First draft tip #4: Finish what you start.

One of the interesting things that happens when people find out you're a writer is that they want to tell you about their own writing. Or if they aren't writers, they want to tell you about other writers they know.

It makes sense, of course, sharing narratives is one of the ways human beings build connections. And I love meeting writers and talking about writers. But one thing I have noticed is that a lot of the stories seem to revolve around the same theme.

The Unfinished Book.

*cue scary music*

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Every writer has one, it seems. I had a great conversation once with a lady whose friend was blogging a novel. Everyone really enjoyed it, and thought she was a good writer, but she could never finish a story. Instead she would decided her current book one wasn't working and start a new one. She did this several times, much the the frustration of her friends and family.

I understand that. It took me the better part of a decade to finish my first novel. I've talked to lots of people who say they've been working on a book for a long time, or that they have a lot of unfinished stories lying around. It's really common.

And really sad. Because here's the truth.

Writers who are serious about reaching readers finish what they start.

Do serious writers start stories that go nowhere? Absolutely. But they don't make a habit of it. Readers hate unfinished stories. No one wants to read the seventeen different openings to your novel without ever getting to read the whole thing.

Finishing the first draft of a novel, writing a complete story arc, that is the first major milestone in the Journey of Being a Novelist. Think of it as reaching base camp before you climb a mountain. It takes a long time to get to base camp. (So I've been told. I've only ever climbed two small mountains. And a butte.) And it's not easy to get there a lot of times. But you have to if you want to climb the mountain.

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This may look like Everest, but it's actually Novel Mountain.

Completing a novel (or a short story or graphic novel or screenplay or whatever floats your writer-boat) is like that. It takes time and it's not easy, but you have to finish before you have any hope of your story reaching anyone.

But how do you do it? Well, every writer is different, but here's what worked for me.

1. Make sure you have enough supplies (i.e. story) before you start.

For me personally, I can't start a book unless I know the first scene, the last scene and enough about the world and the characters that I think I can stay with them for an entire book. I know if the story doesn't feel solid enough in my head, I won't finish it, and I don't start things I don't think I can finish. However...

2. Don't overpack

If you find that outlining every single detail of your novel makes it hard for you to write it, stop it. Leave yourself some mystery, some room to play. For example, I wrote most of City of a Thousand Dolls without knowing who the villain was. I had several really good suspects, but I didn't try and figure out who it was until I was almsot done with the story. Keeping it a mystery kept it fun.

3. Beware the Shiny Detour

The leading cause of unfinished novels is the Shiny New Idea. After a while the inital glow and excitement wears off and you start to realize that this is hard work. That's when the Shiny New Idea kicks in, a sparkly story that's so amazing you're sure you were supposed to be writing this one all along. But--and I cannot say this enough--Shiny New Ideas lie. They are not magical fairies that will help you complete a book, they are willow-the-wisps that lead you into bogs and off of cliffs.

4. Accept that it's going to be hard.

Look, pulling 50-100k words out of your ear and putting them down on paper is hard. It is hard work. There's no elevator that will get you to the top quicker, no magic formula that will make the words flow like water from your fingers, no way around it at all.

You--and no one else--must write the words down. You must pull the story from your brain when you are tired, when you are busy, when you don't feel inspired at all. Whatever you do...

5. Don't stop walking.

Don't stop. Don't turn around and second guess your path. Don't wait for some muse to come and sprinkle fairy dust on you. One foot in front of the other, one step at a time. One word, one sentence, one paragraph, one chapter. Keep working and don't quit.

Finish what you start.

Do you have any tips on how to finish? Leave them in the comments!


  1. THIS. Learning to finish a novel is one of the hardest parts of writing--or it was for me a long time ago. Writing is hard! Fun and freeing and wonderful and frustrating (sometimes all of those at once, sometimes one at a time)--but it's hard. These are some great tips on persevering.

    Although Shiny New Idea can help me a lot--I write much better if I have two projects going at keeps me inspired on both...but there's a difference between bouncing back and forth to finish two books and dropping a book and taking off to the next one.

    I love that you said that you and only you can write the words down. It's so true. There are times I want to pull my hair out when I'm at a certain point in the story and think 'man, if only someone else could just finish this' but of course, I wouldn't REALLY want someone to finish it because however frustrating it might be at that point, I love the characters and story enough to finish it.

  2. I like the novel mountain analogy. The same sort of consistent effort is required by both. So true. 

  3. Awesome post - could not agree more, on all these counts. Admittedly I'm awful at abandoning projects due to a lack of time available to work on them, but I'm getting around to that - rescuing the trilogy that's screaming for a rewrite, for example!

  4. This is totally solid advice. Seriously. Don't overpack, ignore the lure of the sparkly lights, just keep walking. Think Frodo Baggins. Just get the Ring in the Cracks of Doom, already. THEN you can figure out who won the war and go fix that nonsense in the Shire. 

    Also, NoNoWriMo taught me that word count REALLY helps. If I can write a thousand new words a day, without going back to change and fix, all of a sudden I have a story. The second I give in to temptation and retrace my steps (just that one line I swear really!) it's all over.

  5. I just read on another blog that you will learn more from writing one finished draft than from 6 unfinished ones.  I sense a theme. :)  Which is an important theme for me - my WIP is progressing in fits and starts and I keep wanting to abandon it for the "shiny new idea", but I'm desperately afraid that if I do that, I will do the same thing when the lustre wears off Shiny New Idea.  And in the moments when I'm not being plagued by doubts and fears, I'm pretty sure there really is a story there.  So I'm making myself continue.  I know I will learn something from working through this process, even if it turns out not be the one that gets me published.

  6. I agree with everything you've said. :)

    I wish I could pay elves to finish this book....

  7. That's what I thought. :)

  8. Yes! You should rescue projects that are screaming. If for no other reason than that screaming can give you a headache and no one wants that.

    I shut my projects up in sound-proof boxes. :)

  9. "Think Frodo Baggins"

    I love this SO MUCH. I'm going to tell myself that this week. "Think Frodo Baggins! If he can do it, so can you!" 

  10. That is absolutely true, Leslie. I learned more from writing my second book than I ever did in the seven years of rewriting my first.  Resist the Shiny New Idea!  Press forward!

    (Also it helps to stock lots of chocolate. *grin*)


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