By: Alex Woolf
I used to be a serial non-finisher of novels. I have around six in various states of incompletion.
Sometimes these abandoned manuscripts give me nightmares. I hear their characters calling out to me, trapped forever in their unresolved states.
Happily, I’ve done a bit better in recent years, and seen quite a few of my YA novels completed and successfully published. But it’s those earlier, aborted ones that interest me.
- Why didn’t I finish them?
- Was the original idea defective in some way?
- Were they doomed before I even put a finger to keyboard?
- Did something happen along the way, and I lost interest during the writing process?
The answer is, of course, a bit of all of them.
Nothing can be done to save a novel if the initial idea is weak, or unsuitable for a work of that length. However, even when the concept was strong, things still often went awry – I hit obstacles such as self-doubt and fatigue, and simply couldn’t get past them. What changed was that I found techniques to strengthen myself, and the next time those obstacles arose, I was able to overcome them.
1. Have a plan
I cannot stress this enough. Without a plan, writing a novel is like trying to construct a skyscraper without foundations or a frame. Your plan is your support when the going gets tough, your map when you get lost, and your flashlight when all you can see ahead is darkness.
Divide your plan into sections that roughly correspond to the chapters. This plan acts as a guide to your novel. But it’s not the same as the synopsis that you will send to your agent or publisher once the novel is complete.
Most importantly, your plan should be an evolving document. As soon as you begin writing it, the story will start to change.
“No plan survives first contact with the enemy,” wrote 19th-century Prussian military strategist Helmuth van Moltke. You must adapt your plan to the changing circumstances of the novel. The plan and the emerging novel should be in a kind of perpetual dance, each influencing the other.
Ideas will occur to you as you write, and these should go into the plan. Sometimes a plot point can turn into a question or a fork in the road, to be resolved when you get there.
At the same time, it’s essential that your plan doesn’t become an infinitely adaptable, shape-shifting blancmange. It must keep its spine – or, to return to the map analogy, you can have as many exciting detours as you like, but don’t lose sight of the main path, or you might lose your way and never reach your destination.
2. Adopt a regular routine
Distractions have always been with us. I’m sure Austen, Dickens, and Tolstoy suffered them from time to time when guests called unexpectedly or the mail coach happened by, but distractions have never been more prevalent than today.
Social media is like a howling vortex that can suck you in for what seems like a moment, then spit you out three hours later, bedraggled and full of self-loathing. The only way to combat this is with a regular routine.
Ernest Hemingway would write solidly from 5.30 until 10.00 am. Japanese novelist Haruki Murakami begins even earlier, at 4 am, working for five to six hours. I, too, am a morning person, and when writing a novel, I find the early hours are always the most productive.
But everyone’s Biorhythms are different, and for some, evenings or nights are when they produce their best work. The important thing is to find a time that suits you – it has to be at least four hours a day, preferably at a stretch – and devote that time purely for writing your novel.
Switch off the phone and the email, hide yourself from your family and be entirely alone with your work.
3. Avoid the soggy bogs
Everyone’s heard of the dreaded ‘soggy middle’ of a novel. That’s the bit in between the dramatic opening and the climactic ending. In other words, most of it! Of course, in any decent novel, there should never be anything soggy about the middle. It should have its own dynamic rhythms and include:
- Rising tension
- Plot twists
Inevitably, however, there will be those ‘boggy’ moments, usually in the lulls between the more dramatic episodes. And when this happens, you’ll find yourself having to write a scene that may have been no more than a sentence in the plan, and you’re struggling.
Perhaps it involves an aspect of writing you don’t feel comes naturally to you, such as dialogue, exposition, or description. You feel like you’re trying to wade through a bog, and it’s tough. How you deal with these moments is absolutely critical.
One way would be to simply plow on through it as best you can to reach the fast-flowing waters beyond. This is a perfectly valid approach in a first draft, but don’t make the mistake of believing that the bog won’t come back to haunt your novel like a bad smell. It will still be there, even if you did manage to navigate it.
The trouble is, the next person to encounter it will be the reader. And if you didn’t enjoy writing that scene, they most certainly won’t relish reading it.
A far better approach would be to avoid the bog altogether. Look again at that scene.
- Why do you need it?
- Is there a more elegant way of expressing this plot point?
- Can you revel more about your character at this point?
- Perhaps it could be drip-fed through other scenes.
Bypass the bogs, and you (and your readers) will be much more likely to finish your novel.
4. Keep on to the end
Here’s my dirty secret: most of the novels I didn’t finish weren’t set aside early on; they were abandoned later, quite near the end, in fact, after I’d already committed many weeks and months to them.
Oh yes, I’d nurtured these projects, loved them, suffered with them, brought them very nearly to term, and then callously cast them aside.
Why? Impatience, basically – and boredom.
Novels are long-term projects. The writing process can last longer than some marriages, and like any relationship, they take commitment, and they have their ups and downs. If you’re not careful, some of those downs can end up in a divorce.
In my case, this usually began with adultery – I started cheating on my novel with an attractive little novella, and before I knew it, me and the original novel had gone our separate ways.
It’s quite common for novelists, even experienced ones, to be surprised at how long they take. As you near the end, your thoughts naturally turn to the next stage: the second draft, the editing process, the reactions of your editor or partner…
You start to think about the novel as a whole instead of doing your job, which is to just finish the damn thing. The ending might seem tantalisingly close, but that can be illusory. It can take time to resolve the complex, multi-layered narratives and character arcs, and tie up all the loose plot threads. Impatience with this process is typical.
So I’d suggest that you try not to overthink the next stages. Just stay in your daily routine and focus purely on the story and its needs. There is a time to look at the whole forest, and a time to look only at the next tree.
5. Find a support network
Another cliché of novel-writing, and there are many, is that it’s a lonely process. Well, it doesn’t have to be, or it need only be as lonely as you desire. Some writers relish the alone-time writing a novel can give them – just you, your thoughts, and a million possibilities. I know I do.
But I also find that too much isolation can send me a little bit round the twist. That’s why I’ve always felt the need for a support network.
In my case, it’s my writing group. We meet once a fortnight and read our latest scribblings to each other, giving constructive feedback, encouragement, and support.
It’s like a regular injection of writerly solidarity and love. Some writers may find something equivalent from their partners, families, and friends, or perhaps from an online writer’s forum.
The important thing is that these networks offer a confirmation that whatever we’re working on has value and potential in the wider world. And if anything’s going to encourage you to complete your novel, it’s a friend demanding to know how it’s all going to turn out!
Bio: Alex Woolf
Alex Woolf has written over 150 books, including 17 novels. Written mainly for children and young adults, his books have sold around the world and been translated into over a dozen different languages.
Alex is a regular author for Fiction Express, publishers of interactive stories for schools.
He regularly visits schools around the country offering talks and creative writing workshops. In his spare time he loves writing adult short stories and novellas.
Alex Woolf and Dan Brotzel are co-authors of a new comic novel, Kitten on a Fatberg (Unbound). As a reader of this post, you can pre-order Kitten on a Fatberg for a 10% discount – just quote KITTEN10 when prompted to buy.
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