Five Ways to Trick Yourself into Finishing Your Novel

jelly beans all lined up in containersSometimes writing resembles the proverbial love affair: an idea catches one’s attention, and then it’s all one can think about, which leads to a series of heart flutters while one ponders a first attempt at flirtation. And then oh, the emotions are mutual, excitement builds, intimacies achieved, which leads to a swell of reality. Things are not as they were first envisioned. Characters have weaknesses which they drip around the room like melted wax. If one’s stores of patience are thin, the relationship ends almost before it really began.

Everyone has an unfinished novel. Or rather, every writer. Maybe it’s because it’s the novel in progress, but probably it’s a novel that has remained defiant in the face of creative energy, absorbing it, a black hole from which no writing session survives. I’ve mentioned trunking before, in which the writer decides this is not a project for the moment (at least) and moves on to something more forgiving. Trunking is not to be taken lightly, but neither is it a failure. I firmly believe that it’s the accumulation of written words that helps us become better writers—even if many of those words are cast away, they’ve aided us as best they can. And honestly, most of our words need to be set aside, revised, scratched, or massaged. That’s the process of finding the best words for each piece.

But there are novels that should cross the finish line, the ones with strong concepts, compelling characters, fascinating plots or story arcs, revealing relationships, innovative voices or approaches. These too may be sitting in small kilobytes in the recesses of the hard drive, and they shouldn’t be. For those who are skilled at procrastination, I have a toolkit of tricks.

1. Sketch out the scene-by-scene flow of the whole book. Pivotal scenes, transitions, expository, all of them. If there is a short list of scenes that intrigue you the most, write those first. Often that will lead me to writing the scenes around them, and then stitching back the bridge to what I’d already done. It’s writing out of order, I know, and it means that you need to pay close attention to consistency, but hello, you need to do that anyway. If your stopping point is an indicator that you’re bored with that part of the story, move on to where you think it gets more interesting. There will be time later to improve the parts that are lagging. Don’t let them mire you.

2. Write some back story. I know, every writer’s guide out there says “show, don’t tell,” and “back story isn’t in the story,” and so on. But as the author, you need to know the back story for every character, because you need to have a connection to each character. I was crafting a villain in my YA work-in-progress, and his intentions weren’t clear enough for me. Why did he become so rotten? I sat down one day and wrote out his childhood and adolescence, some of which made it into the novel in another way. Most of it just hangs out in my notebook, which is fine. It lit a few light bulbs for me and I could round him out in the story.

3. Go off or on a writing schedule. I need a schedule. I really, really need a schedule. I’m a strong J on the Myers-Briggs personality matrix, and I can not just float along or I’ll never finish anything. So I keep myself on a schedule: usually 3 months for a first draft for long form. I acknowledge that the Ps out there feel very differently about looming calendars on their workspace walls. If that’s the case, give yourself a break and try to destress about it. Plenty of novels took a long time to write. The point is to avoid collecting dust; sit down and get through a chapter, 1,000 words, something. But figure out what kind of schedule works best for you, and then go for it. Sometimes I even will tell people when I expect to be done with the first draft or 15th draft, and that gives me a kind of external pressure, which keeps me honest.

4. Plan to attend a conference. I’ve said it before, I a big fan of conferences for networking, reality checks, getting new ideas, seeing how publishing professionals really operate, and putting yourself out there as a “real” writer. Knowing that I’ve signed up for a pitch session though, that really gets me writing. Agents only want to hear about completed projects, after all. It can be a goal for your writing—get it ready for people to review. Another way to do this is to have some people who will beta read your novel for you and give you feedback. These are pearls, these beta readers, much gentler as a group than agents who merely reject manuscripts that need work. But if you’re interested in selling your WIP, help yourself by signing up for a writer’s convention, and then, gear up for it by whipping your novel into shape.

5. Write something else for 1 week. This is counter-intuitive, I know. I find that my best ideas rabbit-multiply, and then I have many other great concepts, most of which can’t squeeze back into my novel. I’m happy to be bursting at the seams with story and character proto-thoughts, but sometimes they become distractions from my current project. When the balance is tipped too far away from my main work, I will take some time—usually a few days—and delve into the other piece. It helps me get it out of my system, keeps my writing flexible, as I’ve just shifted gears, so to speak, and then I can come back to my manuscript, usually with renewed energy. It’s like having coffee with a friend I’ve been missing.

I’m sure authors have dozens of other tactics for getting through their work,  but these are few things that have helped me along. I’d love to hear more ideas and responses in the comments…

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Categories: ponderings


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