(Cross-posted on WriteClub)

I was inspired to write this post by a friend who mentioned she has trouble finishing the stories she starts.

There are probably many reasons why many novels are started and not finished. My experience has led me to suspect there are two main culprits, which are the ones I’m going to deal with here.

1. You don’t know how it ends.
2. You spend so much time going back and editing the first draft, you never get to the second draft.

It took me 10 years to write SUFFER THE CHILDREN. I was citing life stuff getting in the way, but that was just an excuse, since I found time to write plenty of short stories during that 10 years. The real reason was the fact I got halfway through the book and didn’t know what was going to happen next, so I shoved it into a drawer. When I finally decided I wanted to finish this book, I knew I had to have a plan. I started by making a chapter-by-chapter outline of what I had so far. From there I worked on an outline of the whole story arc, all the way to the end. I ended up with three pages. I was then able to finish my chapter-by-chapter plan, because the story outline guided me as to what was going to happen in the chapters I hadn’t written yet. And from there, I was able to finish the novel.

It took me a while longer to learn this lesson fully. I’ve got a couple of other novels that were started and never finished, simply because I didn’t know how they were going to end. So now I don’t start a new novel without meticulous planning. I start with my three-page story summary. From there I do a chapter-by-chapter breakdown. This isn’t set in stone, and it might deviate a bit – I might, as I write, realise there’s another crucial event that has to happen between the events of chapter 11 and chapter 12, for instance, which might add a couple of extra chapters. But that’s OK. The system works for me, because every time I sit down to write, I know what’s going to happen next. My chapter plan is my guide.

Some writers are averse to too much planning, and swear by the ‘seat of the pants’ method. If this works for you, then I’m not criticising it. However, sometimes you can tell when a book has been written this way. If a novel starts off a certain way, and then suddenly, without notice, veers off in a completely different direction halfway through, it’s likely to have been written without a lot of forward planning.

If you are the sort of writer that has half-finished manuscripts gathering dust in your desk drawers, then maybe you should give the ‘planning’ method a try. It might help you finish one of them.

The second reason for not finishing, as cited above, is ‘over-editing’ the first draft. Again, this is largely down to writing technique. Some writers say they prefer to edit as they go, so by the time they get to the end of the first draft, there isn’t a need for a second draft. The problem with this method is, if you keep insisting on going over and polishing chapter 1 until it shines, you may never actually get to chapter 2.

Remember that old adage: Fix it in the rewrite. Remember also the words of Ernest Hemingway: the first draft is always shit ( well, I think it was Hemingway).

The point of the first draft is to erect the scaffolding on which the story is built. Who cares if it’s rubbish? No one’s going to read it. In fact, another successful writer, Stephen King, positively discourages writers from letting anyone see the first draft. In his marvellous how-to book ON WRITING (in my opinion the best ‘how to write’ book ever), he calls it ‘the closed door draft’. You write it without letting anyone in. When you get to draft 2 or 3, that’s when you can open the door and invite people to view it.

The first draft lets you get a feel for your characters and your plot. It lets you see where you still need to do the most work. But it should and will be flawed. Allow it to be so. Your secondary character Sue, petite and brunette, becomes blonde Alison halfway through? Don’t worry. Fix it in draft 2. You decide at chapter 20 there needs to be another character, but they ought to have been introduced in chapter 5? That’s OK. Just dump them in the story, and when you work on the next draft you can make a point of introducing this character earlier.

Of course, sometimes it’s hard to turn off the internal editor and just write, which is what I’m suggesting you do. I get up at 5:30am twice a week for my early-morning writing sessions, before work. I am not an early riser by nature. I find it a struggle to get up that early, and I stagger into London and sit in Starbucks for an hour, before going to the office. But that hour is very productive. I don’t think much about what I write. I just write. Maybe what I’m writing is rubbish, but it is first draft. And crucially, at that time in the morning, the part of my brain where my internal editor resides is still asleep, so she doesn’t interfere. And I think perhaps that’s why my early-morning writing sessions are so successful. It might be a different story if I was editing, but at the moment I’m just writing draft 1, and it’s working.

So these, in summary, are my two tips to get to the end. More planning, less editing. You can always fix it in the rewrite.


1 comment so far

  1. Kat on

    I just finished reading King’s On Writing and I agree, it’s a great book! I must say I am guilty of the ‘no time’ excuse even though at the bottom of my heart I know that isn’t true. But luckily I usually know my ending/the story arc before I start writing so I don’t get lost too badly. Great post!

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