My third National Novel Writing Month has finally ended, and it’s been an exciting experience! I’ve braved the 4:30 alarm clock almost every weekday morning, gained motivation and focus from word wars and sprints with other authors online, and squeezed writing into almost every spare moment I’ve had in the month of November. And now that it’s over, I have just over 97,000 words under my belt, plus a completed rough draft of my new young adult science fiction novel, Heartsong. I’ve enjoyed every step of this journey with my characters, especially when new characters not in the original outline decided to jump in and join the adventure. 

I can hardly wait to dive back into the story from the beginning and start editing and touching things up, but alas, that will have to wait. The Gladiator and the Guard (the novel I drafted for last year’s NaNoWriMo and the sequel to The Collar and the Cavvarach) is next in line, since I’m hoping to publish it in the spring. The fourth book of my Annals of Alasia series, tentatively titled King of Malorn, is next. 

But in the meantime, for anyone who’s curious, below is the first chapter of Heartsong. (Please bear in mind that it’s still a pretty rough draft – just a sneak preview for those who are interested, and not the final polished version.) Many thanks to my many Facebook friends who have already contributed with helpful hints about the science involved – I’m sure I’ll have lots more questions in a few months when I get back to working on it, since this is my first foray into science fiction!

Screenshot of my Word Count Page on the NaNoWriMo Site

Chapter 1

My love of reading started the whole thing.

The best place to read on the Laika was on the lifeboats. I had discovered that on the first part of the trip, during the flight from Earth to the jump point by Phoebe. I mean, what else is there to do when you’re not close enough to any planet or moon to see much through the viewports? The view is exciting when there is one, but when you’re far away from anything, space all looks the same.

The hyperspace jump had been quick, of course, so no time to get bored there. And after we came out of it at the jump point by Somav, the flight toward Soma I was pretty exciting, too. I couldn’t stop staring as we passed Somavia, the blue and gray and white planet none of us would probably ever see that close again. It was awesome to think of the aliens who lived there and wonder what they were really like. The few decent pictures taken by the Forerunner left everyone asking more questions than they answered. And what about the planet itself? Of course we knew it was cold, being further from Somav than Earth is from our Sun. But it did have a thin but breathable atmosphere. If it hadn’t been for the alien race who already lived there — and the tirtellium that we were going to mine on Soma I — The Corporation might have decide to set up the Colony on Somavia instead of on its moon.

But we had passed Somavia three days ago, and we had been in orbit around Soma I ever since. Which was also exciting at first. I couldn’t wait to get to my new home — my permanent home. A home I would never have to leave again, never be taken away from just when I was starting to settle in. A home that I would get to help put together, along with the scientists and the miners and the rest of the Young Colonists.

The moon was prettier to look at than the planet, though not by an awful lot. It was brown and gray, with little splotches of green and blue here and there where the lakes were. There wasn’t much water, no actual oceans, but enough to support a little plant and animal life. Nothing too dangerous, at least as far as we could tell from the Forerunner’s pictures. Some fish and crustaceans that might or might not turn out to be edible to humans. Some amphibian or maybe reptilian creatures that lived in and around the lakes. Insects and a handful of different mammals, all tiny, that lived on the plains. Nothing likely to bother two hundred human colonists setting up a new home on their world.

Of course, there were the Somavian miners. We knew the Somavians had developed a limited form of space travel; we knew they had mines on Soma I too. But whatever they were mining for, it wasn’t tirtellium, and it was only in a few little spots relatively close together. We planned to set up our colony hundreds of miles away, where with any luck, they wouldn’t even know we were around. Forerunner’s sensors had not detected any other artificial satellites in orbit around either Somavia or Soma I, and as far as we knew, they had no way of knowing Forerunner was there or that we were coming.

The adults all said that hopefully we would never even have to see any Somavians, but every kid in the group hoped we would. I mean, why would anyone not want to see aliens? Anyway, from the Forerunner’s pictures, they sure seemed to be a peaceful culture, with no evidence of any wars going on down on their home world. If they did find out about us being on their moon, hopefully they wouldn’t get mad. We wouldn’t bother them, and hopefully they wouldn’t bother us. If they did get mad, well, the Laika did have some weapons. Not a lot, but enough to defend ourselves if we absolutely had to.

