Literary Corner Cafe

Monday, December 20, 2010

Writing Tips - How To Finish Your Novel When You Don't Think You Can

Most people who begin novels abandon them before they finish even half of their first draft. The problem is, a novel is usually between 90,000 and 150,000 words, and no one can write that many words in a day or two. (If you can, please leave a comment and let me know how you do it because I would like to do it, too.) Novels take a lot of work. It’s tough pulling “something from nothing” and getting that first draft down on paper. Then, if you’re really interested in selling and maybe, just maybe, making the bestseller list some day, you’ve got to revise. (No, you don’t “maybe” have to revise to make the bestseller list; you “have” to revise. It’s not an option; it's a necessity.) But for now, let’s forget about revision and concentrate on making it from that great opening sentence you worked so hard to craft to “The End.”

Know how your novel ends. First, and most important, I think, is to know how your novel ends. I’m always amazed at the number of people who don’t know how their novel will end. Who say they’ll “let the characters write it” or they’ll “know how it ends when they get there.” The truth is, you won’t, and thinking you will is nothing more than trusting blind luck. If you begin writing without knowing how your novel ends, you’ll write yourself into a corner and then write a far less-than-satisfying ending, or, more likely, you’ll end up abandoning your book all together. And you do know your characters aren’t going to write the book for you, don’t you? If you didn’t, you do now. You created those characters. They aren’t real people. You decide what they do, what they say, how they act and react, etc. Don’t try to shove the responsibility off on them. Believe me, they won’t take it. So, how do you deal with this? You write the ending first. Some people find it helps to actually write the end before anything else, especially if they’re writing a complex, complicated novel with multiple plot strands.

Outline, outline, outline. I’ve never actually written my ending first, but I do outline extensively, so I know how I’m going to get from my first sentence to my last. I know what my ending is going to be. I have my road map, and while I may take a detour down a side road now and then, even a surprising detour, I still have my destination firmly in mind.

I know. So many writers balk at using an outline. They say it makes the process of writing too mechanical, and it robs them of their creativity. I know people who do write books without outlining, but I don’t know of one who ever made the bestseller list without doing so. And books written without an outline tend to be messy. The characters tend to act “out of character” at times, due, no doubt, because the author didn’t take the time to really get to know them.

If outlines are anathema to you, think of them like a skeleton. We couldn’t exist without our skeleton, but our skeleton isn’t the sole determiner of how we look. We’re fleshed out with, well, flesh, and hair, and nails, and clothing, and all sorts of things. Use your outline as a guide only, something to keep you on track and keep you writing, always with that satisfying destination in mind, and know you're going to be fleshing out your narrative - a lot - and taking a few side trips along the way.

Don’t force yourself to stick rigidly to your outline. And now, it’s going to seem like I’m contradicting myself, though really, I’m not. Don’t force yourself to stick rigidly to your outline. Breathe. Have fun while you’re writing. Yes, your writing needs to show the assurance and control that come from outlining, but you also have an imagination, a subconscious mind that tries to act in your best interest – well, most of the time. While your characters aren’t going to write your book for you, your subconscious mind, aka, your imagination, is going to take off down some side roads, and it would behoove you to at least check them out. While I consider outlining essential, those writers who follow an outline slavishly will find their writing dry and lacking in the honest emotion that really pulls a reader in. No, their books won’t be messy like the books of those who never outline, but they’ll be over-controlled to the point that they’ll have all the life and spontaneity sucked out of them.

Know your characters. Remember those character sketches you should have done prior to even beginning your novel? The ones you thought were so unnecessary? Well, they weren’t. Unnecessary, that is. If you know your characters, you’re going to know how they’d act and react. The “filling in” of scenes is going to become a lot easier. When tragedy strikes a mother and a father, and they lose their only child, how is each parent going to react? Sure, they’re both going to be devastated. Or are they? Not every parent is, and even if they are, people show grief and devastation in far different ways. Some people hold everything inside, while others let everything out, and then there are all those shades of gray in between. Will your literary parent get drunk? Let the housework go? Begin to live in a fantasy world? Take off for parts unknown, needing a complete change of scene? Deny that the loss ever happened? As the writer, you have to know, and if you know, the writing is going to come much, much easier to you, believe me, and it’s going to be far more believable and honest to your readers. (This holds true for fantasy and science fiction as well, where the worlds you create have their own rules.)

Create characters you enjoy spending time with. This doesn’t mean you have to create only likable characters. A lot of people – a huge amount of people – enjoy spending time with Hannibal Lecter. This doesn’t mean they like or admire him or even want to be in the same room with him. It does mean he’s fascinating to them – in a macabre sort of way. In my online book group, a lot of people love spending time with Lisbeth Salander, the female lead in Stieg Larsson’s bestselling “Millennium Trilogy,” though I’ll bet most wouldn’t want to have lunch with her. Lisbeth isn’t as evil and twisted as Hannibal Lecter, but she’s not someone I’d want anyone to idolize or emulate. Lisbeth is a rebel, who lives by her own moral code, her own set of rules. She’s interesting, and at times, she’s sympathetic, but she’s not wholly likable, however, the trilogy really couldn’t survive without her. And just look at Scarlet O’Hara. She has a plethora of faults. She’s jealous, petty, vain, rebellious, and vindictive. And...she’s totally fascinating.

