I flew from DC to Northern California today. I bring this up because I was contemplating how odd it is that at 6am this morning (3am PST), I was heading off in my rental car to Dulles Airport, and at 2:10pm PST, I was pulling into my own driveway. Door-to-door, about 11 hours.
Which might seem like an excruciatingly long time. But truly, if you think about it, my plane ride was barely a blink of the eye compared to crossing the country in a wagon train. A quick Google search tells me that a wagon train trip (which generally left from Missouri, not DC), took 4-6 months. Tack on the extra 40% farther DC would be and you’re talking 6-8 months.
What does this have to do with writing a novel? That plane ride I took is a lot like, say, writing a short story. The cross-country wagon train trip is like penning a novel. It’s a long-term commitment with pitfalls and setbacks around every corner, and if you’re not fully prepared, you just might not make it.
So how can you improve your odds? Here are a few tips I’ve learned along the way:
- Write at least a rough synopsis. Yeah, I know, some of you are thinking, But that’s just not how I work. I just have to let it flow. My answer to that is, if it really, truly works for you, if you find yourself able to finish that book, then another, then another, and they’re all reasonably coherent stories even before you start your re-writes, then okay, I’ll give you a pass. But if on the other hand, you start one book after another, get a few chapters in, or even half-way through, but can’t seem to close the deal–write a synopsis. Even if it’s so ugly you won’t dare show it to anyone else, get your story structure mapped out.
- Flesh out your characters. I have a variety of character sketch formats that I’ve used over the years. Twenty-plus books later, they’ve gotten a little abbreviated, but I still like to know a) physical characteristics (don’t want to change eye color in mid-stream) and b) conflicts and goals. This helps me get to know the character well enough that when I plunk them down into a scene, I know how they’re going to behave. I know what they’ll say, how they’ll say it, and what they’ll reveal and won’t reveal about themselves. They’re not just blobs moving through my invented universe, they’re real, three-dimensional people.
- Turn off that infernal internal editor. Shoosh her away. Put duct tape on his mouth. Lock that hyper-critical, opinionated loud-mouth in a dark closet in the corner of your mind. Because she will freeze your hands on the keyboard. He will convince you to turn your back on that story that you could see like a movie in your head. That cantankerous soul will make you doubt every word you put on the page. Your internal editor has his place in the process, but it isn’t now. Give her a margarita and tell her to wait her turn.
- Just keep going until you get to the end. Well, that’s pretty stupid advice, isn’t it? If you could get to the end, you wouldn’t need this blog post. But this goes along with tip #3. Just keep going. Without worrying too much about how it’s all going to hang together. Without stopping every paragraph to polish the prose. Without going back to chapter 4 and adding that crucial information you didn’t figure out you needed until chapter 18. Just make a note to yourself about what needs adding and keep going. The time for worrying about those changes, for letting the editor out of the closet and taking away her margarita is at the end. Because after you’ve written right to the end, you have a book you can re-write and fix and polish. As author Nora Roberts said (my all-time fave writing quote), “I can fix a bad page. I can’t fix a blank page.”
So, there you go. With these four fabulous tips, finishing your novel will be easy-peasy. A do-it-with-your-eyes-closed cake-walk. Heh. Yeah, right.
It isn’t easy. It’s cholera-just-broke-out, the-wagon-wheel-broke, early-winter-has-us-snowbound hard. So here’s one more tip to keep you going.
5. Don’t beat yourself up over the bad days. If all hell breaks loose at home, or you’re exhausted after work, or you have a stack of student essays to correct and you can’t get even one word written, let alone one page, cut yourself some slack. You’ll get back to it tomorrow. And you’ll be one more paragraph, or page, or chapter closer to The End.
Anything to add? Tips you’ve discovered that keep you going? Please share.