Of course the two hundred of us on board could hardly wait to get down there and get started with our new life. But here we were stuck in orbit, as we had been for the last three days. Three painfully long and boring days. Earth days, that is; it had been nearly five Soman days.

Atmospheric storms and solar flares. No one had anticipated that they would go on this long. At first, I was glad of the opportunity to orbit the moon and see what it was like. I had an aisle seat, though, and it was a pain to lean past three people just to see out the window. And after a while, when everyone’s excitement faded, most of them turned grouchy as they got more and more bored and impatient. The movies and games preloaded on our tablets just weren’t good enough to keep everyone happy for that long when the adventure we’d waited over a year to start was being put on hold, and I’d never been a big fan of video games and movies anyway.

So I did what I usually do when real people get too annoying. I pulled out my Kindle and turned to my true friends, the ones who would always be there for me, who I never had to say goodbye to. And I went to the one place I had found on board where nobody would bother me or interrupt my adventures to ask what I was reading or exclaim over their new high score in who-cares-what-virtual-adventure.

The Laika was designed to be taken apart when we arrived. Its decking and bulkheads would be used to help create the buildings in the colony until we could create more permanent buildings from local rock, and that was one of the reasons it was so large. But big though it was, it had no extra empty space. Every compartment was full of freeze-dried food items, mining equipment, packages of seeds for genetically modified crops designed to grow well in the moon’s dry soil, or educational resources for the youth, because even on an interstellar adventure, there was no escaping school in some form. 

So I had discovered in between Earth and Phoebe that the lifeboats were the best place to read. I’m not sure if I was really supposed to be in them, but there was no lock, because after all, what would be the point of locking a place that people would have to get to in a hurry in an emergency?

And so I sat curled up on a seat in one of the lifeboats, alternating reading and looking out the viewport to see if there was anything interesting to see down below. But the lifeboat’s position was such that the window mostly looked out on space, with just a tiny sliver of Soma I visible from one edge. I could have turned on the screen, but that might trigger some sort of alert, and I didn’t want anyone coming to tell me I wasn’t supposed to be in here.

So I traveled with Caz and her friends across the Granbo system, caught up in an imaginary space adventure, since my own real space adventure had been put on hold. It would be at least another two hours until they served lunch, so I might as well get comfy and enjoy myself.

And I did — until the ship vibrated and the fasten seat belts sign flicked on.

For a moment I wondered if I should return to my seat. But what would be the point? I would be just as safe here in the lifeboat, and if the turbulence got bad, it would be a better idea not to walk around the ship with it lurching under me.

I fastened my seatbelt and kept reading. We had encountered turbulence lots of times in the last few days, thanks to the solar flares. It was no big deal.

But the vibrations got stronger, and in a moment the ship really was lurching under me. I set down my Kindle and looked around, not that there was anything to see in the little lifeboat. No clues as to what was going on. But the stars were jumping and jerking outside the window, and if it hadn’t been for my seatbelt, I knew I would have been thrown around and probably injured already. Now I wished I had returned to my seat while I could. Whatever was happening, I would rather face it with the others in the main cabin, where I could hear any announcements from Captain Tyler over the intercom and know what was going on. 

Without warning, the lights in the lifeboat flickered and then went out. At the same moment a blaring alarm started screeching on and off. Now that was a first. I gasped, really worried for the first time since we had left Earth. The stars swirled and zigzagged outside the window, sending faint but frightening shadows thrashing through the escape pod around me like alien spirits trying to take over the ship. For a second I wondered if that could actually be what was happening. Maybe the Somavians had powers we didn’t know about. Maybe they were trying to drive us out of their system.

But then the emergency lights embedded in the deck by my feet glowed to life, and I let out my breath in relief. The navigational computer two rows ahead of me came on automatically, its screen lighting up green. 

