When the Novelty of Writing Your Novel Wears Thin
12 tips for finishing your book from an author who has gone the distance
Novels are long, laborious affairs. It can take anywhere from a few high-energy months to ten plodding years to write one. In that span of time, you might be dragged down in the swell of plot difficulties, tantalizing new novel ideas, and doldrums that threaten to bring you to a halt.
This is a dilemma many authors face, and the key is to remember: Even a rough but completed novel is better than an incomplete brilliant one, so press on to the finish line. Here are some top tips to help you persevere.
Phone a Friend
Every novel begins life as an idea, and that idea will swirl around an author’s head for a while until she decides to ask someone else what they think about it. For me, that person is my sister. Not only is she a prolific reader and editor, but she has that one core quality: brutal honesty. Whenever I’m wondering why I’m writing one thing rather than another, I phone her up and she calmly lists the good qualities. Just like that, everything falls back into perspective.
I belong to a writing group, a trusty collective of women who meet every month to critique each other’s work and discuss writing and its challenges, which are predominantly fitting the practice into work schedules and childcare. These wonderful women read the first 100 pages of a manuscript and then discuss their perceptions of the premise, plot, and characters. Nothing brings a surge of energy to my writing like an honest evaluation. Honesty is key. My mom is lovely, but she says everything I write is amazing, which is very kind of her, but not as useful as a bluntly upfront appraisal.
Even a rough but completed novel is better than an incomplete brilliant one.
Make a List
One of my writing friends is a list-maker. Every idea is plotted into a list, and then each point becomes a subhead, which is expanded until, voilà, it forms the contours of a novel. To me, this is a bit like following recipes: I can’t resist the temptation to flout the rules and go rogue.
However, I do use lists for getting through problematic areas. It goes like this: write a list of everything that works in the novel, from great characters to riveting plot twists, just to remind yourself that you’re heading in the right direction. Then, write what doesn’t work so well. Identifying a problem is halfway to solving it.
Go Back or Skip Forward
A break in what you’re doing can pay off: You’ll be able to return with a clearer view of what’s working and what’s not, and, hopefully, a new bout of enthusiasm. I’m all for writing a pitch or going back to work on the beginning, which always needs more care and attention.
Skipping difficult chapters works, too. Put in a place holder with a few notes, and then return to it when you’re further through the book.
Just Do It
I love a quotation from Ruth Rendell: “I get a lot of letters from people. They say, ‘I want to be a writer. What should I do?’ I tell them to stop writing to me and get on with it.” Ultimately, being a novelist demands that you sit and write.
My teenage daughter has trouble getting through her studies, and I came across this little technique for staying focused. She instantly derided it, but it has become my savior for getting through the 3 p.m. doldrums. Set the timer on your phone to 30 minutes, promise yourself a small reward afterward, and then press “Go!” During this time, enforce a strict no-internet policy. No email is so important that it can’t wait 30 minutes.
Divide It Up
A novel is a mammoth task. There’s nothing as terrifying as looking at your word count and knowing that you’re seven percent through, with three hundred blank pages to fill. Divide it into workable parts, and set yourself mini deadlines.
Don’t Worry, You Can Always Edit It
Jodi Picoult once said: “You can always edit a bad page. You can’t edit a blank page.” Don’t let fear of writing get in the way, and remember there’s no such thing as writer’s block.
Identifying a problem is halfway to solving it.
Treat It Like a Job
An author friend likes to pretend it’s a job, sitting at her desk 9–5 and giving herself a certain number of words that need to be written every day. She tells me this has the added attraction of distancing herself from it, as if someone else is paying you to write.
Do You Need a Rethink?
Sometimes there might be a reason why you’re dragging your feet. Plots feel hackneyed, characters are lackluster, or there’s simply a problem in the premise. Sit back and decide whether something needs to change.
Keep a File of New Ideas
Q: I have a shiny, new novel idea that feels so much more thrilling than the one I’ve been slaving over for months. Do I cast the old one aside to write the new one?
A: Stop! Put your brilliant new ideas into a folder on your desktop labeled, “Do Not Open Until Current Novel Is Finished!” Remember that even the shiniest new ideas also lose their sheen after a few months of writing.
Celebrate Every Achievement
Rewards are the fuel in this long-haul job, and I am ready and generous with chocolates, phone calls, and screen time whenever I get something done, from completing a 30-minute timer to “THE END.”
Good luck and may patience, ingenuity, and full-throttle doggedness be with you!
Jennifer Ryan is a bestselling author who lives in the Washington, D.C., area with her husband, two children, dog, cat, and hamster. Her forthcoming novel, The Kitchen Front, is about a wartime cooking contest, complete with wartime recipes.