Friday, August 28, 2015

How to Transition From "I'm Writing a Novel" to "I Wrote a Novel"

I've met a lot of beginning writers in my life, both in my real life and through the Internet, and one of the main struggles many of them had was not being able to finish novels. It could be many issues: working on one book for years but never reaching an end, always procrastinating, giving up on books before ever finishing them, having too many ideas and not enough motivation or time to do them all. But whatever it was, the same thing plagued them: they were always writing a novel (or ten), but they still hadn't finished one.

Before you've finished writing your first novel, actually finishing a novel seems like an insurmountable task. Like something only Real True Writers can do. But as someone who's finished several novels, let me tell you, anybody can do this. And many people, even you, can do it well (which is the important part, of course). The actual struggle comes in revision and editing... but I won't get into that, haha. Right now I want to give you some tips on how to actually get through that novel.

A last word before I get into my sage advice: I'm obviously not the super-expert on this topic. (But it just goes to show that it doesn't take a super expert to finish a novel.) Still, especially if you are young and impressionable, remember that I don't know everything. If you find that these tips don't work for you, you don't have to listen. Same goes for any writing advice from any author.

Stop doing things that are obviously procrastination
Now, it would really be hypocritical of me to say "don't procrastinate," as the Queen of Procrastination. But when I procrastinate, I know full well what I'm doing: I'm doing nonsense that is putting off the real work. Don't procrastinate and pretend that you're doing something writerly. If it's not straight-up writing, it's not work. The exceptions are: research, plot outlining, maaaaybe character development if it's necessary for the plot, and recharging when you have no energy (sleeping, eating, taking a walk to clear your head).
However, making character charts based on their astrological sign does not count as writing work. Cover art in Photoshop: not writing. Working on your Pinterest board: not writing. Telling your friends about your book: not writing. Don't get me wrong... all those activities are super fun. But they're not writing. So don't tell yourself that they are. 

Participate in National Novel Writing Month
NaNoWriMo: the savior of all writers. I finished my first novel during NaNoWriMo, and you can too. If you don't know what NaNoWriMo is, let me tell you: it's a month, during November, in which writers across the world get together to write 50,000 words of a novel. In one month. Sounds impossible? It's not. It takes a lot of caffeine, crying, and time management, but you'll be able to do it. (If 50,000 sounds a bit steep, try the Young Writers Program first, where you can set your own word count).
Why is NaNoWriMo so amazing? Because it forces you to do the most important thing in writing a novel: write. "But it'll be terrible quality writing!" Let me tell you something: it doesn't matter how long you take to write a first draft. First drafts are ALWAYS terrible quality writing. This way, however, you get all that awful writing done in a month, instead of five years. Granted, 50,000 words does not always make a novel, but it's a good start. I cannot sell NaNoWriMo enough. It is a beautiful experience that will change your life as a writer and will probably save your novel from that dreaded place, the shelf of abandoned ideas. DO. NANOWRIMO.

Stick to one idea (but be willing to accept defeat if it sucks)
One main struggle for writers that can't finish a novel is this: they can't stick to one idea. They're in the middle of one when it gets hard and all of a sudden, a shiny new one flits by. And even if they try to do two at the same time, pretty sure, the new one wins. And then it happens again. Until they have a pile of promising beginnings and no middles or ends.
If this is your problem, it's time to get to some perseverance. Every book gets hard and grimy and sticky in the middle. Whatever the new idea is, it's going to do that too. Unless you want to spend the rest of your life writing only beginnings, you have to root yourself to one idea and wade in. (Mixed metaphors, I know). If that new idea is really so good, it can wait until you're done with this one. You can make a file or notebook to keep ideas in for later. Right now, you're working on this book, and this book only. There are some writers who are capable of working on more than one manuscript at a time. The difference is, those writers persevere with ALL of their manuscripts. You have to be able to get yourself through the middle, and if you find that new ideas are making it difficult to do that, then put the new ideas on hold for now.
But let me be clear: this doesn't mean that whatever book you're working on now is the only book you can ever work on until this book is published and in bookstores. Sometimes, you realize that an idea sucks. After months or years of work, the book just doesn't hold any promise anymore. Sometimes it's bad luck; sometimes it's because you grew as a writer and suddenly realized what a cliche the whole plot was. You are allowed to give up on ideas. But give it your best shot first.

