Posted on November 14 2016 in writing & reading
Just in time for National Novel Writing Month: If you struggle to finish stories, then this is the blog post for you. Learn how to identify what's holding you back, and then get my best tips to help you finish your novel.
Are you struggling to finish your novel?
Lately, I've been getting questions from writers that sound a lot like this:
"My biggest struggle is finishing a book. I lose motivation or I can't make what I write match the vision in my head. How do I reach The End?"
There are two big issues that come into play here, and they are often to blame when you're having trouble reaching The End.
The first is your basic understanding of story structure. Trying to write a book without knowing story structure is like trying to find a hotel in a strange city without asking someone for directions (or looking at a map, or checking your phone). You're wandering around without the information you need, and sure, you might be able to find your hotel/finish your novel, but you'd be a lot better off if you just prepared for the journey (or asked for help!).
The second is your inner editor (or inner perfectionist), the voice in your head that tells you to re-write one chapter (paragraph, or line) over and over because it isn't just right. This also ties into your productivity. When your inner editor is being extra loud, it's even easier to distract yourself with answering emails, putzing online, or cleaning your keyboard with a q-tip.
My advice? First identify your problem - whether you're struggling with your understanding of story structure or if your inner editor is to blame - then you can take action.
I've broken down my advice so that you can choose the actions that best fit your needs:
If your problem is understanding story structure (including scene structure, and character Goal, Motivation, and Conflict), start here >>>
1. Learn about story structure.
Check out my Novel Writer's Story Workbook, and be sure to read the books I recommend in the workbook for some great options to help you hone your story structure skills. The books and worksheets will help you understand the basic story elements which will give you waypoints to guide you when you're writing.
2. Read critically.
Beyond reading for pleasure (which I support 100%), it's also important to become a more critical reader. Find books in your genre and outside your genre, re-read favorites and the classics. Find bestsellers and popular novels in your genre. While you're reading, ask yourself:
How does the author create suspense or tension?
What helps me connect with the characters?
Are there sections where I lose interest?
Once you finish the novel, you might:
Jot down the synopsis for the story.
Reflect on what worked (or didn't work).
Consider what you can take away from the story and use to improve your own projects.
3. Share your work (and use feedback to improve).
If we write in a bubble, then we might either a) think we're simply the best thing in the history of literature, or b) think we are beyond wretched and are wasting our time with this whole writing thing. (Hint: both of those things are likely inaccurate.) I encourage you to step out of your comfort zone and exchange your work with other writers.
"Step out of your comfort zone and exchange your work with other writers." @bridgidlee on learning story structure: https://goo.gl/1lH29D
If this is new to you, I wrote a blog post about the difference between Critique Partners and Beta Readers and a post with answers to five common questions about Critique Partners (how to find them, what to look for, etc.). By sharing your work you can get an outsider's perspective, which may help you see where you have room for growth and improvement.
If your problem is your inner editor (or inner perfectionist), then start here >>>
1. Try NaNoWriMo or find an accountability partner.
The faster you can write a first draft, the easier it is to keep your excitement for a story. If you take too long it can be easy to lose the exciting, shiny-new-story feeling, or forget why you wanted to write a book in the first place.
Anything that can help you finish your first draft FAST is a good thing, which is why challenges like NaNoWriMo or the YA Buccaneers writing bootcamps can be great. For me, once I knew how to write a book, I needed a push to help me get words on the page (any words!) so that I could scramble my way to the finish line. Although NaNoWriMo isn't for everyone, it's worth figuring out something that will work for you.
"Anything that can help you finish your first draft FAST is a good thing." @bridgidlee on finishing your novel: https://goo.gl/1lH29D
As another example, when I hit a rough patch last year while writing a manuscript, I would send a chapter to a friend immediately after I finished it. She didn't read them (sheesh, at least I hope not!), but the fact that she was looking for them gave me the push I needed to stay focused and KEEP WRITING.
2. Learn how to use the XXX.
The XXX is an essential part of my Reach-The-End toolkit, and it has nothing to do with Vin Diesel (har). It's simple (and I'm sure that some of you use this technique already), but it was revolutionary to my drafting process.
Here's how it works: When I'm drafting, if I hit something I don't know (a character's name, a piece of dialogue, a scene, a technical aspect I'm not sure about, etc.), I type in 'XXX' as a placeholder and keep moving. Your placeholder could be anything, as long as it's easy to find when you're revising.
Sometimes I'll write in "need fantastic scene about character X doing something to character Y" or "put brilliant dialogue here" or similar.
The idea is the same - instead of letting something I don't know keep me from moving on in the story, I drop a placeholder, and keep moving.
3. Say it with me: "First drafts aren't supposed to be perfect."
The vision of a perfect novel in your head? Do me a favor and tell it to take a back seat while you're drafting.
"First drafts aren't supposed to be perfect." How to Finish Your Novel: https://goo.gl/1lH29D via @bridgidlee
First drafts are like loose sketches of paintings. At first they look like a mess, but you need that first sketch to get you started. Only then can you reinforce lines, add paint, etc (I have no idea how to paint, bear with me), until one day all we see is the final masterpiece.
Push aside the picky, judgmental voice in your head. It can come back when you're revising and polishing. Drafting is the time for getting everything onto the page.
Author Jamie Freveletti said it better:
“Awful first drafts are fine—Agree with this. If you don’t finish something, you’ll never get in the game. Just quell the voice in your head that says “Are you kidding? No one is going to want to read this drivel” and keep on going. You’re going to revise and revise and then revise again anyway.”
All this to say: You can't fix something that's not complete, so let go of the idea of perfection and just write.
That's my advice, but I would love to hear from you. Do you have suggestions for writers who struggle to reach The End? Share in the comments below!