Saturday, 14 June 2014

Starting a Novel is The Easy Part

Okay - for a bit of fun, let's imagine for a moment we somehow have the attention of everyone in the world all at once, for just the next five minutes. I'd like to see a show of hands, please. How many of you good people believe, as the popular saying goes, that you have 'a novel in you?'

Ooooh, lordy - that's a lot of people! Okay then, keep your hands up if you've 'always wanted to write a novel someday...'

Well, that's put a few hands down - but not many. There are still loads of you in the game! Right - keep your hands up if you've ever started writing a novel...

Oh yes, the numbers are dropping a little bit more now. But there are still a lot of you with your hands up - goodness me, who knew there were so many aspiring novelists in the world? Okay, final question: keep your hands up if you've ever written a complete novel - as in, finished it, right to the end...

Woah! What just happened? That's a whole lotta hands just dribbled back down... the group left standing suddenly looks very small...

Because that's the bit no-one tells you about. When they interview the likes of Stephen King and George R.R. Martin and J.K. Rowling on the telly or in a magazine, they never ask "How in the heck did you manage to finish writing even one of your books, never mind all of them?" And even if they did, I can imagine those authors staring aghast in response, as if the very idea of not finishing their work was akin to never getting out of bed again for the rest of their lives. Because famous writers finish all the novels they start. Proper writers finish their novels. Which makes The Rest Of Us squirm in our seats and shoot uncomfortable sidelong glances at our writing workstations, where all our half-finished ideas and aborted works-once-in-progress now lie in permanent stasis.

You know who you are. If it's any comfort, up until recently I knew who I was too. We've had tonnes of ideas for great novels over the years. Stories we got really excited about, writing or typing at breakneck speed as the inspiration poured out of us and onto the page. We could see it all clearly in our heads; the characters were fresh and three-dimensional, the setting was original and vivid and the plot... oh, the plot even kept us - the lucky pup writing it! - hanging in sweet, sweet suspense. Until - ooh, rough guess here, but - usually about a third-to-halfway through our wonderful, sparkly new novel.

And then, somehow, it all goes a bit pear-shaped. The enthusiasm begins to feel a bit more forced every time we sit down to work on it. The doubts start to creep in; does that plot twist really make sense, or is it just ridiculous? Is this character really likeable, or is she a pain in the arse? (And since she's a bit based on me, would that mean I'm a pain in the arse as well?) With every day that passes, we start to feel less like we're crafting a story and more like we're trying to shore up a building that's destined to collapse from just one wrong smack of our hammer. In the stress of trying to decide if carrying on with it will only increase our chances of breaking it, new ideas start to sprout in our minds - little seeds of characters, settings and plot points for a brand new story... The excitement builds again, the cogs begin whirring - and, like children, we shove the old and worn-out toy to the back of the drawer, so that we can explore the intriguing possibilities of the new one.

 It doesn't matter, we tell ourselves; we haven't given up on the old story completely - we've just put it aside for a bit while we work on this new one, which has much more promise. We'll come back to it again someday. Except 'someday' never comes. And the 'new' story that siren-sang us away from the first one goes the same way as its predecessor a few months later - out-charmed by an even newer, even better story. And so it goes on - until that little Work-in-Progress file starts to look more like the Story Graveyard, where novel ideas go to die...

Ring any bells? Of course it does - because this is the thing that happens to so many writers so much of the time, but nobody ever talks about it. Well, certainly not the writers that are finishing books and getting them published, anyway. But here's the secret; that's not because they've never done it. No writer on the planet has ever finished every single novel they've ever started - no, not even writing superhuman Stephen King (and if he claims otherwise I'm afraid I shall not only refuse to believe him but demand some form of proof.) Every writer ever has abandoned at least one novel at some point in their writing lives. Even the most famous and and successful ones. Some of them still do it, even today.

That's all very reassuring of course, but how does knowing this help those who've yet to complete even their first novel? Well, if my own experience is anything to go by, the stage of Never Finishing Any Novel You Start Writing is exactly that; a stage in your writing journey. A metaphorical puberty, if you like. I'm still going through it myself; last year, for the first time in my life, I completed a first draft of my current novel. I'm currently knee-deep in draft two, so I haven't made the full transition from girl-to-woman yet; if we're gonna use the puberty metaphor I may have finally got the bra, but it's still only a training one.

But the process feels different this time around. This time there's a dogged, bloody-minded determination that wasn't there through all my previous years of aborted, half-written attempts. I'm gonna get this novel done, to publish-ready standard, no matter what - even if it ultimately gets rejected by every single agent and publisher in the known universe. That doesn't even matter anymore - because by then I'll be writing my next one anyway, which I'll know I can complete because I'll have already done it before.

