How to Start and Finish Your Next Doomed Novel
Updated: Nov 23, 2020
So you've decided to write a manuscript. Good for you - you're starting on a noble path to disappointment that many other have already dusted with their bitter tears and rage spittle. Now, you have to sit down and actually bang the thing out. There are many people who never take this step, who are more than happy to come up with an idea and then spend the next six years boring people at parties with details regarding their unwritten novels. Not you, though - you're ambitious. So where do you start?
How to Start a Novel
On the topic of writing a short story, my advice came down to "Just go for it." Simple - some might say elegant. But a novel is a larger undertaking, and much more complex. When taking about how to write your first novel, it might be better to break it down further, as different people will have problems at different parts of the process.
1. Write the First Line
Obviously the best place to start. Have you written your first line?
Good! You've just penned what every agent considers the most important part of your entire manuscript. Don't worry about it right now - if it's bad, you can fix it later.
Now that the blank page is less blank, you can write your first paragraph. Have you done that? Good! Now that you're invested, it's on to the first chapter. For many people, this will be the hardest part of the whole process - and now it's behind you.
2. Note Your Achievements
If you've finished your first chapter, then a minor celebration is in order. I'm a believer in tracking my progress through my projects - mostly for practical reasons relating to manuscript length, but watching your project approach its completion also has a motivating effect.
Many others think the same way, and the internet is rich with gamified word counters and the like. However, I believe in a low-tech approach - paper, pens, some scotch tape or a cork board and tacks. You can tick off your achievements by word count or, if you've done some outlining, chapters.
3. Keep a Side Project
Almost every how-to-write guide suggests routinizing the writing process, forcing yourself to write every day. I won't tell you not to do that - it's helpful for many people - but if you take this approach, it might be wise to have a side project or two so that you'll have something to work on if you're short of ideas on any particular day. You might want to write a short story or article or, if you're especially ambitious, even a second novel.
Some people find it useful to move back and forth between projects, but only do this if you can keep your thoughts in order.
4. Work When Inspiration Hits
As far as routinizing goes, I prefer the opposite approach - working like mad when I'm inspired to do so. Even if you have a routine, don't restrict yourself to that time frame you've set aside. When inspiration strikes, write down whatever you can.
If it isn't convenient for you to do this at a computer, you can punch notes into your phone or jot then down into a memobook and type then out when you have the time. If you have a lot of index cards lying around, make yourself a hipster PDA - they do the job and do it well.
5. Don't Crack Up
The most important thing to remember during the early phases of your manuscript is not to stress yourself out too much over it.
I don't care what all of those other how-to-write types say - novel writing is not a sprint, it's a marathon. This is a long-term process, and you don't get extra points for finishing quickly. If you set unrealistic goals, you can easily burn out and never finish at all. If working on your manuscript is aggravating to you, then take a step back, slow down or even take a break. You might not "win" National Novel Writing Month, but what's more important - a contest, or the story you've always wanted to write?
How to Finish Writing a Novel
The two hardest parts of writing a book manuscript are starting it and ending it. If you already have a chapter or two on paper, then the only question is where, in the process, you're going to lose your spark - and what you're going to do about it.
Typically, when someone begins a fresh new project, they open with a track start. There's this burst of activity where everything seems to come easily. If you're struggling this early, then it means that either you ran out of steam after that initial burst, or you never had it at all. This early, you do have an easy out, and this might simply not be the manuscript for you.
Giving up on a new manuscript is something that many writers won't even consider, especially if they've already invested a few hours in it. That's our old friend the sunk cost fallacy showing his head yet again, but if you feel bad about stepping back after say, ten hours, then think about how you'll feel when you lose motivation again after fifty.
Remember, if you do step back from a project - whether it's this early on or much later - it doesn't necessarily mean you're giving it up. Set it to one side, and you can always come back to it later. Really, it's okay.
There are two places where most writers hit a wall, and this is the first one - somewhere between 20 and 40 percent. It can be a special problem for anyone who's into outlining, as this is where you realize that, for all your work, you haven't even hit the halfway mark yet.
But don't burn yourself out here - what you want is steady, reliable progress until you hit that 50% milestone. If you need an incentive, then rewarding yourself can be one way to keep moving forward. Extrinsic rewards aren't great in the long-term, but they can give you the motivation to reach the next peak.
You might also consider taking a break, especially if your output is really running down. As I've said, I don't believe in routinizing writing - if you need to take a day off, then do it. And if you want to keep writing during that time, then consider a side project. The last thing you want to do is force yourself to work on this thing until you end up hating it.
First off, if you've hit 50k already, don't quit - unless, of course, there's nothing more to add. If there is more to add, then add it - finish it now. That extrinsic reward problem means that some people will quit writing when there are no more trinkets to earn, but come on - you're most of the way there, don't leave this thing idle for 11 months.
The second place where writers hit a wall is in this area - around the 70 percent mark, in my experience. You might find that you're just plain sick of the story by this point, which means you now view writing as a chore. This is another good time to take a day or two off.
This also seems to be the point where people realize that they have plot holes, unmotivated characters, or other story problems. Here, you have a choice. If the errors you've found are critical to the plot, then by all means stop and figure out to fix them - better than waiting until you're finished and having to fix a lot of other related issues. But if, as is usually the case, these are small problems you can patch over, then put them aside for now and focus on finishing. Most story problems are fixable by routine editing, so you've got time before you have to sweat over these things.
Unless you're writing something epic, this is where you know that you're pretty much done. The real risk here is not that you'll lose motivation, but that you'll be so motivated to finish that you rush the last 10 percent or so and end up with a lackluster ending. Ever read a novel that wrapped up abruptly? Now you know why that happens.
In any case, this is where you should start thinking about your next steps - editing and submission. This is where you should start making notes on all those plot holes you set aside earlier, as well as any other problems relating to changes you made in the concluding chapters. You might need to add foreshadowing to an earlier chapter, or better establish a minor character who became unexpectedly important. And if you haven't been tracking it, now would be a good time to take note of the length of your manuscript. Depending on the genre, you might need to make it shorter or longer to meet expectations.
You've now finished the painless part. Way to go. Now it's time to take a breather and gather your willpower in preparation for the cavalcade of rejection that awaits you. But hey, you finished, didn't you? You're already farther along the process than that loser at the party.
What comes next is up to you. You can edit it, you can run to KDP and self-publish as soon as possible, or you can spend the next years sweating bullets over your unfounded fear of manuscript thieves trying to steal your book. I would recommend the first one.