My relief was short-lived, though. The alarm was still blaring its warning: Screech! Silence. Screech! Silence. Screech! The turbulence was worse than ever, and now it felt like the Laika was a wild horse, bucking and leaping and trying to throw its rider off. The rider being me, gripping the edge of my seat all alone there in the lifeboat, wondering what in the universe was happening.

Suddenly the stars were gone and Soma I swung into view, filling the viewport ahead of me, a blur of gray-brown-blue-green-brown-gray. I barely had time to stare before it was gone, and the streaking stars were back. Then there was the moon again. My stomach was spinning as fast as the ship. Thank goodness I had inherited the Smith Stomach of Steel, or my breakfast probably would have ended up all around me. I could only imagine what a nasty experience that would be with the ship thrashing all around like this.

A new noise caught my attention. A mechanical noise, a series of clicks and clinks and the sliding of metal against metal. I had only ever heard it before in simulations, but I knew right away what it was. My heart caught in my throat. “No!” Not that there was anyone around to hear me yell.

Words flashed across the computer screen, big enough to read from where I sat. Lifeboat launching.

My heart hammered in terror. “No! I yelled again. I fumbled for the seatbelt clasp and flung myself across the tiny cabin the moment I was free, lunging for the manual override button beside the door. Not a smart move, I have to admit, considering how wildly everything was moving around me, but I was panicking. None of our training, none of the simulations, had dealt with what to do if the lifeboat you were sitting in alone accidentally detached from the ship. 

I knew what to do if a lifeboat didn’t detach when it was supposed to. I knew which lifeboat everyone in my seating section was supposed to board in an emergency. It wasn’t this one, though they were all the same. I knew who my lifeboat buddies would be — a fairly even cross-section of the ship’s crew in terms of age and skills, so everyone would have the best possible chance of survival on the surface in case not every lifeboat made it. I knew how to steer the lifeboat and bring it down for a controlled landing, even though I wasn’t the assigned helmsperson in my group. We had all learned all those things, just in case. 

But what I didn’t know was how to survive on the surface on my own, if the rest of the ship didn’t land close by or shortly after I did. There were emergency rations and survival gear stashed in every lifeboat, of course, but not enough to live off of indefinitely. Of course the lifeboat would emit a signal that the ship’s sensors would pick up — it was picking it up already, I knew, as of the moment the lifeboat had started to detach — but what if they couldn’t come and get me right away? What if they weren’t able to land for days or even weeks? What if I ended up on the opposite side of the moon from where our colony was supposed to be? Our little 4-wheel-drive trucks were designed for carrying tirtellium back from the mining site, and harvested crops from the fields to the settlement. Not for making cross-country trips across rough terrain to the opposite side of the moon to rescue a stranded kid who shouldn’t have been reading in an escape pod in the first place.

And what if the Somavians found me before my own people did?

All that went swirling through my brain in a moment as I slammed my fist into the manual override button again and again. But nothing happened. That is, the hatch didn’t open to let me out into the ship’s corridor. But a second later, the incessant alarm went silent, and the frantic jerking and thrashing stopped, replaced by a slow, gentle twirl. As my feet drifted up off the floor, the dizzy feeling in my tummy told me that the ship’s artificial gravity had stopped working.

No, that wasn’t it. The lifeboat was no longer connected to the ship.

Too horrified even to yell again, I watched the Laika drift across the viewport like a big white bird against the blackness of space, still spinning and dancing as the solar flares played havoc with its electrical systems. And then I saw only stars again, and then the gray-brown of the moon, then more stars. And then there was the Laika once more, further away this time.

I pushed off from the bulkhead, thankful for the zero-gravity training. I had to get to the controls. I had to steer myself back to the ship. But as I grabbed the back of the helmsman’s chair and maneuvered my body into it, I realized I had no idea how to reattach the lifeboat to its port on the side of the ship. They had never taught us that. Were lifeboats even designed to reattach once they were separated?

I grabbed the seatbelt, twisting my ankles around the legs of the chair so I wouldn’t float off it before I could strap myself in. The controls in front of me looked just like the ones in the simulator. I could do this. It would be just the same as I had practiced. 

Except this was no game, where I struggled to beat my classmates, to be the first to land my virtual lifeboat safely. This was a real emergency. 

