How to Finish Writing a Novel

Photo credit: Johan Larsson on Flickr
So the other day, the lovely @j_a_bennett brought up an interesting topic on her blog—namely, finishing a novel from first draft to polished prose.

I know a lot of writers who struggle with this—especially when they haven’t fully completed a novel before. And let’s face it—finishing a novel from start to finish isn’t easy. It’s difficult enough to put together a coherent first draft and even harder to take that first draft and transform it into a fully revised, layered story.

But truth be told, I feel like finishing the first book is more of a mind game than anything else. If you have a pattern of not finishing, it can sometimes be difficult to overcome that little voice that says the reason you haven't finished a novel is because you can't (which isn't true, by the way. The little voice lies). It’s often a matter of self-confidence, of fighting the underlying doubts that tell you inevitably something is going to happen to keep you from completing your story—whether it’s a gaping plot hole, loss of inspiration (or interest) or something else.

There are a million and two reasons to stop writing a novel. When battling these doubts, what you need to find is the one reason to ignore everything else and write it anyway.  

For me, finishing a novel from first draft to last revision takes two very important things:

  1. You have to LOVE your book. Really. You're going to be working on that baby a long time. If you don't love it, it's going to get exhausting very quickly, and another shiny novel idea may very well pop out of the blue and rip your attention away.

  2. Patience/perseverance. I know technically those are two different things, but they go hand-in-hand. You don't need to survive just one round of revision—but anywhere from 3-10+ drafts, and that's before you even try to get it published.  Not only that, but you need to be patient with yourself. You need to accept that you’re still learning, that it isn’t going to be perfect, and that it’s ok.

There’s a third thing too, that mostly ties in with the second point—understanding and acceptance. I’ve talked about this before, but not every novel you write is going to get published. Not every story is meant to be released to the world—some of them are meant for you, the writer, to learn from.

You need to understand that you may very well spend a couple months or even years working on a novel that will sit in your desk drawer. You need to understand that it’s only natural to write two or three (or five or seven) novels before you’ve developed your writing skill enough to be ready for the publishing world.

You need to understand that if you really want to be a writer, you’ll need to go through this process many many times. And sometimes you’ll get tired. And sometimes you’ll get bored. And sometimes you’ll wonder if you’re wasting your time with your current WIP and if you should start on something else or if you’ll really be able to survive a couple rounds of revision.

And all of that is ok.

Love your book. Have patience with the process and with yourself. Push through the obstacles, both mental and physical, until you have a gleaming, fully polished novel.

Then go write another one. You are a writer, after all.

What tips do you have for completing a novel? 

38 comments:

Daniel Swensen said...

 Great post, Ava. Thanks for the inspiration, as I wrote a post spinning off of yours.

Finishing a novel is a lot of work, and for me, the biggest step was realizing just how much work comes after the first time you write "the end."

And while I agree that love is a necessary component, I think we also have to fall OUT of love, just enough to to look on our work with a critical eye.

Ava Jae said...

Thanks, Dan! I look forward to seeing that post. :) 

That's a great point about having to fall out of love with the WIP, too. Few things are more important than being willing to rip your WIP apart if you have to in order to make it a better book. 

Angela said...

 Great post! Found you because of the awesomeness that is surelymuse!! =D

I agree that a writer needs to be practical. It's far too easy to fall in love with the story in your brain-brain. It's all magical and fluffy. Sometimes you have to physically see it to grasp just how horrid it might be. The hope is that it will be overwhelmingly awesome, however. ;)

Ava Jae said...

Thank you, Angela! Welcome to the Writability community. ^_^

"Overwhelmingly awesome" is a great marker to strive for. It takes a lot of work (often painful work, at that), but it's definitely worth the final result. 

JFeijten said...

Right, so the goal is to actually finish that novel? ^^ There are indeed times I tend to forget about that.

My problem is not that I don't love my work, I think. But maybe I should accept that some projects are not for publication. I tend to focus too much on making it as a writer and that attitude doesn't help me in any way.

However, I think I would be a little disappointed if I worked months on something only to leave it in a desk drawer. Wouldn't you be?

John Chapman said...

It took my wife and I a full year to come up with an ending to our first book in the 'A Vested Interest' series. It then took another year of editing and revision. In that time the book expanded to the point where we had to make it two books. We're now on book 8 and we believe our style has improved to the point where maybe a re-write of the first book is in order.

Writing is a learning experience, one which takes years to master. We should know - after 1 million words we are just beginning to think of ourselves as 'proper authors.' The most essential skill to acquire? Perseverance. 

Daniel Swensen said...

 I think disappointment is only natural in a case like that, but the point is, sometimes that happens, and all you can do is learn from it.

StartYourNovel said...

What can I say - as someone with a constant pattern of not finishing long-form fiction, I needed this kick in the pants.

Yes, the little voice is wrong. Buddhists call it the chattering monkey and really, that's all it is. A monkey. It doesn't know a lot more than a monkey would. 

Yesenia said...

What an inspirational post.  Just the kind of thing I need to get writing again. I feel like my first novel might be one of those stories that ends up in the desk drawer. But who knows. I really hope not.

