How To Successfully Finish Writing A Novel
With NaNo fast approaching and everyone offering their two cents as to how to successfully finish the challenge, I figured I’d add my own thoughts. Keep in mind: I’m a slow writer. Like, glacially slow. Currently I have to turn in at least one new book a year (drafted at least 3 times before I meet that deadline), and edit another book for publication (which requires at least three rounds: revision, copyedits, proof pass), all within 12 months.
It’s a lot for me so I have to be really careful how I manage my time. Because I am incapable of writing a draft in a month. That means every day of the year counts for me. I either need to be working, or intentionally on vacation—one of the two. What can NOT happen is losing days to staring at my computer and doing nothing.
Also, I don’t like first drafting. No, scratch that. I loathe first drafting. Let’s just be upfront and honest with how much I detest that process. Writing a first draft suuuuuuuucks. I consider myself a redrafter. I enjoy the process of editing. Of taking a pile of crap and MAKING it something. But you have to write a first draft in order to create that second draft. So these are some of my coping skills in order to do that.
The key is to write.
No, you don’t have to write everyday, but it helps. It also helps to take breaks. You need to find the balance. Ride the line between forcing yourself to do the work, and letting yourself have time off. Only you know where that line is. The key is to be honest with yourself. A lot of times people “take a break” but really it’s just procrastination and laziness. You need to have a hard conversation with yourself (for me it’s usually daily, haha) and ask, “Have I done the most work I can today?” And if the answer is no, GET TO WORK.
It’s nice to be a free spirit and all, but really, without strict deadlines, things don’t get done. Make a list of the items you need to accomplish, divide that up into a workable schedule, and WORK THE PLAN. Keep in mind that self-imposed deadlines don’t work if you don’t believe in them. Seriously. You have to hold yourself accountable. Or get a friend or two to help you.
Of course, having someone inquire about your progress is a double edged sword. There’s nothing worse than my mom calling after a particularly unproductive week and asking, “So how’s the book going?” NOT WELL, OKAY?! BACK OFF. Not that I say this to her. My answer is usually, “I don’t want to talk about it.” :)
Create a task list and then make yourself stick to it. Give yourself rewards if that kind of thing works for you.
Use whatever you have to get the words out.
Writing for me is a numbers game. Most times it’s like pulling teeth. So one of my coping skills is to take advantage of every thought. There are moments when scenes come to you, use them. And they’ll always come at the most inopportune time. Like, WORST TIMING EVER. So you have to be prepared for them.
I find myself using my phone or iPad a lot. Mostly because the phone happens to be in my hand at any given time. There are lots of apps available: Scrivener app, the standard Notes app, Google docs, even Word. Take advantage of them and sync them with a cloud service. No matter what I put in my phone, it always appears on either my desktop or laptop the next time I sign on.
When I’m drafting I also have a small notebook in my purse and on my side table. Sometimes you just have to go low-tech if the words aren’t coming, or if you have to dash off dialog fast. I find that if I’m having a difficult time starting my writing day, picking up a pen and free-writing a little will open up the words for me.
When you’re done writing by hand, scan (or take a photo of) the document and drop it in your Scrivener file (this is where Scrivener comes in handy). Type it in with side-by-side view or wait to type in later to jumpstart your words if you have a slow morning the next day.
Organization is everything.
I mean really, seriously, everything. There’s a point when you’re writing that you completely lose track of your story. You have to trust in the notes you created when you were fresh and clear on the book. Believing in them is the only thing that gets me to finish a draft without quitting. Because sometimes (usually in the middle of the book) I have nothing else: no ability to see my project clearly and hate for every word I’m writing.
You need a plan.
And I say “plan” verses “outline” because I don’t want this to be dismissed with an eyeroll that “I’m a pantser so I don’t agree with this part.” You don’t have to outline everything. But what you do need to have is a clear idea of where you want to go. What is the inciting incident? What is the obstacle? What major scenes can you see/ are you excited about? How do you want this book to end?