This was my life at stake.
It’s hard to believe National Novel Writing Month is over.  November went by fast; it was busy and full and at times stressful, but what a ride!  I wrote every day, averaging over 3,000 words per day, ending with just over 100,000 words altogether.  Although I finished the rough draft of my novel, it needs a LOT of editing, so it will be awhile before it sees the light of day.  I do intend to publish it eventually, though, assuming I can get it to the point where I’m happy with it.  Don’t ask me why, but for some reason I chose to write about a topic I know very little about, so I’m going to have to get input and feedback from experts in the field as I revise!

For those who are curious about my novel, here’s a brief description that may eventually become the back-cover blurb:

For fourteen-year-old Bensin, life as a slave in the Krillonian Empire is bearable only because he can practice and compete in the martial art he loves.   He has promised to protect his younger sister Ellie, but after he is sold to a coach whose training begins to really build his skills, everything changes.  With victory in the empire’s most important tournament almost within reach, will he give up everything he has been working toward to come to her aid when danger threatens?  And can he successfully deceive his new owner – the first free person to treat him kindly – and break the law to free his sister?

This is a sample cover (not the final version I’ll use when I publish it) that someone I met on the NaNo site was nice enough to design for me.  You can take a look at more of her art work here.  The weapon Bensin is holding in the picture is what I call a cavvarach (pronounce it so it rhymes with “have a rack”), which he uses in the martial art I made up called cavvara shil.  The hook on the top edge is actually supposed to be pointing the other way.  To win a duel, you must snag your opponent’s cavvarach with the hook and pull it out of their hand.  It also counts if you knock or kick it away (yes, kicking one’s opponent is allowed too).  Another way to win is by knocking your opponent down and holding their shoulders to the mat for five seconds.  It’s been a fun challenge designing this sport and incorporating it in my story!

So what’s next?  Well, I’m trying to follow other writers’ advice and not look at my document for at least a week or two (though it’s been a lot harder than you might think!).  After I let it rest a bit, I’ll read back through it and do all my usual editing and polishing, as well as a little more research into martial arts and fitness in general to make sure all the details are realistic.  I’m guessing that will take a couple of months, maybe longer.  At that point, I’ll need beta readers (people to read through it and give feedback and suggestions before it’s published), so if you’re interested, let me know!
In the meantime, if you missed my last two posts about NaNo, you can click here to read my midway through the month post: NaNoWriMo: What Exactly is Going On?  (You’ll see an artist’s sketch of my main character, Bensin, and there’s also a link to where you can read a scene from the story.)
Or, click here to read my first post about the event: NaNoWriMo – Writing a Novel in a Month!
I keep posting my NaNoWriMo updates on Facebook, and then people I talk to in person keep asking me what that means and what I’m doing.  So here’s a little more info.

The idea is that you try to write at least 50,000 words of a novel between November 1st and 30th.  Hundreds of thousands of people all over the world are doing this (there are 293,135 writers participating this year, according to the official site).  So, that’s what I’ve been working on every day this month in almost every spare moment of free time I’ve got.

Some Stats about my Novel:

title: the Collar and the Cavvarach
genre: speculative fiction (i.e. almost fantasy – it takes place in a different world, but it’s one very much like our own)
word count so far (as of 2:45 p.m. on November 10th): 31,854 words
page count so far: 50
chapters written so far: 4 (+2 paragraphs)
total chapters needed (probably): 10
plot summary in a nutshell: A teenage warrior slave must risk everything to save his younger sister.
why collars are significant to the story: all slaves have to wear them
what a cavvarach is: a type of weapon used in a popular martial art in this world

Since I’m ahead in my word count, I’m not worried as to whether or not I’ll get to fifty thousand words by November 30th.  But I really want to actually finish the whole novel!  According to current estimates, the total length could be anywhere between eighty and a hundred thousands words.  But that’s my real goal – getting to the end by November 30th!

Even if I succeed, will it be well written and ready to publish by November 30th?  Definitely not!  This is only a rough draft, and I’m not rereading it until I get to the end.  It will need a LOT of polishing and revision!  But yes, I do hope to eventually publish it.  And if all goes well, it could be the start of a new series; I do have ideas for other characters and events in that world.

