This Author’s Surefire Strategies for Finishing a Novel

Mei Li Fund Your Passion - Project - 005-01

Mary Volmer didn’t intend to become a writer, not at first. She was just a grad student studying abroad in Wales when the lures of a story hooked her. Lucky for us, it didn’t let her go. And within a few years, while she was completing her MFA in Creative Writing, that passion project turned into Mary’s first published novel, Crown of Dust. Here’s how she did it.

The Goal
I think you absolutely have to have an intention, a direction. Even if it’s the wrong one. You need that to propel you forward. I really didn’t intend to write a novel. I had just moved to Wales to go to grad school on a Rotary Scholarship. But part of my scholarship involved going up and down the Welsh coast, speaking at Rotary Clubs about California history. I’d cobbled together these talks out of textbooks because I’d never formally studied history. As I did that, I realized what was missing from these books: women.

I went to the library and started digging. One of the only books I found which went into depth about women during the California Gold Rush was They Saw the Elephant by JoAnn Levy. Levy’s book opened up a whole world of experiences and stories I’d never considered. I came back to the States over Christmas and sketched out the characters and arc of a story. I began to research in earnest. Without JoAnn Levy’s book, I’m not even sure I’d be a writer.

The Action Plan
I wrote my first novel that year I lived in Wales. Then I came back to the US and did an MFA at Saint Mary’s College. I already had good instincts and some talent, but I didn’t really know what I was doing. I needed to learn more about the craft. And I needed a community of writers. I experimented a lot and read a lot of books I probably would not have read left to my own devices. My thesis was a collection of stories and excerpts. But most of my energy went into revising the novel, which sold the second year of my MFA.

The Income
Scholarship, loans and odd jobs.

The Hours
I was a student athlete in college so my time was regimented. Basketball was my job. Writing was a diversion, a hobby. Then I graduated and I suddenly had all this free time. The period of my day when I used to be at practice or lifting or watching film? That became my writing time. I’m still a gym rat. I still love to run and play ball whenever I can. But now the gym is the diversion. Usually, I write in the morning, then run. Whatever I’m stuck on in the morning usually figures itself out on a run. Must be the endorphins. In grad school, if I wasn’t taking or teaching a class, I’d revise whatever I was working on and read in the afternoons.

That kind of predictable, scheduled life is how I like to live now. Though, with a family, it’s not as static as it used to be.

The Nourishment
The year I spent in Wales, I read all the time. There were three bookstores in Aberystwyth, and three huge libraries. The National Library of Wales has a gigantic reading room with windows that face the ocean. I spent a lot of time there when the weather was bleak. I only had class for two hours a week, but I spent a lot of time with my classmates, which I never had time to do as a student athlete. And I had a professor, a novelist named Patricia Duncker. She fed me books and seemed to believe in my abilities even before I’d done anything.

The best thing was just being so far away from home, in another country. I traveled a lot, often alone and met a lot of people. I gained a sense of myself outside of athletics. And I began to understand how similar people are, all over the world. And over time, too.


Think Mary Volmer’s writing path was just charmed? She may have churned out Crown of Dust relatively quickly. But Reliance, Mary’s second novel, took her seven years to complete. Many writers have succumbed to the Sophomore Blues. Not Mary. In the next installment of the How to Fund Your Passion Project series, find out how Mary bested that beast.

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About Mei Li Ooi

Writer. Editor. Diet Rebel.

One Response to “This Author’s Surefire Strategies for Finishing a Novel”

  1. Joze July 21, 2015 2:34 am #

    I have exactly what info I want. Check, please. Wait, it’s free? Awesmoe!

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