At some point you have to let the story carry you- even if you like outlines
I read a metaphor for writing once that really stuck with me. Writing a book is like riding a horse at night. Sometimes, it's easy: you know the path, heck, you made the path yourself. Sometimes, you're a little lost, but you can guide the horse in the right direction. And sometimes, the horse goes wild, and you're scared and you don't know what you're doing. When that happens, you have to let it guide you, no matter how lost you feel.
Writing, and art in general, is about a lot of things, but one of them is letting your subconscious creativity work for itself. There's only so much planning and plotting and outlining you can do. Eventually, you're going to have to let the story carry you. It can be a little scary, but it's also fun. And it also creates your best work sometimes. So let go of the reins. Let go of your outline. Just write.

Stop rereading and editing as you write
Rereading and editing what you've already written is so tempting. It's much easier than actually writing. You get to read your old writing, which is the best guilty pleasure, because you'll obviously skip to the scenes you wrote best. And the editing is so easy here, because you're just catching sentence mishaps and weird dialogue and typos, not full-on plot restructuring.
But you have to resist the temptation to do this. It wastes so much time that should be spent writing. Remember, you will reread and edit after you've finished the novel. Right now, there's no use for that, except that it will probably mess with the writing you're doing now. Stick with where you are in the story, and don't revisit old scenes. (Unless you need a quick reference, obviously.)

Let go of the need for perfection
It's going to take a million years to finish your first draft if you want it to be perfect. And then you'll come to the end and realize that it sucks anyway. I'm going to repeat again: ALL FIRST DRAFTS ARE TERRIBLE. No exceptions. The first draft of Harry Potter sucked. I've read excerpts of it on J.K. Rowling's old website, so I know firsthand. All. First. Drafts. Are. Terrible. And that's what makes them so wonderful! They are terrible and the worst and a huge big mess and because of that, you get creative ideas and craziness and big ideas. Laboring over every comma and word slows that fast, furious process to a sluggish crawl and ruins the creative process. (Yeah, I've been seeing too many YouTube ads for the new Fast and Furious movie). Maureen Johnson has a great video on this called "Dare to Suck" and that's really, really true. You have to suck; it's absolutely necessary to writing a good novel.
So don't spend hours making each sentence perfect. Don't worry that your outline is chaotic. And don't, please don't, refrain from taking creative license somewhere because you're afraid it won't work. Let go of fear, and let go of your need for perfection. Just write, and let it be terrible. Write terrible stuff and cringe the second you're done writing it, and don't go back to delete! Just keep writing until you've churned out your beautiful, terrible mess of a first draft.

Inspiration is a luxury- writing depends on work
There's a quote by some artist that goes something like, "When the muse finds me, I want it to find me working." (I tried to Google it, but I can't find who said it or the exact phrasing). That is great advice for any writer. You absolutely cannot depend on inspiration, or the muse, or any ridiculous idea like that. That rush of inspiration that gets you fired up about working happens so rarely. Imagine if you only did your homework or work for your job when you were super-excited about algebra or sales reports or whatever. You'd fail, or get fired. Same thing with writing. You have to work even when you don't feel like it. That doesn't mean you have to work when you're sick, or depressed, or uber-busy, although I'd admire you if you kept working then too. But it does mean that you have to work on your writing even when it's not an ideal time, or when you're not really in the writing mood. Because the writing mood doesn't happen a lot. And to be honest, it usually happens when you're already writing.
That goes along with my next tip...

Figure out your writing schedule
With our busy lives full of school, work, social life, and whatever else you have going on, not to mention sleep, it can be hard to find time to write. But if writing matters to you, which I should hope it does if you've managed to get this far in this ridiculously long blog post, then you have to make time. "Make time," for some writers, means cramming writing in at terrible times, or not paying attention in class or work, or skipping other obligations to write. Those are all good ideas, but a little time management work can help you avoid that. Find out what your best writing time is. Do you write best in the morning, or at night? Are you good at writing every day, or do you work best with big writing sprints on the weekend? Does music help, or does it distract you? Are you better at writing after a long day of work, or do you have more energy before you've already tired yourself out? Is Tuesday the best day for writing for you? Whatever it is, figure it out, and then do it. Once you've got a schedule, you're a lot farther along on your way to getting a lot of writing done.

