“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.