8 Steps to Finally Finish Your First Novel
Writing is much like any other craft. It’s not exactly hard to do though it is hard to do well. Writing a book isn’t necessarily hard it just takes time. String enough dedicated, persistence days spent on anything, a book or a painting or training for a marathon and you will reach your goal.
I don’t claim to be any kind of expert, but I have managed to finish a number of books and stories. If just sitting down each day feels a little vague to you, here are the 8 steps I use to keep writing word by word and day after day.
“You simply keep putting down one damn word after another, as you hear them, as they come to you. You can either set brick as a laborer or as an artist.” – Anne Lamott
1. Know why you are doing it
Writing a book, even a relatively short one, takes a lot of time and effort. Yes, the first ten thousand or twenty thousand words may come fast and easy, but it gets harder. There will likely be a lot of moments where you want to quit and toss the whole mess out the window.
If you don’t have a clear idea about why you want to do this and what you want to accomplish, you likely will toss it and forget about being a writer or start something new (always easier when things still feel exciting and easy) and run into the same issues. One of the biggest and simplest differences between the pros and amateurs is that pros start and finish things. Amateurs might pile up the words but they rarely finish anything.
2. Take notes. Keep a file
Keep a journal or a folder somewhere to jot down ideas or stories that catch your eye. Don’t trust that you will remember (if it’s really good you probably will), put it down. You might not use it right away, or for years, but trust your instincts, it caught your attention for a reason. Put it in the file. A big part of being a writer is just paying attention. You’ll find (for better or worse) that everything seeps into your writing. But if you ever get stuck, go to the file.
3. Learn how stories work
Writing is a craft. Sure, I know how to saw and hammer some wood, but could I put together a dining room set? Maybe, but not one that wasn’t wobbly and embarrassing. It might resemble a table and chairs, but would anyone buy it? You probably have an intuitive sense of how stories work, at least good ones. You’ve been consuming stories in some form your whole life. When a story works, you just know it. You feel it. Besides there are really only 7 types.
Unfortunately, it’s far easier to recognize a good story than it is to write a good story. At least one that is well structured, surprising, and fulfilling. The gulf between recognizing a good story and recognizing how to write a good story is where the craft of writing and storytelling comes in.
To write a good story, learn what makes a good story tick. I’d suggest starting with The Story Grid. You don’t have to follow the rules, but you should understand the rules.
4. Know at least the big signposts of your story
Traditionally there are two camps of writers: plotters (Rowling was a plotter) and pantsters (King is a famous pantster). I’ve tried both and have found a lot more success with plotting than the fly-by-night pantsing. You don’t need to know every beat and scene before you start writing, but I think it helps, especially the first time, knowing the big plot points you plan to hit.
If you’re driving somewhere, you might not know each road and interchange, but you have a good idea of route. Same thing with writing a novel. You should know, at a minimum, the hook, the middle build, and ultimately the final pay-off before you sit down to write. Surprises and organic changes will happen as you write but you will at least know you are headed in the right direction.
5.Skip the boring parts
Once you are actually writing, try to follow Uncle Elmore’s advice and skip the boring parts. Please don’t have multiple pages on the weather or a character’s dream sequence unless it’s integral to the plot. You will be tempted to put everything into your book and that might be okay for the first draft (see #6), but everything probably doesn’t need to be in there. If the scene doesn’t have a turning point or emotional shift it’s likely not driving the plot forward (either internally or externally), take it out. Your story will be stronger.
6. Get it all out
In the first draft, just get it all out. Don’t self-censor. Don’t go back and edit. Just get the words out. It’s much easier to edit a story that isn’t just a blank page. Write it out.
7. Make it a habit
If you want to be a writer, make your writing an important routine in your life. Write when you have time and write when you don’t have time. Go back and look at #1. Writing a novel isn’t always going to be easy or convenient, other things in your life will likely need to be adjusted or take a temporary back seat.
Maybe a daily word count works for you. Or a daily block of time. Or maybe it’s a weekly goal. That actually works better for me. Do whatever works for you and gets you to your writing desk, but the key is consistency.
8. Be prepared to edit like crazy
Believe it or not, after all of that, the writing is the easy part. Once you have a draft, you will likely spend twice as much time tweaking, improving and editing your new manuscript until you are completely sick of it. Totally normal.
You’ll have good days were the words pour out of you and tougher days were it’s like drawing blood from a weak vein. It’s all part of the process. If you really want to write that book just keep going, keep showing up and piling up the pages.