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It's one problem to start a book, but quite another to finish it!
Many writers struggle with completing a project, but once you do that, you know you can do it again. I've written before about some ways to get the first draft out of your head. Today, Alythia Brown shares her tips.
You’re a writer. You were born with natural creativity.
Stories seamlessly fill your mind when you walk through parks, overhear conversations on the bus, or watch a plane shoot across the sky and wonder where each passenger is headed. Once daydreams run together to form the foundation for a novel, you’re overwhelmed with excitement and love for your new project. You stay up late to add more words to your ever-growing manuscript, while secretly dreaming of publisher bidding wars for your work.
But then something happens.
The romance wears thin. You hit a wall and your precious book becomes more tedious than fun. Breaking down the wall, instead of turning away from the project, is the difference between published and unpublished writers.
How can you tear down the wall?
1) Take a break from the manuscript but not from the world you’ve created.
We all need a little space from our writing when things become mundane. This allows us to return to the work with a fresh eye. However, you want to avoid forgetting the story altogether. Leave the manuscript in your computer for a few weeks and take it with you in a journal, instead. Take notes on the things you “see” happening in your story. You can even draw pictures in your journal, if that helps. Not only will this keep you engaged with the story, it will give you a different form of expressing your writing—with a pen or colored pencil in your hand instead of keys beneath your fingers.
2) Remove distraction whenever possible.
You may have long work hours or small children to care for, but you probably have more time than you realize. You really don’t need to watch the last season of The Bachelor if you have a spare moment. Writing time is more precious and you need to make it important. You will never look back and say to yourself, “Man, I wish I spent more time sitting on the couch, watching pointless shows.” Coincidentally, you will never regret writing either.
3) Go for a run.
Or a bike ride.
Something—anything—active to get your blood pumping and your energy up. And preferably outdoors. I doubt a gray gym building, buzzing with the drone of many cardio machines, will stimulate your imagination. But I suppose exercise somewhere is better than exercise nowhere. While you’re at it, go eat some spinach and drink plenty of water. Taking care of your body is also taking care of your mind! You will find you are more able to focus and complete tasks.
4) Set realistic goals for yourself.
You were going full steam in the beginning because you were excited. But you probably also shut yourself in a room and didn’t see daylight for a while. You can’t expect to write twenty manuscript pages every night. Believing so will only set you up to feel disappointed and unmotivated when life gets in the way of this demand. Pace yourself. Writing every day, even if you only manage to jot down notes during your ten-minute break at work, is admirable.
5) Skip a passage if it’s slowing you down.
If you just can’t figure out how to make a particular scene work, skip it, and return later. Don’t let it stop you! You will lose the desire to finish. Instead, highlight the problem area with color so it will pop out at you while scrolling through the pages. Often times, difficult questions are answered naturally when you move forward and look back. But be forewarned: if you do so, make sure you note all of the unsolved issues pertaining to this area. If there’s an important dilemma that needs to be addressed, type a list of questions your readers would ask at the bottom of the colored section so you don’t forget this loose end later. If you get too far into the novel without solving the problem, it may mess up everything.
6) Make writing exercises part of your daily habit.
Warm up your mind everyday with writing exercises to get your creativity awake and pulsing. Here are a few you could try:
- Write a journal entry from the perspective of one of your characters. Have them write about a day from their childhood or a recent day at work. This doesn’t need to make it into the final draft. It’s just a little something you can do to get to know the people in your story. Try this with everyone important and unimportant. It will help you become more familiar with the world in which your main character lives.
- Write a letter to a long lost friend. Maybe someone with whom you’ve lost contact and always intended to call. Use one piece of paper and don’t flip it over when you run out of room. Simply turn the paper another direction and continue writing over what you have already written. Continue turning and writing over your writing. Tell this person everything you never said or everything you wish you could say now. You will eventually get to the point where you can no longer visibly see what you have written and the words are only clear in your head. You will end up with a paper filled with swirls of ink and part of your heart poured onto the page. You won’t ever need to tear it apart if it’s incredibly private or vulnerable because only you will ever know what it says. When you can feel the words moving through your hand and onto the paper, but you can’t see them, you need not worry about penmanship or running out of room. You just need to worry about the words you may not have been able to free before now. Plus, it’s probably good therapy to get all of that off your chest!
- Write a newspaper article or flier your main character might happen to read. Is your hero on the run and reading his own wanted sign? What would people who don’t understand him say about the things he’s done? Or maybe the local press managed to publish one last article about local dogs going rabid right before the end of the Earth? Become a journalist for your make-believe world and report to your characters the pressing news.
The writing wall may take some time to tear down but if you continue to chisel away, eventually it will fall. You’ll find you won’t be able to type as quickly as the thoughts come into your head once more and, soon, the first draft of your novel will be complete and ready for edits.
Once you’ve tackled the huge accomplishment of finishing a novel, you will jump at the chance to edit and prepare the piece for the query process or self-publication. If you already have completed your novel but can’t find the motivation to return and edit, remember: you have already done something most people never will. Don’t give up now!
What usually stops you from writing? Please leave a comment below with your thoughts.