Ava Jae said...

As J.A. Konrath said, "There's a word for a writer who never gives up...published." Perseverance is essential for any writer who wants to be successful (that, I think, and willingness to learn). 

Ava Jae said...

We all need a little nudge from time to time. Glad you enjoyed the post! :)

Ava Jae said...

Thank you, Yesenia! I wouldn't worry right now about whether your novel eventually ends up in the drawer--the point isn't if it gets published, it's that you learn from every WIP and continue to improve your writing skill. 

Joanna Aislinn said...

My tip for finishing a novel: know where it's headed up front. You may meander along the way, but have a definite clue where your characters are expected to be at the end. Now, if I could make sense of all the brainstorming and pages and pages of notes...in order to figure out exactly that...

Laurapauling said...

The book you're working on might not be the one...but it could be! I have to feel that excitement of loving the story and characters to follow through! 

Stan Faryna said...

I'm going to go write now. [smile]

Ava Jae said...

I think Dan said it perfectly. It's only natural to be disappointed, but for me at least, I find it easier to accept when I know I've learned something from the experience and am a better writer because of it. 

Ava Jae said...

That's a great tip. It's much easier to finish a novel if when you reach the climax you already know how it's going to turn out. 

Ava Jae said...

Agreed! If you lose the excitement, it's infinitely more difficult to slog through months of revision (or, if you haven't finished the WIP, surviving until the end of the draft). 

Ava Jae said...

Wonderful! Good luck! ^_^

J. A. Bennett said...

I think my biggest problem is with #2 I don't think I'll ever be good enough. I know how much it drags me down. And I do plan on going back to EXISTENCE but the fact is I'm going to have to completely re-write it, again. I love my book, but I need my brain to work on something else for a bit so that I can be game to back to EXISTENCE. Thanks for the advice, I know it's going to take me forever and that's the hardest part!

Julia Tomiak said...

Thank you - this post was meant for me, the first time novel writer.  I'm finally learning in this life to enjoy the process, although I have to admit that even though my rational mind knows, and has told me, that this first novel may never get published, that it may serve more as an instructional exercise, I still hope I can make it good enough.  I do know the next time will be easier - I've done so many things wrong, but have learned from the mistakes.  Thanks!

Ava Jae said...

I wish you the best, Jenny! I know how difficult it is to have to re-write a novel. It can seem like an impossibly huge task, but if you break it up into manageable chunks it's easier to handle. You'll know when you're ready to go back to it. You can do it! :)

Ava Jae said...

Sure thing, Julia! Every novel is part exciting and part terrifying. The good news is you do learn something from every novel you write. Good luck! 

Andi-Roo said...

WOW,this was kind of scary for me to read right now, as I'm forcing myself to pick back up the habit of daily writing. For me the biggest obstacle to push through is this: DO THE WORK. I like the idea that you must fall in love with your WIP, & that (as someone pointed out) you must also fall OUT of love with it. I equate this to parenting: Raising kids means putting in the time even when you don't always feel like it, rewarding good behavior when it's warranted & being a disciplinarian when necessary. I always love my babies, but I sure don't always LIKE them, lolz! I need to remember, as I'm writing, that even in the darkest moment, I still love my book --- & I also need to remember that sometimes you gots to give that baby some tough love. Thank you for the inspiration to spit out some words today --- it's been way too long a break & you gave me just the kick in the rear I needed! :)


Andi-Roo
/// @theworld4realz

http://www.theworld4realz.com/



theworldforrealz@gmail.com

Ava Jae said...

You're very welcome, Andi! I can absolutely see the connection to parenting--they certainly share some similar qualities as far as forcing yourself to be persistent, goes. Good luck with your writing! 

Sherilyn Hill said...

Loved the post. I don't think there is a writer out there who would disagree with all three of your points. To be honest though it's scary to think about spending years (in my case four!) on a novel to just keep it in a drawer. That particular fact may stop a lot of people from ever finishing their novel if they are just writing to get published. I think real writers, however, will sigh at that point, dwell on the thought a few moments and then continue writing... because whether or not it's meant to be published the story must be told.

Ava Jae said...

Thank you Sherilyn! I think you're absolutely right--the writers who aren't writing to get published, but because the thought of not writing is more painful than the idea of shelving novels along the way will continue to write (and improve their writing) regardless.

BellaVida said...

Nice to see others thinking about the same thing and being positive about it.

Ava Jae said...

Agreed! ^_^

kabobo said...

This is a new book trailer for my new book, Secret Sins: Murder in the Church.
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XU9paFbEiGE

DaFiir said...

I'm fourteen and i totally understand this article and, i am going to start writing and become an author like my role model Rick Riordan.

Ava Jae said...

That's completely fantastic! I wish you the absolute best of luck! :)

DaFiir said...

I'm fourteen and i totally understand this article and, i am going to start writing and become an author like my role model Rick Riordan.

fsteele said...

And if the traditional publishers don't want it, there's still self-publishing -- or just webbing it for whatever few or many readers might like it. So in any case it gets told TO someone.

sanjay said...

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sanjay said...

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sanjay said...

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