Like many writers, for years I had trouble finishing a novel draft. I had a lot of starts, and one half-completed novel. It wasn’t until I sat down with another partially written novel, and decided to write through to the end that I finally finished a first draft. I gave myself a three-month deadline, and wrote the remaining three-quarters of the novel in long hand. I repeated the feat a couple of years later by writing two short novels back to back in the space of two months, the second during National Novel Writing Month.
At last I’d figured out how to write a first draft all the way to “The End.” Learning how to write a novel that worked took longer, and only happened after an intense few years spent studying storytelling craft. At the same time, I’ve found there are always obstacles to overcome in finishing a first draft.
Today’s Words of Wisdom looks at that challenge, with excerpts from posts by Mark Alpert, Clare Langley Hawthorne, and James Scott Bell.
[F]iction-wise, it was a wonderful week for me, because I completed the first draft of my next novel. My daily word count always rises to extraordinary (at least for me) levels when I’m nearing the end, partly because I get caught up in the climax of the book and partly because I just want to finish the darn thing. I love writing 2,000 words a day, but it also makes me feel bad about how little I write at other times. I say to myself, “Why can’t you write this much all the time? Then you could knock off a novel in two months and spend the rest of the year on your tennis game.”
I can’t reveal any details about the book because I hate talking about my novels while I’m still writing them. And I know I’ll be revising this book for the next few months, so it’s not really finished. But completing the first draft is a big milestone for me. At least I know now how the book will end. I had a vague idea of the ending while I was writing the manuscript, but I wasn’t sure how it would all come together until I started the final chapter. Before that moment I worried I would hit some unforeseen obstacle — a logical inconsistency, or maybe a hopelessly implausible plot twist — and the whole enterprise would fall apart.
But it didn’t. At this point I have no idea whether the book is any good, but at least it hangs together. Now I have to wait to hear from my editor. He already read the beginning of the book, and he liked it, but I don’t know how he’ll feel about the end. I’m not even sure how I feel about it. I’m too close to the thing. But I’m cautiously optimistic. The reason for my optimism: bullet ants. The ending has a scene featuring bullet ants. You see, I just broke my rule about never revealing details of a novel-in-progress, but I couldn’t help it. Bullet ants are fascinating creatures.
Although I still have lots of work to do on the book, I decided to reward myself for finishing the first draft. So I spent three days biking and playing tennis. (I have to work off the five pounds I gained while writing the novel.) The best reward, though, was simply writing THE END at the bottom of the last page of the manuscript. I have no idea how many times I’ll be able to write those words in my life, so I intend to enjoy the experience as much as possible every time it happens.
Mark Alpert—April 20, 2013
I can’t count the number of people who have expressed how much they want to be a writer but cannot seem to actually finish writing a book – they have parts and bits in a drawer but nothing complete – either for further editing, submission or publication. I sympathize because this was me for many, many years.
I always wanted to be a writer, or at least I expressed that desire, but, apart from half written pieces, drafts and jottings, I somehow never managed to actually finish a project. This all changed when, though some weird serendipity/alignment of the stars, I quit my job in anticipation of starting a Ph.D and then discovered my brain was finally free to do what I had always wanted to do – write a novel. I was extremely lucky to have found an agent interested in my work at my first writer’s conference and this undoubtedly spurred me on to finish the project she and I discussed. (Who knows, if I hadn’t had this impetus, maybe Ursula’s first mystery would still be half-finished and languishing in a drawer…)
So what are the many impediments to actually sitting down and completing a manuscript? There’s the time factor obviously – but this is an excuse which wears thin as even established novelists have to carve out time from their lives (a task which is never easy) and most have balanced other careers, families and other commitments in order to complete the task ahead. For me, I think the impediment was always internal, rather than external. I lacked the confidence to complete a novel, and I spent more time self-censoring myself in some elusive quest to be ‘literary’ enough (a standard I set that could never be attained). Even today I still question my ability to complete the task, but I am fortunate enough to have the motivation and the support of family, fellow writers, editors and my agent to continue to write. Now I suspect it’s a mixture of stubbornness, accountability and ambition that keeps me writing – but that doesn’t mean it gets any easier to complete the task!
Clare Langley-Hawthorne—May 25, 2015
What is it that keeps us from finishing a project?
It could be fear … that we haven’t got a handle on the story.
It could be perfectionism … we want the story to be excellent, but sense it isn’t the best it can be.
It could be laziness … it’s easier to tell someone who doesn’t write just how hard it is to write, than it is to actually write.
Whatever it is, it holds us up. And that’s bad for everyone, including your characters.
I find endings to be the hardest part of the craft. They have to do so much–leave the reader satisfied or, better, grateful. Wrap up the story questions. Deliver a certain resonance.
And we all know a lousy ending can ruin an otherwise great reading experience.
My own approach to endings is to have a climactic scene in mind from the start, even though it is subject to change without notice. It usually does change, because as your book grows, unplanned things start to happen. Characters develop in surprising ways; a plot twist takes you around an unforeseen corner. I’ve even had characters refuse to leave a scene when I’ve told them to. I always try to incorporate these things because, as Madeleine L’Engle once said, “If the book tells me to do something completely unexpected, I heed it. The book is usually right.”
As you make these changes in your plot, the ripples go forward in time to affect how the book will end.
So you adjust. When I get to the point where I’m going to write my ending scenes, I follow a plan I call Stew, Brew, Accrue and Do.
I think hard about the ending for half an hour or so, then take a long walk, letting the story “stew” in my subconscious. My walk inevitably hits a Starbucks, because you can’t walk in any direction on earth for very long before hitting a Starbucks.
Inside I go and order an espresso. Brew.
I sip the espresso and take out a little notebook and pen. That’s when I Accrue. I jot idea after idea, image after image, doodle after doodle. I’m not writing the words of the ending, I’m just capturing all the stuff the Boys in the Basement are throwing out at me because they are hopped up on caffeine.
Then it’s back to my office where I actually Do–write the blasted thing until it’s done!
James Scott Bell—April 3, 2016
There you have it, advice on finishing the first draft.
- Do you write at a steady pace while drafting, or do you have a big push of words to finish your draft?
- Do you reward yourself when you finish?
- What is your biggest obstacle to finishing your first draft?
- Does your ending change as you draft?