There are an awful lot of people who have started novels. I know this, because many people have told me. Oftentimes, it'll sound like a confession, prompted by my admission that I'm working on a book. Confidentially, they’ll lean forward and say, “You know, I started a novel once.”
It’s much more rare to run across someone who’s actually finished a novel. I've met a few of these people now – in classes, at book signings, at residencies – and I've noticed a certain weathered look in their eyes. People who have finished writing novels look like they've been through something.
For years now, I've wondered whether I would be the first type of writer or the second. You see, I’d started a novel in mid-2012, and for a long, long time, it remained a work-in-progress. I'd drafted, revised, slashed whole chapters, rewrote storylines, and began again. And then again.
And then, finally, in February of this year, I hit “Print” on my final draft.
In the past few weeks, I've been pondering what pushed me over the finish line with this book, and I think I can put it down to four crucial steps I took along the way. So to all of you currently wrangling with a book-in-progress, here are my four not-so-easy strategies for pushing through to the final draft.
- Step 1: Tell someone (but not everyone) about what you're doing.
Yes, let someone else in on the secret that you’re working on a book. However, you should choose that person – or persons – wisely. They should be empathetic folk. Optimistic. Even idealistic. In a perfect world, they'll be writers themselves.
Why is it important to share your goal of writing a book? You’re going to need someone to keep you accountable when you reach dark moments in the creative process, when you feel like giving up. You’re going to need someone to remind you how incredible your novel idea is. You’re going to need someone to believe in you when you’re tempted to stop believing in yourself.
So tell some well-chosen people. Maybe just one person. But hold back from telling everyone about your ambitions. Take it from me, because I made this mistake.
What’s the problem with telling everyone? Nothing, I suppose, unless you’re fine with constantly fielding premature questions: (“What’s the plot?” “Do you have an agent?” “Where you will publish it?”), as well as those needling questions that come from the skeptical (“I mean, have you ever written a book before?” “How will you make any money from it?” “Didn’t you know that print publishing is dying?”). And of course, there’s my least favorite question, which arrived with more frequency after I'd been working on the book for years: “Are you still working on the same book?”
Non-writers: Just a tip – don’t ever voice this question to the author in your life.
- Step 2: Get structured and get supported.
Writing is a lonely task. It’s hard not get mired in self-doubt or indecision when typing alone at home. I’d recommend developing some structure in your writing routines and connecting with other writers (extra points if you can do both at once!).
Here are a few strategies that worked really well for me:
1) In 2012, I signed up for NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month), a challenge to write 50,000 words in the month of November. NaNoWriMo gave me some concrete first-draft goals to work toward (just getting words down on the page, at that point, was a challenge), and it also connected me with other fiction writers who were struggling toward the same goal.
I loved the nifty NaNoWriMo word count calculator that tracked my progress in graph form over time (and reminded me when I was slacking).
And my absolute favorite part? When you sign up for NaNoWriMo, you're emailed frequent pep talks from famous writers who’ve been in the writing trenches themselves. The pep talks always seemed to arrive at just the right time for me, with funny anecdotes and fresh insights.
2) I attended writerly Meetups around town. I liked the Sit Down, Shut Up, and Write Meetup the best because of its simple yet effective format. Go to a coffee shop, hobnob with other writers for half an hour, and then get down to business: one hour of silent writing time. It was amazing how much I wrote during these hourly sessions — I might have dithered around all day trying to write a single paragraph, but somehow the structure of that one hour helped me churn out whole pages and scenes.
3) I had a weekly writing date with a fellow novel-writer, a dear friend of mine. We’d meet at a local coffee shop, order some wine, chat, and commence to write. Our writing dates functioned very similarly to Sit Down, Shut Up, and Write's – except with more alcohol, and, okay, we regularly exceeded our allotted 30 minutes of talking. But connecting my writing time with something pleasurable helped motivate me to an incredible degree. I looked forward to those writing dates every week, both for the friendly moral support and, of course, for the wine.
[Stay tuned for Part Two of "How to Finish a Novel"]
What strategies have helped you get from first to final draft? Do you have tips or resources for writers who are struggling to finish books? Share your comments below or on the Fresh Ink Facebook page!
Jaime deBlanc-Knowles is the founder of Fresh Ink Consulting, an Austin-based company offering personalized editing and writing services to authors and small businesses.