Crushes, True Love, and Finishing Your Novel

Some of our unfinished novels: only a title. Not a good sign?

by Ellen Potter and Anne Mazer

“I started writing a novel. The first few chapters are really great! But then . . . I don’t know. I got stuck and I just never finished it.”

Does that sound familiar? It sometimes seems like The Unfinished Novel is practically an epidemic. We bet there are millions of unfinished novels tucked away in the back corners of closets or hidden in computer files cryptically titled “Untitled.” Why is it so hard to finish a book?

We have a theory.

But before we tell you what it is, think about how you feel when you have a crush on someone. (Bear with us, this really is relevant.) You get dizzy with excitement. You think about the person every minute of the day. You imagine a gorgeous, shimmering, arm-in-arm future with your crush.

Then you start dating, and uh oh. You begin to discover some less-than-shimmering qualities in your crush. Maybe the person is a rabid collector of Pokémon cards. Or maybe their personal hygiene leaves something to be desired. Before long, the relationship shrivels up and dies.

When you first start writing a novel you are essentially in the wild throes of a crush. You are consumed with your fictional world and the characters that live there. The first chapters always seem to flow out effortlessly. The writing feels charmed. But the more you write, the more you deepen your relationship with your book. That’s when you start to notice that things aren’t as perfect as you first thought. Maybe you come to a scene that is painfully awkward. Or maybe the characters start to seem boring. Or the storyline feels like it’s falling apart. That’s when many people stop writing. That’s when they break up with their crush.

“I think we should stop seeing each other for a little while,” you tell your crush/novel-in-progress. “Maybe just for a week or so.”

Fast-forward a year and that novel-in-progress is still untouched.

Now, just as not all crushes are good relationship material, not all novels-in-progress should be finished. But they should at least be given a fighting chance (after all, it’s often those lovely, long-term relationships that bring the greatest satisfaction). The fact is nearly every novel Anne and I have ever written has made us want to tear our hair out at some point. But just like a good relationship, when you come up against those disturbing moments—like discovering that stash of Pokémon cards in acid-free albums—try and stick with it. See if you can work things out. You might just have a brilliant novel on your hands. And you also might discover that you are weirdly fond of Pikachu.

In our book Spilling Ink, A Young Writer’s Handbook, we offer some strategies for muscling through the rough spots in your writing.

Below are some of Anne’s favorite writing tips:

1. Read as much as you can. There’s a reason that almost every single writer on the planet gives this piece of advice: it’s true. You want to get the rhythm and feel of words in your blood. You want to have an almost instinctive feel for the movements of a story. You want to know what you love as a reader, before you set out to be a writer. Reading will give you all of that and more.
2. Write! A lot of people love the idea of being a writer, or of being published, but fewer people actually love the work of writing. Do you? Are you happy writing and rewriting the same scene until you feel something click inside you? Do you smooth and sculpt your sentences according to some mysterious internal law? Do you see stories all around you?
3. Pay attention to your world. What captures your attention and why? What do you think about? What fascinates you, or makes you angry? Get in the habit of writing these things down.
4. Be playful on the page. There’s no one “right” way to write; you are free to explore, play, and wander as much as you like. Write in lists, write in short bursts of random words, write in dialogue with no description, write from the end of a story to the beginning… there’s really no end of things you can try.
5. Mistakes are part of the writing process. In fact, if you’re not making mistakes, there’s something really, really wrong. Repeat: Mistakes are normal, and even good.
6. Keep an open mind. You might write one story or one novel successfully, but the next one will be completely different. An experienced writer can struggle just as much as an inexperienced one. (Don’t ask me how I know that . . .)
7. Have at least one good writer friend. Writing can be lonely and discouraging; a writer friend will make all the difference. Writer’s groups are wonderful, too.
8. Decide what you want from writing. Will you be happy completing a story and showing it to a few friends? Or simply keeping a life-long journal? Do you want to share your work on the internet? Get published? Be a full time writer? Share your work with one person or the entire world? Define success for yourself.
9. Listen to other people’s comments, and try to learn from them. But also trust your instincts. (This can take time.)
10. Do lots of things BESIDES writing. Go sailing, learn carpentry, knit a sweater, study history or languages, wait on tables, travel, fall in love, play an instrument, do martial arts . . . everything you experience will find its way into your stories.

36 thoughts on “Crushes, True Love, and Finishing Your Novel

  1. Thanks so much! I’m a young writer and it’s always nice to know you aren’t the only one with piles of unfinished stories!

  2. I really like how you posted this advice. As for #10, that actually happens very often. Even though I do not dream of killing people (that’s what most of my short stories tend to be about), some things, such as school and piano, are weaved into my writing. Because of this, I totally agree with #10, and this leads me to believe that most of the others will work, too. Thanks for posting this here! I’m sure it will help many people.

