Write On: write on.
Okay, so we’ve talked about the equipment you need to write your novel, about finding time and space for writing. We’ve considered structure, setting, characters and plot plans, and we’ve done as much research as we need to do to get to the stage where we feel it’s possible to write about this setting.
If we’re a highly organized planner we now have character sheets, timelines, several binders full of notes on settings and other such stuff, and we have a nicely structured plot plan to write to. If we’re a pantser we hopefully have enough of an idea about the main character, the setting and what’s about to happen next to dive in.
Now we can finally start writing.
There’s really only one secret you need to know in order to finish the first draft of your novel, and that is “don’t stop moving forwards until you’re finished.”
When I started writing, I wrote on a schedule which went like this: I wrote the first five chapters of a novel in a state of high enthusiasm, thoroughly enjoying myself and the book. Then, somewhere around chapter six I had a brilliant idea of how to make the first five chapters better by completely rewriting them. So I completely rewrote them. But by the time I’d finished the rewrite I had a better idea still, so I rewrote them again.
After several cycles of this, I would be so fed up that I never wanted to see the book again, and I would be seized by the wish to write a different brilliant idea.
So, I would set that book aside, unfinished, start a new one, and the cycle would start all over again. By this means, I wrote at least six beginnings of novels, which I still have in my desk drawers. I still take them out every now and again to see if I want to finish them, and I still can’t bear to work on them ever again.
If this doesn’t happen to you, then you are fortunate, and possibly quite rare, because it seems to be a common affliction of writers.
If it does happen to you, I have one guaranteed solution which I have tested and adopted myself. It is this – don’t stop writing, and don’t go back to rewrite until you have finished the end of the first draft.
By all means, if you have a brilliant idea which changes everything, make a note that it needs to be introduced earlier and then carry on writing as if you had already done so. By all means change everything from the point where you currently are – everything that only exists in idea form anyway – just don’t go back and change what you did write until you’ve finished.
This seems to be an odd way of going about it, but a novel is more prone to stall than a vintage car going up hill in too high a gear with water in the petrol and snow on the road – and with equally disastrous results. You need to do everything you can to maintain forward momentum if you’re not to end up tobogganing backwards off the slope to ruin.
If you don’t stop to rewrite, if you don’t stop at all until you’ve finished the first draft, then you will have a finished first draft, it’s as sure as summer. And OK, it may be a very rough first draft, but it’s easier to edit something which exists than it is to edit something that doesn’t, and five chapters of perfection doesn’t actually do you anywhere near as much good as a whole novel no matter how rough it is.
I offer this advice quite strongly, because it has been of immense use to me. However, I know that I am not all writers. I’ve met some people who, when their novels stalled 5 chapters in, began another novel, and then they finished both novels by working on one when their muse wouldn’t let them work on the other one. If you get fretful and bored working on one novel at once, maybe this is the solution for you. It doesn’t work for me, but there’s no law against trying it and seeing if it works for you instead.
A lot of writers insist on the idea that you should write your first draft from start to finish without troubling yourself with worry about how good the words are. Don’t stop to polish, just get the words down, they would say. Don’t let your inner editor get its claws into the first draft, this time is time for your inner creative genius to roam free, unfettered by things like grammar or attempts at poetic expression.
I tend to be of this school of thought myself. I find it’s much easier to concentrate on making up whole worlds and people from thin air if you don’t also have to concentrate on making your sentences beautiful. I like to do a content draft and several editing drafts, so that in the first draft all I have to think about is what happens next. Then I work on beautifying that later. It gives me only one type of writing task to do at once and means I can concentrate on each type (writing v revising) fully each at its own time.
However, if you really can’t stand moving on from a day’s work knowing that it’s imperfect, there’s nothing wrong with writing a first draft slowly and carefully, mindful of things like word choice and grammar right from the start. Then you can open the next day’s session with editing what you did yesterday, and proceed to further writing as soon as that’s done. As long as it doesn’t stop you moving forwards, it’s fine.
Actually the plain truth is this – the only reason first drafts don’t get finished is that authors choose not to finish them. You can finish anything if you just refuse to allow yourself not to. Whether or not you finish is entirely up to you. Just do it, therefore, and don’t make excuses. As Chuck Wendig says – “Finish your shit.”
That is the secret formula to finishing a novel. As easy as that. Don’t stop writing it until it’s done.
You’d think it didn’t need saying, but so many authors buy into the idea that writing is a matter of being swept away by the muses that when they get to the inevitable point where writing feels like hard work they stop and wait for the muses to come and rescue them. The muses, being faery creatures, laugh their little socks off at this and take it as an opportunity to pixie-lead the writer off down another dead end path, and much effort is expended achieving nothing. As with genius, writing is 1% gambolling with the muses, 99% nose to grindstone. The muses will do their bit, but you have to your part too, and sadly, your part is everything.
I was about to say that was all there was to say for this part. Whether you finish or not is your decision. If you want to finish, just keep writing until you have.
OTOH, there may be some cases where you grind to a halt and you simply cannot force yourself to work on this thing again. There may be some cases where you’d rather spend your leisure time stacking shelves at the supermarket than carrying on with this book, because you loathe it. You loathe the characters, you loathe the plot and you find the whole thing bores you to tears.
If you really can’t push through a block like this, and you know because you’ve tried, and you know that you normally can push through, because you’ve finished several books already and recognise the normal pitfalls of the process, then a really powerful repellance from a book may be a sign that there’s something wrong with the book as it stands.
Then it’s worth stopping for a couple of days and thinking about it. Is this actually a book you want to write at all? Why are you writing a book about clog dancing in the Urals when you’re really interested in Texas cup cake bakers? Are you doing this because other people want you to? Because statistics proved more people wanted to read about the Urals? In short, do you hate it because it’s the sort of thing you hate? (As opposed to hating it for no good reason because that’s just how a writer’s emotional roller coaster goes.)
If you hate it because it’s the sort of thing you hate, but you’re writing it because it’s the sort of thing you think you should write, then the entire project is fundamentally wrong-headed and your best solution is probably to stop writing it as soon as you can and start writing something you actually want to write instead.
If you hate it for some smaller reason, such as because your main character has grown up to be a complete git who you’d rather see eviscerated than happy ever after, then you have the chance of a less drastic solution. Kill off the MC and replace him with someone you enjoy being around, then write on. The plot’s boring? Re-plot and write on. The setting’s actually kind of pretentious? Put them all on a boat and get them out of there, you can finesse the start to match in the second draft.
If you can salvage a novel that you’ve been working on for five chapters, it’s well worth doing it, even if that means jettisoning your entire plot from that point and reworking it. It’s always a shame to have to abandon any of your work. But on the other hand it’s also better to abandon the millstone around your neck if it means you avoid drowning. Just imagine the millstone is made of gold and only drop it if you’re absolutely certain you have to. Otherwise, write on until you reach the end.