How to (Finally) Finish Your Novel

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Writing a novel is a big undertaking. All those words! My friends and family have said to me. How do you have it in you to write all those pages? But the word count is the least of a writer’s concerns. There’s also plot structure, character development, pacing and language to worry about, among other things.

Novels are complicated. With all the moving parts involved, they’re a lot like a complex machine that no one has ever seen before. And you’re the inventor.

Because of all these layers it’s easy to get stuck on writing the first chapter, or bogged down in the middle. When you’re building the machine, the half-finished product under your hands doesn’t match up to the completed blueprint in your head. But how could it? It’s not finished yet.

That’s why—when you’re writing the very first draft of your novel—your most important goal should be crossing the finish line. In order to begin refining your machine so that it does resemble your inner vision, you need to have a working model in front of you. Even if that model happens to be crappy, it still contains all the parts. To give yourself a fighting chance of making this thing work, you need see every little cog and wheel that will go into it.

If you only build your machine halfway, and then you start trying to improve it, you’re going to end up with a huge mess and a machine that doesn’t work.

That means you need a completed sloppy first draft before you can start improving anything.

As a writing coach, this is the number one problem writers bring to me. They’ve started a book and can’t get past the first third, or they’re halfway through and want to throw the whole thing away out of frustration. Or they’re suddenly suffering from writer’s block and just can’t move forward with the story.

All of these issues come down to the writer trying to edit and revise a first draft that is not yet a finished story.

This is why NaNoWriMo has such a huge following and so many writers report success by joining it. Given the deadline of a mere month to write a novel, there just isn’t time to begin picking it apart. The goal for these NaNo writers is: finish-line-finish-line-finish-line. Because the pressure is on, and the deadline so intense, these writers effectively block their inner critic and learn the difference between writing vs. editing the down-and-dirty way.

I wish I could give you an easy list of tips on how to push through that sloppy first draft, but the truth is that if you’ve never done it before, it’s not that easy. And there is only one way through, only one way to make to the other side. You have to keep writing that novel. You have to keep adding to it, and getting the words down, and filling up the pages, even when you doubt the story, or you’re frustrated with your characters, or you’re tired of it. You have to keep pushing on even when you reread your last pages and cringe.

I’ve written a few posts in the past geared toward helping writers move ahead in finishing that sloppy first draft:

Writing vs. Editing

Right Brain vs. Left Brain

How the Research Vampire Can Suck the Life Out of Your Book

Stop Re-Reading, Start Moving Forward

As you can see, this a topic I’ve come back to again and again in this blog. It’s because I meet so many writers struggling with this problem. In fact, I’m writing my fifth novel and I still struggle with it.

So if you’re stuck somewhere in the frozen no-man’s land of your sloppy first draft, and your story is ready to give up and die on the snowy tundra, take heart. This is a common thing for writers. Your story doesn’t have to die. But it’s up to you to build a fire and keep it going.

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