The Beginning Writer
Are We There Yet: Finishing A Novel© Will Greenway 2000
Done. Finished. Complete. Wrapped up. Fini. They are some of the loveliest words a writer can say. "So, how's the book going?" It's done! If you haven't had the pleasure of saying it. Look forward to it. It feels good.
The trouble with being able to say it, is accomplishing the feat to make it true. For some people, writing a book simply takes time, sure and steady. For others, the incline seems to get steeper as they go. The more you do, the more that seems to remain unfinished. Fear not, some tips are on the way to helping you reach the end of your quest for completion.
First of all, the battle to get done is a psychological one. From the start, the idea of forging several hundred pages of coherent story together can seem like a daunting task. This is a case where people get lost in the big picture, trying to see the project as one massive work. That's when you hurt yourself, you see the task as something big. What you should be doing is thinking of it as several much smaller pieces (chapters) which, when assembled, become the larger entity.
Some people are going to come at me with talk about the story arc, and plot, and other technical aspects of the novel. I'll get to that. In the writer series, we deal with the issues of the task of writing, not the techniques of it. The craft series complementing these articles go into detail on plot and story structure.
Focus. See your entire book as long set of stairs with landings interspersed along the way. At times, rather than going up, the stairs forward to the next landing go down. The climax of the novel is the highest landing. From there, the stairs lead down to a door that says denouement. Why this complicated metaphor? It's a visualization aid, and a way to psychologically deal with the plot and story elements of your novel.
Every story has a pulse, a rising and falling of action and tension. At least, we hope your story has a pulse. If it doesn't, it's heart is stopped and the patient is dying on the operating table. By pulse, we mean that the pace, action, and emotion in the story experience increases and decreases. Action on the increase is like the stairs going up from the landing. The settling, reflecting, and regrouping are the stairs going down.
The metaphor works on several levels. Think of the sections between landings as chapters. Each stair tread is a scene. In getting to the end goal, you need only only concern yourself with writing to fill out the current stair-step (scene). Worry most about the forces working on your characters and how they are interacting. In a way, good novels write themselves—provided you let them. What sets a good novel apart from its brethren is a clear sense of the goal. Most importantly, a clear sense of the stakes and the what motivates the characters. Knowing these elements of your story make a huge difference in helping you finish.
As an example. We have a character named Maggie. In the beginning of the story, Maggie's little girl is kidnapped. The goal is fairly simple—get the child back. The stakes are obvious—failure means the child dies. Not so obvious, are the complications and contexts that make the story interesting—that's your job. The landings or plateaus in your story are the complications that get in the way of Maggie getting her child back.
I use stairs because the metaphor suits the rise and fall of the story line. Another appropriate metaphor is a chain. Writing is best described as a study of action and reaction. In our example, a mother's child is kidnapped. Put yourself in Maggie's place. What would you do. That's the speculative process at work. It's really not a creative endeavor at all, but an analytical one. Maggie has choices, she can try to solve the crime on her own, or she can call the police. Of course, there are likely complications that will keep her from calling the police. However, by some coincidence or twist, a detective finds out about Maggie's predicament. The scenes (steps) of your novel encapsulate the elements of the story.
In this example, we may need a scene which shows the kidnapping of the little girl. We definitely need one where Maggie learns of the child's abduction. If the detective is to become involved then we need a scene that shows how that happens. As we analyze the way the story problem will be resolved, many of the steps (scenes) become obvious. They won't ALL be obvious, but many will be. In fact, it's not necessary for you to know every aspect of the book from the start. As you go, the need for some elements will become obvious. The development of a love interest or sexual tension. Additionally, there may be supporting plot threads, like the final settlement of Maggie's ugly divorce.
Getting done boils down to not psyching yourself out. Keep your energy high. If writing a particular scene is dragging you down. Look at your story line and figure out a scene that interests you. The creation of that material can often be revealing. Cater to your characters. Really concentrate on being in their shoes and speculating on their reactions. Relax, and don't panic if you suddenly realize that a character would do something you didn't expect. Good. The reader probably won't expect it either. Simply be prepared to make other adjustments in the story to compensate. The story will always revolve around the characters and what they do. You need only focus on what is currently happening in order to move forward in your novel.
Later, in the phase of editing, you can worry about how pertinent to the story a particular scene is. Sometimes they aren't necessary. Other times on a second reading, they aren't enough. That's simply part of the territory.
Let's summate the things that help us complete. First, try not to think of the novel as one huge entity. Break down the whole task into the writing of small connected scenes that are serially linked to one another. Concentrate on the goal and how the characters will accomplish it; focus on walking a mile in the protagonist's shoes. Analysis and speculation on what the characters will do next will aid in determining what scenes you must write. Let the personalities and reactions of the characters guide you, rather than some fixed outline. If you have an outline, great, but don't be afraid to deviate from it. Lastly, you don't have to write all the scenes in order. If you're bored or get an idea for scene that doesn't immediately follow your latest, fine, have at it. Worry about how to tie it into the rest of the material later. Writing the novel is sometimes as much a work of discovery as it is craftsmanship.
The next section deals with story and character focus, and how it relates to your productivity. We will work a bit more with the idea of completion as it relates to how much material you can produce in a particular sitting. In those pages, we'll expand on working with characters and introspective speculation.