Alythia Brown is an author and young mother, who decided she wanted to pursue publication when she became pregnant as a teen. She blogs about books, publishing, literary agents, and the querying process at www.alythiabrown.com. Her debut novel, Dakota Captive will release this year!
Top image: Flickr Creative Commons writing and coffee by Philip Squires
Derek Lubangakene says
Thanks for the great advice.
I usually don’t do any writing exercises, preferring to jump right into the writing itself. Sometimes the word count comes easy, most days I get stuck coz I didnt have the full picture in the first place.
Am gonna try writing a long letter exercise, I trust it’ll train me to get a lot of mileage beforehand, as far as the breadth of the story goes
Thanks! I know you’re not alone in that habit. If you don’t have a ton of time to write in the first place, it’s hard to put aside your current work in progress for writing exercises. I’m guilty too. When I think about my kids waking up, or something, I panic and try to write as much as I can! But then I think I’ve also wasted time feeling stuck, when simple warm-up activities would have helped me.
Michele M Reynolds says
Sometimes I get stuck on where things are going to go. I get bored with the storyline… don’t feel like it has as much punch. I usually then go write another part of the story.. and come back to part where I was stuck.
That’s perfect, Michele. Sometimes places that bore me are places that I need to ignore for a little while and review with a cold eye, later. That’s usually when I smack my forehead and ask myself ‘what was I thinking?’ Haha!
jj hannford says
My biggest fear is that I didn’t get the words out of my head in a way that described the characters, action or scene in either a detailed enough way or in a way that keeps the story moving. When I’m done writing I often feel that the scene is no good and I walk away for a day or two. Luckily, when I go back with a fresh perspective (and a good nights sleep) I am happy to learn that the story is actually pretty good (or at least I am happy about it). I love your article incorporating exercise into your routine to clear your head. It definitely works!!
Exercise is a HUGE help! Plus, if you think about your story when you’re running, or whatever, it helps take your mind off all those burning muscles. lol Honestly, I think it’s a good sign that you doubt your work at times. It means you are open to the process of becoming a better writer and forever willing to improve. That’s the kind of person who WILL improve. 🙂
CL Goodwin says
I have the general plot written in super concise forat. Now I need to expand on my characters and scenes. I wrote without an outline, now determining weather or not to do an outline, keep plodding, or get on with research…
You definitely need some kind of road map to continue on this journey, which is why I’m pro-outline. That doesn’t mean you can’t keep plodding or work on research. Avoid Facebook or Pinterest for a week and, instead, use that time to research. Even if it’s only five minutes here and there, you can accomplish more than you think! Then, in your designated writing time, warm up by tweaking your online before delving into your novel. Of course, this is just a suggestion! Happy writing!
S.C. Beamish says
I don’t get stuck as often as I used to but I’ve found what works for me is just taking a blank page and creating a brief list of things that need to happen. This isn’t an outline necessarily but more of a mental exercise. I just dump the events or character conflicts on the page and once I have something tangible to look at I’m able to see where the story is going to go. Also sometimes it’s a good thing to ask yourself questions about where a given scene or story is headed. Great post. I’ll have to work on the exercise part. 😉
That sounds a lot like me, S.C. Beamish! I have tons of lists in my journal. I think that’s a form of outline, though. It’s what works for you and a tool to gain a deeper understanding of said outline. 🙂
Brilliant ideas to keep the juices flowing. Thank you, Alythea. Thank you, Joanna
Thank you for reading! Much appreciated!
Daniel Escurel Occeno says
I do not think; I could ever tear down the writing wall or it is re-built over again at a different time. For me, I would need to climb over it. I set June to be a writing month and here it is with the first eight days already in the past and I have not been writing on my young adult sports novel. I have new ideas for future novels to write and the plot materialized in my mind and I was able to jot some down and even on old novels not started, which I had planned to write. But the most I have done with my YA sports novel was write a few sentences of adding the real stuff later, like notes. I am not concerned because I know that I will eventually write the novel. It is a matter of somewhere in time. It is the start of Fiesta Week in our municipality with Independence Day and several days of parades with the local high school and elementary. I enjoy watching because it is usually in conjunction with what the schools will be doing for the following school year to improve the community. The kids enjoy it because the adults visiting get involved. I will probably miss the marching bands high school and elementary contest after the Independence Day Parade because I have to help my father eat breakfast and lunch and the contest usually ends past lunchtime. It was what gave me hope that the poverty would end in my birth country; we have happy children. The majority love going to school and the parades is part of excitement. I would be lucky to work on my novel on a serious level, not until next Sunday probably. I might jot on it. I was able to submit for the month on the fourth of previously written so my writing goals to be published are still being meet.
That’s wonderful, David. And thanks for sharing. I’m glad to hear you’re setting dates for yourself and meeting them with flexibility. Too many writers get down on themselves for not being able to finish their novels RIGHT NOW and give up due to rigid expectations.
Tim Wilson says
Such good advice here. Obviously I agree with doing writing exercises (since I have a blog full of them). But I really like the idea of going out for a run to see the world and get your inspiration.
