Idea for the great Canadian novel: check.
Proven writing experience, as evidenced by history of publication in venues of literary merit: check.
Cast of unforgettable and endearingly flawed characters: check.
High-stakes conflict that threatens said endearingly flawed characters: check.
Story structure conceptualized but not so rigid as to constrict spontaneity in writing: check.
Time and energy to pound out a fifty-thousand-word first draft: check.
Right. But what happens next? What happens when the magic of the first draft wears off, and even though the writer has all the key ingredients to write something that could be their breakout novel/memoir/short story, etc., complications inevitably arise to threaten its completion?
Is there any hope for such a writer?
More specifically: Is there any hope I’ll ever finish my novel?
This Is Where It All Falls Apart
I wrote about the early stages of my novel-writing experience in My Novel-Writing Journey, Part 1 and Part 2, and after that I threw myself wholly into getting the first draft of my book done. As with the start of any writing project, everything was new and shiny.
Trite as it sounds, my experience was one where the characters seemed to write a lot of their story for me. I heard their voices in my head. My writing took on a distinct style I felt worked well for the story, and capturing the nonlinear format and just-right point of view for my narrator were more intriguing tasks than daunting ones. I came to the end of the first draft feeling good about how far I’d come and positive about the future.
Experience writing, editing and publishing short stories has taught me one needs to take a step back from one’s writing for a while before moving on to subsequent drafts. I can’t tell you how often I go back to pieces from years ago and discover they aren’t anywhere near as polished as I thought they were. No, for a project of this size, I definitely needed to take a substantial break and come back to it with fresh eyes—the chance to re-read my work and make symbolic connections, come to a deeper understanding of the underlying conflict and character motivations, and reconsider the entire first draft on a big-picture scale.
During this break, my being a stay-at-home parent came to an end, and I returned to teaching. While that transition has been a good and needful one, it has obviously meant very little time to invest in my writing. Very quickly, all of my non-paid writing and editing endeavours came to a halt to make way for this new life. At times it’s been easy to put this aside, knowing in the future things could change and I can return to this project; at others I feel guilty—not because the project was a waste of time and energy that I can never get back, but precisely because it is good. Precisely because I feel it needs to be finished.
Though time away from any of my past projects often yields the “ick” response (“Maybe I should just start over?” or “What was I thinking?”), this one was different. When I recently cracked open my novel-in-progress, I found something I knew was really, honestly good. The story felt alive. The potential was there. There were tons of loose threads and plot holes and character inconsistencies, but I could—more than with anything I’ve written before—imagine this novel as a whole.
The biggest problem is not some fatal flaw with the manuscript but, rather, that I don’t have the time right now to make great gains on it.
Where Do We Go from Here?
I asked the question, is there any hope I’ll ever finish this book?
Rather than setting goals or making promises, I’m going to keep it real today and simply say I’m not giving up anytime soon. Finishing any piece of writing is just so incredibly difficult for me, and always has been. I recently “finished” a short story I’d been working on for five years (five!!!!!), and the magazine that accepted it asked me to cut about a third of it. While the editors probably made the right call, I shudder to think of how many hours of writing and editing those cuts equate to. I wish I were gifted with writerly speed and getting things just right the first time around, but the truth is I’m terribly slow.
So, what does not giving up look like, for me, at this point? It looks like bite-sized successes. Slowly moving forward, taking steps in the right direction.
- Working on something else. Don’t get me wrong—I haven’t filed my novel right after digging it back out. What I am doing is recognizing that I prefer to have a short story to work on simultaneously, because it gives me something more manageable to work with on those days when the novel seems overwhelming. It feels a little less all or nothing, and one project usually informs the other.
- Getting back to pen and paper. I’m a much more efficient typist than hand-writer, but during those earliest sparks of inspiration when drafting new scenes, there’s no denying the magic of good ol’ pen and paper. I’ve also found some success recently by printing out a handful of pages and marking them up with notes. In both cases, there’s something about looking at the words in a different form that tricks the brain into seeing them in a different light. It slows me down as a reader and helps me make essential connections that might otherwise have gone unnoticed.