Let go of your Grand Visions about writing because they aren't happening
If you think writing a novel is going to be easy, you're never going to finish one. It's not easy. That sounds like I'm contradicting the beginning of the post where I said anyone can do it. That's true. Anyone can do it, but they're going to suffer and it's going to be hard. Even with the realization that you can be terrible and veer off from your plot and just scribble out words, you're still going to want to actually write something coherent that has a real plot structure and arc. And doing that is hard, especially when it's the first draft and you're making something out of nothing. As hard as editing is, at least you have something to work with. Editing is like sculpting and polishing rough gold, whereas first drafts are like alchemy.
So there's not going to be much beautiful staring into sunsets and sitting around coffee shops and fighting with your soul on stormy nights. Seriously, take this time to put all your romantic notions into a box and put that box in another box, and then mail it to yourself, and when it arrives, smash it with a hammer. Writing is a wonderful and amazing endeavor, to be sure. But not in any of the ways you've imagined. Instead, it's mundane, unromantic work, day after day, mostly taking place on your laptop or a scrappy composition notebook and probably in your bed or on the train. The real amazing romantic visions take place in your imagination, in the stuff you put into the story. That's where you should put all your excitement and wonder about the writing process: into the story.

You don't have to write a novel in the conventional way
Sometimes, the problem that's stopping you from finishing a novel is your writing process. You might have read a lot of writing advice online (not mine, though- my advice is all perfect) that suggests that there's only one way to write a novel. Well, that's not true at all. If you're having difficulty doing it the way you think it ought to be done, then don't do it that way.
For example, you don't have to start at the beginning. You can jump around and do whatever scenes are best. Or, if you just can't stomach those transition scenes, you can write just the bare skeleton of the plot and then fill it in later. Taryn Albright writes about her unorthodox writing process here (though I do not expect any mere mortal to write a book in a weekend). Basically, what I'm saying is, there's more than one way to finish a novel. You can play around, or look online for suggestions, until you find a method you're comfortable with.

Lower your expectations of yourself. Write a little a day
This is the big one for me. My biggest obstacle in writing novels is expecting the world of myself. Every time I sat down to write, I'd make the mistake of thinking, "I have four hours to write. Totally enough time to write, like, 5,000 words. I better finish the next two chapters. Make that three chapters. I'll be done by next week!" or something like that. And then, without fail, the thought of writing so much overwhelmed me, and I'd get so much anxiety about writing that I would simply shut down and go on Tumblr or something instead.
If you're capable of writing a lot very fast, good for you. To be honest, I can write a lot very fast too. But I can't do that every time I sit down to write. So if I expect myself to write too much every time I write, nothing's going to get written. Instead, I lower my expectations. 200 words a day, or 500 words, or 1,000 words- whatever works best for you. Or don't make it a word count. Finish one scene today. Get some work done today, however much it happens to be. Write until you get tired. Write through one round of your writing playlist, then stop. You might think "writing that little won't get anything done!" Ah, but writing a little every day will add up. And if you write 1 page a day for a year, you'll have 365 pages by the end. If you expect yourself to write 10 pages every day but 95% of the time the expectation makes you freak out and write nothing, I don't know the math, but you'll have a lot less done by the end of the year. So write a little every day.

And finally... the most important of all:
You don't have to finish a novel right now, or even ever.
Finishing a novel might seem like the ultimate accomplishment to you. But writing isn't about accomplishments; it's about writing. It's about getting the stories in your head out into the paper and letting them make their way into the souls of readers. Focus on that, more than on any word count or goal. You can take as long as you'd like to finish a novel- it doesn't have to be done before you turn 20, or before you graduate, or by any deadline you're setting for yourself. So don't feel like you have to live up to some expectation or deadline or to whatever other people your age are doing. Complete the goals that make you happy about your life. That might not even mean writing a novel. Working on a novel might turn out to be an experience that leads you to something else, or teaches you that novels just aren't for you. You might turn out to like poetry better, or short stories, or screenwriting. Maybe novellas are better. Maybe you're not a writer, but an actor, or a scientist, or a graphic designer. That doesn't mean your time writing a novel was wasted- it means it was an experience that helped you grow.
If you take anything away from this post, let it be this: don't fixate on what you're supposed to do, or what you thought you were supposed to do before. Do what you love instead.

OK, wow, this was really long and I am very tired. Thank you so much if you read the whole thing- let me know your thoughts in the comments!

1 comment:

  1. This was exceptionally informative and if I was a writer, I would find it super helpful. I do, however, find that it happens to apply to other areas of life as well.
    You are very good at presenting ideas in an organized way, which makes them much easier to understand and remember. And you keep it fun (I mean LOL kind of fun).
    BTW, I kept thinking you are speaking almost directly to a specific aspiring writer here. One who spends lots of time talking and planning and is yet to produce any actual pages of the final product. Am I right?