I've heard some authors say it takes the 'right' idea for a story, the story you were always destined to tell, for the breakthrough with completing a novel to be made. I'm not sure if that's true. Looking back over many of my aborted novel attempts, it's certainly true to say there are little pieces of what's now become The Renegades scattered through them, so maybe I did have to collect all the elements of the story I was 'destined to tell' from the discarded fragments of what went before. Maybe you could try taking a look through your own files of half-stories and see if there are any common themes, ideas or scenarios that keep cropping up in all of them. That might turn out to be the story you're 'destined to tell.'

 I've also only recently learned the mechanics of outlining and plotting novels, after years of being a Pantser, so maybe that's played a part too. It might even have been hitting my forties and having my kid reach school age that suddenly gave me the kick-in-the-pants thought of "jeez woman, half your life's gone by and you still haven't finished a single novel you've ever started!" And last - but by no means least - it sure as heck helped to read Chuck Wendig's blog, where mantras like "finish your shit" turned on all kinds of lightbulbs in my head. (Seriously, if what you need to fire up your writing mojo is tough love, that's a site you wanna bookmark.)

It could have been any one or a combination of all of those things. But I think, more than anything, it's a just switch that suddenly flips in your head. Something just clicks into place and your mindset changes from that moment on. I wish I knew where that switch was and how to flip it at will - not only would I have flipped it years ago, I'd have done whatever I could to help others do it too. I've heard so many other writers beating themselves up over this very issue, and I know only too well how hard it is to get past it. All I can say is, if this is you, don't get down on yourself about it. I don't have a solution I'm afraid - and I'm not even sure if there is one - but don't ever stop believing you'll get there eventually. Keep on starting those new novels, keep on having better ideas that make you give up on finishing the novels you've started... keep on writing, no matter what. And one day it will all fall into place. You might not know when, or where, or even how - but it will.

Keep on writing. As long as you're doing that, you're still winning.


  1. This is a problem the grand majority of writers face. I have an unfinished novel lying around somewhere too, from a long time ago when I had not even the faintest freakin clue about HOW to write a novel.

    You already mentioned two of the main culprits that bring about this sort of serial failure, so I'll only add the third:
    1. the wrong story concept
    2. the wrong approach
    3. lack of discipline.

    If I were to elaborate a bit, based on what I've experienced with my own process, and that of all my [close] writerly friends, I'd say that a story concept that's not thought through, that has an intrinsic potential to fall flat (sooner or later, mostly around the middle), will always end in either an unfinished story, or a very poor story at best.

    Most beginning writers start writing* a draft fueled only by the highly subjective enthusiasm over their story idea, but they never develop anything close to a solid story concept, something that can actually carry the weight of several characters and subplots, arcs and twists. The hammer away at the keyboard, only to realize at one point that all they have is a pile of flab with no bones or muscles.

    *Combine this with a pantsing approach, and you've got a certain recipe for failure. At least, outlining forces you to face the shortcommings of the incomplete concept, of the weak premise, or the superficial conflict.

    And to end my tiny tirade, CONGRATS to finishing that draft! I remember how glad I was when I reached The End, that I no longer belonged in the scriptus interruptus camp. ;)

    Good luck with the second draft (it was the harderst, for me). And then with the edits!

    1. Hi Veronica! Oooh yeah - I forgot about number 3!

      I had that in spaaaaades... until I read (and finally absorbed) what many successful writers said; that writing is NOT SUPPOSED TO BE FUN ALL THE TIME. (For some reason I feel like some dramatic music should play here - the traditional "dun dun DUUURRR!" one fits best.)

      That was the point I always gave up in the past, labouring under the illusion that, if writing was the thing I loved to do, then not loving every single moment of whatever I was writing was a signal It Was Never Gonna Work Anyway. I only got this first draft completed because this time I carried on writing through that tunnel of fog, even when I'd rather have stabbed myself in the eyes with radioactive pencils instead. I learned, finally, that sometimes hating even the thought of working on That Bloody Thing Again should not be enough to make you abandon it completely.

      Writing Draft Two has, on many occasions, felt like trying to suck porridge through a straw. You're right; draft one was a cakewalk by comparison! (Mmmmm, cake....) But now I've signed up to a writer's forum where you can track the progress of your novel - and seeing it in the form of a nifty little progress bar on screen (showing just over halfway now - woohoo!) appeals to both the gamer and the ex-software technician in me.

      Gonna get me a Chocolate Bar of Finishing+1 when I finally level up again!