At the very least you should know these key ideas. Otherwise you’re going to be 30K into it and be lost. LOST. And you’re going to look around and ask, “What the heck was this book about anyway?” Plus, if you don’t know those key things, rewriting is going to feel overwhelming. And it’s debilitating (at least to me) to lose half or more of a manuscript just because I didn’t have a plan.
Before, after, during. Anytime you think of something, write it down.
It is helpful to use a program like Scrivener for a first draft when you’re note taking. You can create scenes within your document and then drop the notes where they belong (change the icons so you can find them easy). That way you won’t be temped to go back if it’s an earlier scene. If it’s a later scene, you’ll remember what you wanted to include when you write it. Bonus, when you go to tackle the second draft, you already have a built in guideline.
Write out of order.
No one says that you HAVE to write from beginning to end. Skip the scenes that are being horrible. Don’t waste time on them. One of two things will happen: 1. The scene works itself out in your head and you can come back and write it with ease. Or 2. You realize it doesn’t work with the story anyway and that’s why it wasn’t working.
You can also write in sections within your chapters. Write things that are coming to you. Write dialog if that’s what is coming. Or write all the scene details. You can rearrange them later. Just get something out that you can work with for edits. Keep them in separate documents within the chapter of your Scrivener file. This makes it easier to edit them together in the next draft.
Quality and substance of your scenes/plot matters more than word count.
You don’t need to focus on perfect wording, but there should be something workable that you can rewrite. If you know you’re going in the wrong direction—STOP. Seriously, stop. Write something else you know you’ll keep until you can figure out what went wrong with what you have.
Don’t stress yourself out.
Breaks are as important as making yourself work. Ideas work themselves out in your downtimes. So don’t be afraid to take them. Shower. Nap. Walk. For some reason those three are my go to when I’m stressing over a particular plot issue. Don’t stay at the computer. The answers won’t come from staring at a blank screen.
Sometimes you need to refill the well. Writing a book is drudgery. It's rare that a first draft high will last the entire length of the draft. It certainly happens though, and if that's you, I'm totally jealous. But the majority of writers aren't going to be inspired by their book for the long haul, so find inspiration somewhere else.
Get out of the house. Go people watch. Go to a museum and look at art. See a movie. Read a book.
Sometimes I just need to rest my brain. If I'm heavily drafting, I find it difficult to read or watch tv because the stimulation is too much. And I just don't have that much mental energy to invest. So I'll put on an audible book of something I've already read and love, turn out the lights, and close my eyes. It helps me to keep in a storytelling mindset without me needing to be an active participant in the story.
Now we come right back around to the first piece of advice: you’ve got to write.
Do the work. Writing is a muscle. You have to exercise that muscle, and if you don’t, it atrophies. I get out of the habit of drafting too. Once I switch focus to editing and then come back to drafting, my word counts are ridiculously low. It’s hard to get the word count up again. But you have to make an effort.
Work up to large daily numbers. Push yourself a little more every day. The key is consistency. Notthree thousand words of brain dump and then you burn yourself out for a week.
You also have to know that you CAN DO THIS. Writing a manuscript isn’t a specialized career. You don’t have to study it forever in order to do it. All you have to do is write—put one word in front of another until your brain wants to explode. It’s tedious but achievable. And it’s hard work for a mediocre payoff. Yes, there are people who are brilliant and work masterpieces the first time out and have a voice that’s a gift from the Gods. But for the majority of us mortals, writing is a slog of suck and we don’t know what we’re doing more than half of the time. AND THAT’S OKAY.
Do not focus on good writing. Your first draft will be utter crap anyway. You will never, ever hit that perfection on the first draft. So don’t even stress yourself about it!
The very FIRST thing you have to do is finish. That’s it. That should be your entire focus from the time you start your first draft till the end. Nothing else. Get the words in the document.
And notice I didn’t title this “be successful at NaNo” because if you don’t hit 50K, who cares? It’s more important that you finish your novel. And you don’t have to do that in a month. You just have to DO IT.