Welcome to the art of novel writing. How many of us have a good idea for a novel?
Hands shoot up all over the room, waving with excitement.
How many of us have actually started the novel?
A few hands wither and sink out of sight.
Now, how many have actually finished writing their novel?
Arms drop like trees under a logger’s chain saw. Only a few remain standing.
Why? What’s keeping you from finishing?
“I lost interest.”
“I ran out of ideas.”
“I have writer’s block.”
“I lost the thread of the story.”
I’ll bet there isn’t a writer, living or dead, who has finished every novel he or she began. Starting novels and abandoning them is nothing to be ashamed of; it’s part of the writing process. Sometimes we’re just trying out ideas. Practicing. Playing with characters and situations. The way a visual artist doodles and sketches. The way a musician plays scales and riffs. The difference, I suppose, is that most writers who start out to write a novel, don’t believe they’re practicing or doing exercises. They often start, headlong and driven by the creative pressure, the so-called muse, to write a meaningful story –but eventually flounder and come to a halt. And unlike a sketch or a practice session, we don’t feel our story has value unless we complete it. I’m not even talking about publishing at this point; I’m just talking about finishing the story.
When is a story finished? Is it finished the day it’s officially published? The first time it’s read by someone? When you complete your final edit and hit “send?” When you finish the raw and ragged first draft?
Some say a story is never finished, and I happen to believe that. As a writer I finally decide on one iteration, then move on to the next story.
But for me, the story quickens, it springs to life when I’ve captured the heart of the thing. The manuscript is still rough, in fact, it’s hideous in places, but it has a heart and a soul.
But how do you complete your story, that half-formed lump of clay in your hands? How do you get beyond the great wasteland of the middle, when all of a sudden you don’t know where you are or what you were trying to express? This is often the point where you feel your writing has no merit and your story is a sham. What to do?
First of all, believe me when I tell you your story has value. Without even reading it, I know it has potential. Maybe it needs a heart, or maybe it needs muscle and bones. It almost certainly needs direction.
Many writers shun outlines; they don’t want to feel constrained by them. Outlines feel imposed and artificial. If intuitive writing is working for you, then keep at it. But if you lose your way, you might want to make a map to help you reach your destination. A map is something like an outline; it helps you find your way, and hopefully finish your story.
If you haven’t done it already, try writing the end of your story before you tackle the great middle. It’s not written in stone; you might decide to change it completely. But at some point during the writing process, an ending will come to you that feels so right. This ending gives you guidance because now you know where you’re headed.
If you’re stuck in the middle of your story even though you know your ending, you might need to throw some obstacles at your characters. Don’t make it easy for them (or you.) What’s the worst that could happen to your protagonist? Throw it at him or her –then write your way out of it. Trust your inner voice. Trust your characters to work it out.
The other thing to think about is the theme of your novel. I like non-genre, literary stories, rich in theme. But even highly formulaic stories have themes. Themes are what your story is really about, beyond the plot. The bigger picture, the deeper meaning, the take-home message. Theme and character development drive the plot.
If that doesn’t work, or if your book isn’t very much about plot, develop your characters through thoughts, actions and memories. Do some free writing. Open a new file on your computer, or a new notebook, and start writing about one of the supporting characters. See where it leads you.
Set a deadline to finish the rough draft. You’ll feel a sense of satisfaction having completed a story, rough and unfinished though it may be. If you’ve captured the heart, you’ve got the best of it.
If none of this is working, maybe you’re not writing the story you really want to write. Sometimes we have to start all over again. Or start a completely new story. But beware! At first you’ll be, like, oh yes! This is the novel for me! But when you come to the middle of the story, don’t be surprised to find yourself feeling lost and uninterested again. It’s not easy to see it through. But at some point, if you want to write a novel, you need to finish the damn thing. If there’s no wind in your sails, get out the oars and row. Commit yourself to the page. Only you can write this particular story.
If you get lost or “blocked” try writing a brief synopsis — as if your story was already finished. Write the copy for the back of the book jacket. Don’t try to tell the whole plot, just the highlights. Try drawing a road map of the story. Read your favorite authors for inspiration. Show your beginnings to a trusted friend or writing mentor and ask for suggestions. Avoid talking too much about your novel or you might lose the creative tension needed to write it.
Set aside a block of time each day, even if it’s only half an hour, to work on it. Thirty minutes is all some people can commit to, but if you dedicate yourself to writing during that half hour, you’ll eventually get there. Once you have a first draft, no matter how rough and in need of repair, you will feel a sense of satisfaction. You’ve discovered the heart of the story. It will need revision but each draft gets better and the characters, more alive.
Your comparison to artisits doodling and musicians practicing scales is not only informative, but reassuring. Practice is the key to improvement, and why should a writer ever be ashamed of starting a project and not finishing! The key is to keep practicing and like a violinist squeaking out those first note of a concerto, never expect perfection on the first try. Thanks for your thoughtful post.