The one thing I think your missing out is reading. I’m always amazed by how many so called writers aren’t reading a book. Maybe it’s listening to an audiobook on the way to work or reading before you go to bed. But books aren’t the same as TV. If you aren’t in the world of books, you will struggle to write one,
You are so, so right, Tim! I have to admit, I am guilty of not reading enough from time to time. (Consider my wrists slapped.) I have three kiddos and I used to think I needed to spend any free time I had writing. Lately, however, I’ve returned to one of my favorite series from my teens (Terry Brooks’ Landover books). I haven’t been writing as much because I’m in the middle of one. But any time that nagging ‘you-should-be-writing’ feeling swells up inside of me I remind myself that time spent reading is time spent ‘writing.’ because it enhances my editorial eye, reminds me of words I never use, and encourages me to build a better story. Thanks for reminding me!
Daniel Whyte IV says
All great tips. Especially #5. I have to use that sometimes.
Thank you, Daniel! I’m glad it was useful to you!
Keri Peardon says
I always tell people, when you get stuck (not just on a single scene–which, as you point out, can be skipped–but on the entire project, or you feel that a character is flat and you don’t really know him/her), write a throw-away scene–something that you have no intention of putting in your book.
In books, all sorts of crazy things happen to our characters; that’s what makes a book interesting enough to read. But, if you think of your characters as real people, then they must have times in their lives (before the book, after it, or in between major action scenes) when nothing exciting happens to them at all. They have to do the laundry and cook and run errands and do the boring, mundane stuff we all have to do. (Even fantasy characters have to scrub the rust off their armor and replenish their food supplies!)
So write a scene where your character is having an average, ordinary day. (Personally, I like to write scenes which predate the timeline in my book.) Because it’s not going to be in the book, it takes some of the pressure off to make everything you write publisher-worthy. It’s a way for you to spend more time with a particular character and get to know them better. (What does their room look like? Are they neat, messy, or in between? What’s their favorite color? What do they like to eat? What do they think about?) It can give you inspiration for scenes or character interactions in your actual book. And, if you write prequel material (as I do), it allows you to develop all sorts of backstory that you can sprinkle throughout your novel and make the plot and characters both have more depth.
Oh, I like that, Keri! Great suggestions and thanks for contributing!
Shannon Donnelly says
There’s one more thing I like to do — step back and see why your subconscious is telling you something is wrong. I generally find that I’m in the wrong character’s viewpoint, or I’m missing conflict and the stop in the writing is a tip that I need to step back and fix the problem instead of trying to push ahead with a story that is not going to work on a fundamental level.
That’s true, too. Sometimes issues will loom over me and I know I have to make it right before moving forward as well.
I appreciate this post! Real helpful. Been working on my first novel for six years and went through 40-50 rejections from literary agents the summer after I graduated high school while a relative of mine went through alcohol relapse. Not posting for sympathy; but I am realizing that many writers write because of happy or tragic events that occurred in their own lives. Lately, been wanting to “quit” the novel but something is forcing me to go forth with it. Best of luck to you with whatever goals you have set for yourself.
Thank you, Natalie. I’m so sorry to hear about your relative. But I’m pretty impressed to hear you have already been through the publishing maze right out of high school. I just posted another article on first novels and drawer novels: http://blog.janicehardy.com/2013/06/guest-author-alythia-brown-believe-in.html. I think there is something special about that first book! I worked on my first book for two years, decided it wasn’t good enough, rewrote the entire thing because I still wanted to tell the story, and it’s still hiding in a drawer somewhere. But I’m glad I went through the trouble because it taught me so much. Even if you moved on to a new book, you wouldn’t be quitting. Not at all. You’re just growing. Thanks for your warm wishes!
My daily routine before jumping right into writing is pray then a group meeting with all my characters in my head and sometimes out loud. I give them all a pep talk on development be great be better than yesterday. I am now on my last 8 chapters and I feel like if I finish I will be left with nothing but I desire to finish… Since writing this comment has me ready I’m about to just jump right into writing.. Everyone have a great day!!!
I’m on the final hurdle of my first novel which has been in progress for the last 18 months.
The final scenes forming the last tho chapters although somewhat outlined in note form are very difficult to get down and I am finding that amending previous chapters is my cop out.
Today i will be putting down the final page which is set in stone in order to create my goalpost.
Joseph Callahan says
Are you a teacher? I ask because your suggestion are practical and not didactic like so many other suggestions I have read on other sites. Thanks. Peace.
I was writing my first novel with a fiery passion, and the last story thread I wrote was brilliant if I do say so myself. But tragedy struck in the form of a failed hard drive and I lost it forever! My attempts to rewrite that part of the book have fallen far short of the original which I felt was perfect. Thus, I stopped writing it. I couldn’t figure out where to go next with my storyline. The event stopped me dead in my tracks. This was nearly thirty years ago but the desire to finish this novel never left me. I simply couldn’t write anymore. Recently I started editing and attempting to write some more of this book, firmly committed to completing that first novel. But I am really stuck. Any advice on how to recreate that magic I once had would be most welcome.
Joanna Penn says
Hi G, I would suggest you forget about the lost draft, since it was 30 years ago. Don’t try to recover that. Just write as if you were starting out now.