Look at it this way: We don’t use the same criteria for choosing story characters we like as we do in choosing friends we want to spend time with. Frankly, I’d be terrified to spend time with Hannibal Lecter, but I did find myself fascinated by him in The Silence of the Lambs. (And by Clarice Starling as well; just as we don’t have to like people to find them interesting, we don’t have to dislike them, either. I enjoy spending time with Miss Marple, and I don’t know who could dislike her.)

Throw the bores out with the bathwater. Look at your cast of characters now. (And if you don’t have one, get busy creating one.) If any of your characters are boring, get rid of them now, while the getting’s good. If you can’t get rid of them because they’re central to the unfolding of your plot, for example, then find a way to make them interesting. I know you can. Think about that part of their lives that they live in secret. Think about the things they do – or think about – that they’d never think of telling anyone else. Then, let your reader know about those things.

Allow yourself to write one or two sentences of the scenes you really love. But only one or two sentences – absolutely no more. And make sure these “favorite scenes,” these “sweet indulgences” are spread out through your book, from beginning to end. This is kind of like the candy bar you allow yourself at the end of the day, or the steaming mug of hot chocolate, or the latest confection from Starbucks, or, for me, a large banana smoothie. These are the scenes you’re just itching to write. If you allow yourself to write the opening one or two sentences, then you just might be able to sail through the rest of your book in your desire to get to them and finish them. (I know there have been nights when I couldn’t sleep, but I’d force sleep to come by saying, “The sooner I get to sleep, the sooner I'll get my banana smoothie for breakfast.” I know morning won’t really come any sooner, but if I’m sleeping, it’ll seem like it does.)

The faster you write the first third (or fourth, or fifth, etc.) of your book, the sooner you’ll get to write that wonderful scene where the villainess reveals a big secret that causes the sympathetic character to commit suicide in Italy, the scene you just can’t wait to write. Then, hopefully, you’ll have another burst of writing, speeding to your next “sweet indulgence” and on and on to the end.

Resist the urge to edit as you write. This is easy for some writers and nearly impossible for others, but I think it’s necessary to master. I’m one of those writers who has the urge to edit as she writes. In my current novel-in-progress, I’ve rewritten the Prologue seven or eight times already, and I still find myself wanting to fiddle with it and make it better. I changed a few sentences around today. (I do congratulate myself on the fact that I share at least one quality with the great Gustave Flaubert.) I finally put the Prologue aside and moved into Chapter One proper, but as soon as I write a sentence that I feel could be written more elegantly, I want to stop and change it. It’s hard to resist doing so, but I force myself to push on, and you have to as well. There will be ample time for editing and revising and polishing later, and we all need to do all three of those things after – but only after – we have our first draft written.

Write what you love. Right now, novels featuring vampires are en vogue. So is the paranormal. There’s always a market for genre romance and young adult novels. Elizabeth Kostova had great luck with her tale of Dracula (and her debut novel), The Historian, which sold at auction in two days for more than two million. So I guess you should write a novel about Dracula, too, right? Or at least about a vampire? No, you shouldn’t. Not unless you really want to write a vampire tale. Not unless you really love to write vampire tales. Remember, Kathryn Stockett has also had great success with her debut novel, The Help, and it doesn’t feature anything even remotely like a vampire or anything paranormal. It’s a story of a wealthy, white college graduate and her relationship with black servants in 1960s Mississippi.

If you’re going to write, you need to write what you love and what you enjoy writing (and reading), not what you think will sell. In truth, no one really knows what’s going to be the next big seller in fiction. The above-mentioned book, The Help, was turned down for five years, and now it’s been on the bestseller list for at least one year, maybe longer, and it's beloved by many. No one could have predicted its phenomenal success. Had anyone been able to, it wouldn't have taken Ms. Stockett's agent so long to sell the book.

I once decided I’d write mysteries – cozies – a whole series, which I love to read, and get filthy rich in the doing. But mysteries and puzzles don’t come easily to me, even though I do love to read them. I ended up figuratively banging my head against a wall more than I did writing, and I never did finish a mystery I thought worthy of sending out.

Write like you (should) marry – for love, not money. All writers need to write the following on a Post-It and keep it in full view on their desk: You will never find a harder way to make “easy money” than writing a novel. I don’t say that to be discouraging, but many very, very good novels don’t sell for a variety of reasons. The only reason anyone should write is because he or she loves writing and is happier when he's writing than when he's not.

Though I do love to read mysteries, my preferred book is the highly literary, i.e., character driven novel. And that’s also what I love to write. It’s the kind of manuscript I’ll actually finish and have fun doing so. (Okay, maybe not fun, but at least enjoyment.) So, write what you love. Don’t worry about selling or the money you might make. Not at this point. Just focus on getting your manuscript as polished and as “finished” as possible.

I hope the above will help aspiring novelists having trouble getting their novel from its first sentence to “The End,” and I hope it will also make the experience of writing more enjoyable and exciting. Let me know. Now I’m going back and fiddle with my Prologue. Or, maybe not.

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