Hi, Writer. Have you struggled through several well-meaning but short-lived attempts to finish a novel? Do you have a crystal clear creative vision but lack the drive to kick it off? Well, you’re not alone. Most people fail to make it to a first draft, let alone to publication! Until this fall, I had never written a book all the way from start to finish. My first attempt never made it past the first chapter. A few years later, Fallen to Earth got to 50,000 words but flopped somewhere around the climax. Ticktunnel Woods fared well–until it didn’t.
Why do we fail to write the stories we are so passionate to share? We make a variety of excuses–“I outgrew my vision” or “Life took over”–but, for most of us, the truth is much simpler than that.
We simply did not have the right tools and structures to reach the finish line.
Successful athletes train on strict schedules, consume the right nutrients, own equipment, and surround themselves with like-minded community. Because writing is such a solitary and cerebral activity, we often assume that successful writers have nothing in common with successful athletes. Spoiler: we do. We’re also human. And one thing that humans are great at is finding ways to slither out of doing hard things.
So, you just need more willpower, right? That’s the fix to all this maundering. A lot of people will tell you to just grin and bear it, but I won’t. There’s a famous book out there by Benjamin Hardy called Willpower Doesn’t Work. A similar book, The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg, has a similar thesis. You can hold your nose to the grindstone as much as you want, but it will never be as effective as setting up the space for a healthy habit to grow. So, I’m not going to tell you to suck it up and finish. Instead, I’m going to hand you four practical tools that, like an accurate map through a bog, will help you to avoid the worst pitfalls of novel writing.
- Start Off with a Notebook
- Next, Use a Distraction-Free Word Processor
- Design a Cover if You’re Stuck
- Find Beta Readers Before you Finish
This is a Christmas gift from my sister-in-law that I modified to feel a little more me. It’s nothing fancy. I think she found it at Five Below. Its most important feature is that it’s made of paper. I find that the first draft is painful enough that, in order to get very far, you need to temporarily abolish computers and knuckle down with your good, old-fashioned pen. Though many authors recommend it, I did not write my entire first draft in this notebook. Still, about 30% of the first draft happened here before I made the switch to……
If you dread those hand cramps, never fear! Soon enough, it’s time to whip up a second draft (or, in my case, ride on the steam of the 30% done first draft). This is best done on a computer. Since you’ve already got your content on paper, typing it out is an easy-peasy form of editing. Still, we must proceed with caution. The internet lurks at your fingertips, ready to distract you if you falter for so much as an instant. Hence, this:
I know. It’s terrifying. It’s a word processor fit for Stephen King, and it’s called “Dark Room.” You can download the software here: https://download.cnet.com/Dark-Room/3000-2079_4-10562359.html
As you can see in the picture, this word processor eliminates all the frills of Word and even Notes. There are no pages. There are no font options. You can’t even see the clock on the bottom corner of your screen because Dark Room has turned your zany, multitasking device into a black hole of concentration. It’s dangerous, and it’s beautiful.
But even with your notebook and Dark Room, you may struggle to write for longer than an hour. I was in one of those slumps, scrolling through Instagram, when I discovered a better use of my procrasti-time.
When writing becomes onerous but you still want to work on your novel, turning to a different medium can work wonders. In this case, I picked graphic design but you might also try sketching portraits of your characters, drawing a map, or recording a song. Even if you never use the design you created, playing with other media can help you to distill the core concept of your story. This will come in handy both during the writing process and the publishing struggle to come (hello, pitching).
I designed this cover in Canva. You can start an account for free. It gives you access to a variety of templates, including Instagram posts, banners, and book covers (obviously).
Our three previous tools will help you through the main portion of the writing process, but this structure here is key to getting you past the finish line. Often, in the final stages of a novel, a small part of you decides it doesn’t want to finish. You make excuses like, “I’m practically done,” or “I deserve a break.” But really you’re just terrified that you won’t be able to tie up all the loose ends for a satisfying finale. In order to make it past this psychological barrier, you need accountability.
With this in view, when you’re 75% of the way through, I suggest reaching out to some people and asking them if they would be willing to beta read. To get my beta readers, I put out a request in my Instagram story. This worked well, for a couple of reasons. First off, many of my Instagram followers fall into the category of “acquaintance.” A close friend may struggle to provide objective criticism, whereas a stranger won’t want to bother. Try to hit the happy medium. Find those whose opinions you respect, but whom you wouldn’t hit up for emotional support. Secondly, with this method, I think I nabbed the ones who were really interested. If you personally ask someone, they may agree to read for you out of a sense of obligation. If, on the other hand, you scream out into the void, you’ll gather a strange kettle of fish, but they’ll all be pumped to dive into your story.
Whatever your beta-gathering methods be, the main thing is just to get those readers, and get them well ahead of time. With the pressure of a waiting audience, your sneaky psyche won’t be able to dilly dally and procrastinate. Your beta crowd will be messaging you, asking when they can expect a draft, and you’ll have to commit.
Thanks for reading, but please don’t just leave it at that! Utilize these methods in your own creative life, and I’m sure you’ll find success.