Part 1: Introduction and overview

1.  For Openers
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“A novel is a long work in prose with something wrong with it.”

-- Samuel Johnson (paraphrased)

A novel is a sentence ten miles long.

Most writers start with a pretty good idea of what they want their book to be. At some point – maybe 20 pages in, maybe 200 pages in – they realize they're in strange territory: This is not the book they set out to write.

Here's the first of many secrets I'll share with you. This happens to everybody, even people who have written novels for years.

Go back to that ten-mile sentence. If it's ten miles in a perfectly straight line from, say, Los Angeles to Santa Monica, you'll get to Santa Monica beach if you keep that line straight. But let's say you deviate north or south by just a couple of inches early in the trip. From then on, every step you take leads you farther north or south of your destination. At the end of the line, you might wind up virtually anywhere – except Santa Monica.

When you're writing that ten-mile sentence, you make decisions every time you choose a word. You make decisions in every sentence, more in every paragraph, and dozens more on every page. Many of these are going to lead you off that straight line.

The good news is that those wrong turns may well lead you someplace better.

But many people writing a first novel don't know that. They look at this strange landscape they've created, and quit. The sad fact is that much of the time, the book they abandon is better than the one they set out to write. It's like a prospector who goes out looking for iron pyrites, finds gold, and throws it away.

Somewhere in the far reaches of space, I think there may be an imaginary library of all the manuscripts that never emerged fully into the light. There are millions of them. And the melancholy thing is that some of them are brilliant.

If you want to write a novel, or if you’ve already tried to write a novel but never finished it, this section is designed for you. But before you give it your valuable time, you should know there are also some things it’s not about. It’s not about getting an agent. It’s not about being published. When students ask me those questions in the first hour of my course, I always give them the same answer, which is, “First, finish your book.”

This is all about finishing your book.

 

2.  Why Don't You Finish That Book?
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“Whatever you think you can do or believe you can do, begin it - for action has magic and grace in it.”

-- Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

Beginning a book is a thrilling experience: Everything seems possible. Finishing one is much more difficult.

Why do people abandon their work? What pressures – internal or external – convince so many writers that they can’t (or shouldn’t) finish their story? Here are some of the reasons I hear most frequently.

  • As we've already seen, the book turns into something different than the one the author set out to write
  • The writer loses interest in the idea
  • The writing, if it’s going to be honest, gets too personal – it could harm others or it’s painful for the writer
  • The writing process gets boring
  • The writer hits a wall -- gets hopelessly lost, with no idea of how to proceed – somewhere around the mid-point of the story, the section I call the Dread Middle.
  • Every writing session turns into a battle with writer’s block that consumes most of the writer’s creative energy
  • The writer becomes convinced that he or she just doesn’t have what it takes, or that everything written so far stinks.
  • The would-be novelist holds his or her work to an impossible standard of perfection and then fails to live up to it.
  • _______________________________ (Fill in your own reason)

There's good news here: every one of these reasons can be dealt with, and we'll be talking about all of them. There's only one possible exception: the writer loses interest in his or her idea. And there are ways to get around that, too, unless the idea just isn't the right one for you. That's why we'll spend so much time on checking out your idea in the Getting Started section.

The secret to finishing a book is so simple it's practically not worth stating: keep writing. The central issue on this site is how to keep writing when these problems (and others) arise.

 

3.  Who Am I to Give You Advice?
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“Advice is like manure. You need to use it sparingly and consider the source.”

-- Dolores Feldon

I am not the best writer I know. I may not be as good a writer as you are. You may have a cleaner style or the power to create more vivid characters. You may possess stronger descriptive powers or a better sense of structure – the list goes on and on.

But if you’ve bothered to read this far, there is one thing I probably know more about than you do.

Finishing.

I have begun fourteen books in my life and finished twelve – one work of nonfiction and eleven novels. Of the twelve complete books, nine have been published or are about to be, and two are absolutely terrible. Terrible, but finished.

Statistically speaking, that puts me at twelve finished books for fourteen starts. In baseball terms, my batting average would be about .850. People who bat .850, if there were any, could afford a Rolls Royce with a chauffeur just to take them to the bathroom.

So however good or bad a writer I may be, I’m a world-class finisher.

Finishing a novel is obviously different than starting one. For one thing, it takes a whole lot longer. It demands discipline, good work habits, faith, courage, and a whole lot of other characteristics I don’t normally think of myself as possessing.

But here I am, with all these books that have my name on them. When I look at them, which I usually don’t do unless I’m dusting, I can see many things. I can see a lot of work, a lot of satisfaction, and even a few moments when what I wrote surprised and pleased me.

And I can see maybe five hundred times when I wanted to quit.

Not quitting is what this section of my site is all about. If you want to start a novel and actually finish it, I may be able to help you. If you’ve started one or more and abandoned them partway through, I may be able to help you. Not quitting is something I know a lot about.

Other than the fact that I've finished all these books, I'm probably a writer who has exactly the same problems you have. For example:

a. I never know what’s going to happen when I write

b. I have ideas I love but don’t know how to write

c. I have books I bailed on

d. I face all the same challenges you do: procrastination, anxiety, writer's block, indecision, frustration with the limitations of my talent, the occasional conviction that I’ll never again write a good sentence, a complete lack of ideas — you name it, I’ve got it.

But I've gotten through all of it, and the reason I'm writing all this is to help you get through it, too.

By, the way, most of what you’ll read here can also be used to help you finish other kinds of writing – short stories, even nonfiction. I’m focusing on novels because that’s what I like to write. If you’d like, you can just mentally replace the word “novel” wherever it appears with the kind of writing project that interests you most.

 

4.  What About Talent?
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“Talent is a long patience.”

-- Gustave Flaubert

For years, I've taught a class on finishing the novel. I've heard a hundred excuses for quitting, but most of them boil down to this: “I just didn’t have the talent to finish it.”

Here’s the second of several dirty little secrets I’ll share with you.

Talent has almost nothing to do with completing a novel or any other form of writing.

Yes, it’s true that some people are more talented then others. Just as some people can sing on key and some can’t, some writers are simply instinctively better than others, from the time they write their first word. But talent won’t necessarily make them novelists.

Here are three facts about talent:

  1. Talent won’t help you to finish: I know lots of talented writers who never finish anything.

  2. You may or may not have been blessed with a huge amount of natural talent, but literally everyone’s writing can be improved by work and dedication.

  3. A talented writer who doesn’t finish his or her novel is not a novelist.

Will a talented writer who finishes turn out a better book than one with less talent? Possibly.

But can a writer without so much native talent dramatically improve his or her writing? Absolutely. I guarantee that virtually every aspect of your writing – prose style, command of language, dialogue, character creation, you name it – will be much better by the time you finish your book than it was when you began. And you'll be even better when you finish your second.

If, like so many of us, you’re not sure how much talent you have but you want your writing to improve, here’s what I think you need to do.

  1. Write every day (or at least five days a week).

  2. Write something that entertains and/or amuses you.

  3. Remember to focus on characters before story.

  4. Keep writing no matter what kind of trouble you encounter.

  5. Finish.

All these points sound ridiculously simple, but they can be painfully difficult in practice. We’re going to discuss all of them on this site – work habits, choice of idea, creating characters, dealing with story problems or blockages, or any of the many other things that can keep you from finishing.

And we’re going to discuss them at some length. You may find yourself skipping big chunks of what I have to say because you personally don't need it, but then – a little further down – you’ll probably find something that has meaning to you. That’s the way it is in my class, too: All the students need help in different areas, but they all have the same basic problem: they can't finish. , but they all need help in different areas.

So let’s get started.

 
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