  3. Best. Advice. Ever. At number two, I was jumping up in my seat yelling “YES!” to every single question.
    Thank you SO much for the confidence boost guys. I’m now torn between checking the price of your book and visiting little miss untitled hiding in the corner…
    ♥:)♥

  4. Wow, thanks!! The part about establishing what you want from writing was really helpful. I discovered my purpose for writing was to get people to understand me and the life of a teenager. This was super helpful! 😀

  5. I have this LONG story in progress….. I like to think about the story before I fall asleep, and the problem with me is that story in my head is YEARS ahead of the story on the computer. I just get SOOOOO bored with the story (on the computer) knowing what will happen, and I just stop writing. I have just tried to force myself to work on my story, but I got barely any work done. ;(

    • That makes perfect sense. If I knew what was going to happen in a book before I read it, I would have zero interest in reading it. Same goes for writing. Forget about your plans for what will happen next. Just focus on what your character wants right now, right this minute. Then help your character to get that thing, even if it’s as simple as a can of Coke. Stay close to the present moment and let your character lead you back into the story. It may be a very different story than the one you have already imagined, but stay open and alert and honor your character above your storyline.
      I hope that helps!

      • I agree with Ellen. Stay in the moment, and experience your fictional world through your character. Let her/him surprise you. It doesn’t hurt to plot in advance, but when you arrive on the page, open up to the unknown. It’s much more fun – and sometimes scarier, too. Happy writing!

  6. Love this, Ladies 🙂 Thank you so much for Spilling your Ink genius over our weary and bloodied writers’ egos. Using an humorous anecdote, to address a seemingly insurmountable struggle, spoke wisdom and insight, without inflicting the bitter aftertaste of dejection. You guys rock!

  7. Fabulous advice here, and thank you so much 😀

    I’ve had many stories like that in my life, but I’ve managed to get into a serious “long-term relationship” with one of my current stories, and it is thanks to the person I am also in love with, is my inspirational writer friend who loves nothing more than to gush ideas with me. We adore helping each other with ideas, and reading over each others’ work. Also figment has been a wonderful encouragement 😀

    Even though things are a little slow with my exam filled life at the moment, I have never felt more sure of wanting to finish a story. I don’t mind if it doesn’t get published, it’s just a personal mission for myself and whoever enjoys it now.

    So thanks again for the advice. I think I’ll go carry on that chapter now 🙂

  8. This was pretty freaking brilliant. Having been both in the throes of a crush and abandoning a novel, I think this is a perfect comparison. Now, I’m going to get back to work on my current novel (with this thought in mind) and write. With a purpose: to cause someone in the (hopefully) not-so-far-off future to enjoy reading.
    THANKS!

  9. First of all, this is fantastic. Thank you so much for posting it!

    Secondly, I would like to ask some advice of you guys, if that’s okay. I love writing poetry and short stories, and my best work is done when it’s unplanned ahead of time. However, I’ve had an idea for a novel (made up of short stories) planned in my head for a while, but I’m afraid that if I write it down the story won’t be as good as I’d hoped. I’ve been thinking about it for so long in my head that the idea of seeing it on paper scares me… What if I can’t properly get the idea from my brain to the page? Do you have any advice? How can I get over my qualms about misrepresenting my own ideas? How can I make sure that I really like my own story, and that it turns out well? Is it even worth starting to write?

    Thanks so much.

    Love,
    Zoë

    • Zoe, that is a great question. It’s true – something is always lost in translation from your brain to the paper. I’ve often had incredible visions of what a book can be, but when I start writing it, I hit painful and humbling reality. It kind of brings me to my knees as a writer. However, my experience is that it’s been totally worth it every time. Because even if I can’t make my book as wonderful as I want it to be, I’ve still written a real book that I can put out into the world. And sometimes that can take me to a place that I wouldn’t have imagined. So don’t be afraid to wrestle with your ideas! They’ll never be real if they stay in your head. You’ll always gain something from being brave enough to try and work with your ideas. Good luck! I hope you write your book.

  10. Thanks for the great article! I love your book and website, so this was a real treat to read. Keep up the great work, Anne ande Ellen!

  11. I read Spilling Ink and loved it to pieces. It gave me a lot of advice that’s helped me to become a better author. Thank you for writing it!!!

  12. Lovely advice! Thank you so much. I’ve definitely been hit by the unfinished novel bug before, but this article seems to be working as a cure. I adored the Pokemon references too, but, in all honesty, if my crush turned out to be a rabid collector of Pokemon cards… I don’t think I’d leave him. 😉

  13. You guys did a great job on the writer’s guide!! I was looking around on my library’s website, and I only found one guide that was EVERYTHING that I was looking for.
    And I was wondering… My friends and I are starting a sort of book club. The only trouble? We can’t find a place to meet! Help us, please.

  14. This sounds WAY too familiar! I have millions of started stories filed away on my Mac. After reading this post….well, out they come! Love the tips!

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