An artist in one of the NaNoWriMo forums was kind enough to draw my main character, Bensin, for me for free.  This isn’t exactly how I pictured him (he wouldn’t be quite that skinny, for one thing), but I think she did a pretty good job considering all she had to go by was a brief description.  You can see more of her artwork here.  Yes, that’s a cavvarach he’s holding, though my idea of what it should look like changed a little after I sent her the description.  The hook part should be at the top, not the bottom, and only the bottom blade would be sharpened to fight with.  (Part of a warrior’s strategy is to try to get his hook around his opponent’s and pull the other guy’s cavvarach out of his hand.)

So, that’s what’s going on with my November.  I hope to post another update around the 20th, and again at the end.  In the meantime, if you catch me doing something other than writing, feel free to demand to know why I’m not working on my novel!

Click here to read a scene from The Collar and the Cavvarach.

Click here to read my first blog post about NaNoWriMo.

Did you know that November is National Novel Writing Month?  There’s a website ( that organizes a huge event every year for hundreds of thousands of professional and amateur writers across the world.  Basically, writers compete against themselves to see if they can write a complete novel of at least 50,000 words entirely in the month of November.  There are forums where you can link up with other participants for support and encouragement, writing resources to help you along with your story, and prizes for the winners.  I also found out that they have a program for kids:  Some of my students are eager to try it!  (There are some useful teacher resources on the site, too.)

I’m going to be participating in NaNoWriMo for the first time this year, and I’m really excited!  Stay tuned; I plan to post brief weekly updates here on my blog about how my writing’s going.  My goal is to write for at least two hours a day each weekday or until I come up with 1400 words, and four hours on each weekend day, or until I get to 2800 words.  That will give me a bit of a buffer in case I fall behind.

Of course, nobody expects anyone to complete a GOOD novel in just one month.  The idea isn’t that it will be complete and publishable by December 1st.  Most people will probably only finish the rough draft in November, but the next eleven months (or however long it takes!) are for the revising, editing, and polishing.  I certainly don’t plan to show anybody my November’s work until I’ve had a few more months to turn it into something I can be proud of. 

What will my novel be about?  Well, that’s a good question!  I’m currently tossing around three main possibilities.  My first choice would be to write another book in my Annals of Alasia series, but while I have lots of ideas for my characters’ futures, I don’t actually have a complete plot in mind yet.  And I can’t start writing a book without a plot!  (Yes, I know, some writers do it that way.  It may work for them, but it doesn’t work for me!)

Another possibility would be to take a light-hearted short story I once wrote about the misadventures of a group of commandos and turn it into a book of related short stories.  That might be the most fun option, as the writing style I use there is both silly and a little weird.  It’s not my usual genre, but it’s fun to do something different once in a while, right?

But the choice I’m leaning toward most right now would be a piece of speculative fiction in a completely new series.  It’s hard to classify its genre, since it would take place in a setting very similar to our own in almost every way.  The characters are all human, and they have cars, phones, fast food, and workouts at the gym.  The main difference would be that it’s set in a city that’s part of a large empire, and in this empire, slavery is not only legal but widely practiced.  (It’s not based on race; people can be sold as slaves for breaking the law, being unable to pay off debt, getting involved in rebellion against the government, etc.)  One of the two main characters would be a slave and the other his owner.

At this point I have the most ideas for the third option, so I have a feeling that’s what I’ll probably go with.  I’ve already outlined the story, and I’m starting to plan out the characters’ personalities.  Here are two very useful resources that I bought awhile ago and plan to bring out again to use now.  Click here to go to my post that tells more about these books and why I think they’re so great.  If you’re a writer, I strongly recommend them!


Are you thinking of participating in NaNoWriMo this year?  I’d love to hear about your plans!  In the comments, feel free to tell us what you’re thinking of writing about, and please share any helpful resources you’ve found to make the process go more smoothly!

Update: Click here to read my second blog post about NaNoWriMo, which includes a link to read an excerpt from my novel in process!