- Reading more—and reading more widely. One of my New Year’s resolutions is to read more this year, as I’ve found lately I’m only cracking books at bedtime, when I’m too tired to read much. Over the holidays a friend handed me a book of Agatha Christie short stories, and never having read Agatha Christie I figured I should really try reading outside my regular genre. Anyhow, it’s a fact universally acknowledged by writers that the more you read, the more you want to write.
- Mentally composting. Even when I’m not technically adding any new words to my manuscript, there’s so much material there to mentally manipulate and ponder, I can still make gains on my understanding of my characters, their motivations, conflicts, and so forth. Sometimes I take notes if I’m afraid I’ll forget something important, and other times I just think about stuff. It’s informal but helpful.
- Being OK with being just OK. Lately, there have been a few times I’ve been paralyzed by not having just the right words to write next. Last time this happened I told myself, “Just write what happens next in the most obvious and direct way. Forget the brilliant insight. Forget the award-winning turn of phrase and the witty dialogue. Just write something and come back to it later.” And it worked! I was able to move on, knowing those words are changeable in the future.
- Biding my time. As a teacher, I can count on having more writing time in July and August. Eight weeks isn’t anywhere near enough to finish a novel, but it’s enough to make a big leap forward. Between now and then, I can focus on figuring out where I want to go with the book, in the hope that by the time summer comes I’ll be able to make a lot of progress in a short period.
One thing I don’t want to do is contemplate starting a new big project and letting this one go. I’ve been down that path in the past and know it’s better to stay here and work with what I’ve got than start again.
Do you have a stalled writing project or one that just seems too gargantuan a task to contemplate ever finishing? What are you doing to keep the spark alive?
Join the discussion
Elizabeth Hamlin says
It may be OK and you just need a break from it or it may be OK once expanded. Or you may be able to cut and turn it into a novella or use some of it as stories.
You could also try reducing the pressure by writing something you like without being overly concerned about “the rules” or publication or reader interest. You can self-publish if necessary. Do look after your whole person. It’s easy to overidentify with being a writer. Better to maintain a sense of proportion. We have serious bushfires here in Australia and I can’t write a sensible word but I know I will be able to write again when the time is right. Elizabeth Hamlin, author of Sylvia Lennox.
Suzannah Windsor Freeman says
Thanks for your thoughts, Elizabeth. I used to live in Australia and have quite a few family members and friends there, so I sympathize with the bushfire situation. Stay safe!
Tanya Brooking says
As a relative novice, part of this article scares the begeezus out of me, but I’m also oddly reassured. In this solitary endeavour, being reminded other writers suffer from similar restrictions (be it time, focus, too many/not enough ideas, or whatever) grounds me in determination to finish this darn novel and return to those short stories languishing in a file drawer. Thank you for sharing your struggle.
Suzannah Windsor Freeman says
Glad this was “oddly reassuring”! One of the best experiences I’ve had as a writer was teaching an online course alongside a bunch of other writers at varying stages of their careers. Some had never published anything and some had published entire books. We got to catch up on video calls every two weeks and share our struggles, and I found it amazing that even those who were further down the road than I am struggled in the same ways I do right now. Good luck with your work-in-progress!
Your article resonated with me, and I am grateful for it. Two years ago I finished (correction: thought I’d finished) what was to be My First Novel. I got hit back by would-be publishers and reacted as a humiliated snail retreating into its shell. In August last year on an overseas flight I had the (trite phrase I know) epiphany to know what to do to re-write it to correct POV issues and expand it from the fledgling 66,000 words into a decent length novel. I see now, so clearly, that what I thought was The Novel, was The First Draft that you talk about. Meanwhile I’d begun a new job which mercifully is only three days a week, so I’ve had time to work on it. But how different it is from spinning out that first raw draft to spending hours getting one or two pages right, in the re-write. I blithely thought I’d be through the re-write by the end of 2019. I’m at 80,000 words, but SO much more to do! Some days I’m excited, other days I wonder if it will ever be finished. Thank you for your words. I will keep at it.
Suzannah Windsor Freeman says
Thanks for reading, Soni 🙂 I don’t know that I have any words of comfort for you other than being able to commiserate about how long the process is. I hope you continue to make progress, though! I can say from publishing short fiction that truly finishing a piece and sending it out to the world provides a phenomenal feeling of accomplishment, so keep that in mind.