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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11 Comments

  • Reply hilarycustancegreen 9 September, 2013 at 10:15 am

    I smiled as I read this because I have become familiar with that moment (after three novels). It is almost as if you have been driving and have a complete brain-fade about where you were going. Your great vision looks like a rat sandwich that no one is ever going to enjoy. Your main character has changed sex. Someone’s pregnancy has lasted 18 months. You can’t remember the word for the little white flowers in your lawn. The temptation is to stop and sort out everything and recover the vision.
    My maddening habit is to change the name of the main character and keep writing. (Kind friends who read for me hate this – sorry).
    In another life as a sculptor I learned how to just keep working when it goes pear-shaped. You can’t even dream of winning if you never cross the finishing line.

  • Reply Maria M 9 September, 2013 at 10:22 am

    Enjoyed and found it helpful. I find getting past the finishing post too easy. Then when I’m editing I discover it is lacking in pace or twists, that’s the hard bit. I would encourage every one to give nanowrimo a go. I have three books sitting on my bookshelf bearing my name.
    And it is all the encouragement I need to keep going.

  • Reply Craig 9 September, 2013 at 10:57 am

    Your post is excellent timing! I just signed up for NaNo for the first time the other day.

    I am definitely a victim of not being able to complete stories. I get to a spot that doesn’t feel like it’s heading in the right direction and then BAM! I hit a wall…

    You analogy to inventing and building a prototype vs blueprint really hit home for me as an engineer! I will definitely start thinking about writing drafts in that perspective and I think it will help a lot. Thanks!

  • Reply Joshua Robertson 9 September, 2013 at 11:14 am

    i definitely enjoyed this post. This was great inspiration to be successful in completing a novel. Time to get back to work!

  • Reply JD 9 September, 2013 at 11:36 am

    I decided to participate in NaNoWriMo. I have no idea what I’ll write, but the event as a whole will be exciting.

  • Reply Mary M. Forbes 9 September, 2013 at 11:43 am

    Very good advice. I even outline chapters with many brackets saying (expand on or research…. in red), rather than lose the momentum of finishing a book in rough draft. My rough drafts are very seldom good or readable. But I like to finish first. That doesn’t mean I don’t get writers block when I begin polishing either or that I don’t make changes in the plot.

  • Reply Justine Covington 9 September, 2013 at 8:45 pm

    Great post, Lauren. As Nora Roberts said, “The only page I can’t fix is a blank one.”

    • Reply Setsu 10 September, 2013 at 2:40 pm

      What a great quote!

  • Reply Steph Shangraw 10 September, 2013 at 10:02 am

    Partway through the first draft of my fourth, and definitely have hit this moment repeatedly in my life. As long as the momentum is there and I don’t stop to think at all, it isn’t too bad – but the minute anything makes me stumble, all the doubts pile in. I know from experience that a lot of the holes in the early part of a novel will be filled in by what happens later in it, and reminding myself of that usually helps.

    Living with an artist, I usually visualize it as an initial sketch that blocks in where the various figures and objects in the composition go and how thy fit together, but I like the machinery analogy, too. 🙂

  • Reply Glynis Jolly 12 September, 2013 at 4:07 am

    You must have been listening to all the confusion in my head that’s been fogging my thoughts about the story I’ve been trying to write. I haven’t read the links to your posts about 1st drafts and finishing yet, but I will.

  • Reply Kimberly Hill 13 September, 2013 at 8:39 pm

    Great post. Loved the part about novels being made up of moving parts, which has been my experience as well.
    Thanks for visiting my blog. Hope you have a great day.

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