’s a windowless room, a cocoon of seclusion and oak. He thinks of his daughter across the hall, sheets kicked to the foot of the bed, arms sprawled to tomorrow. Lucky, he concludes, and he’s not wrong. He puts the cigarette to his lips, takes a second and final drag, and snuffs it into the mug.

The scent of nicotine follows but he’s spared by Gracie’s gentle snores as he removes his trousers and slinks into bed. There’s an urge, palpable and fleeting, to rouse her with an apology – a gentle peck on her freckled shoulder as it rises and falls beneath the sheets – but chivalry triumphs. She’s sleeping. It’s nearly midnight. They’ve both had enough. Tomorrow, then.

Past the wall, a spark. One miniscule flake of burning ash stirred from the mug by a host of possibilities (the flour mice in search of their next nibble? the breeze from June’s lifted window? the rustling of sheets as he gathers his wife into himself and drifts to sleep?) that skitters across the card-strewn desk like a stone on water – skip, skip, plop, and the sinking begins.

It starts with the queen of hearts, her pitted chin growing black beneath the heat before disappearing altogether. From there, the desk – untreated oak, a housewarming gift from Mr. Gregory – followed by the shelf and its contents. In the quiet of the night, a helm gains speed on a barren knoll; rolls, tumbles, drowns without water, and if ever there were a chance to rewind, to undo, it’s now passed.

The smell reaches him first. In the moments before consciousness he offers a grin to the burning ceiling, mistaking it for an autumn bonfire, a friendly neighborhood leaf-purge. When he comes to, there’s smoke in his nostrils and an amber glow spinning pirouettes beneath the door.

“Jesus Christ!” he cries. “Jesus Christ, Grace, wake up! Fire!”

She sits, coughing. He reaches for his housecoat, a useless formality, and bolts for the exit, looking back only once to note her ivory nightgown rising through the haze.

“I’ve got her, Grace! I’ve got June! Get outside – now!”

It’s not enough, he knows that now, but he’s thinking only of his daughter as he crosses the landing, where the twirling ribbons have begun their next routine and are looping towards the stairs. He hurries to her room and snatches her from the sheets. Alarmed, she releases a tiny howl of interrupted dreams.

“It’s okay,” he croaks, pressing her face into his chest to spare her the constriction happening in his own throat. “It’s going to be okay, baby.”

It’s the biggest lie he’s ever told.


To progress, friends, in all of your unglamorous endeavors. I’m rooting for you.

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