6 Tips on Getting That Novel Finished

by Marg McAlister


How many times have you started a novel with a ton of enthusiasm, only to find yourself running out of steam before it's even half done? If you're nodding, you're in good company. Countless writers are in the same boat. The bottom line is: if you never finish a book, then you're never going to get published. But what do you do if:

  • your characters seem lifeless; their actions puppet-like
  • the plot is dull
  • the middle 'sags' (so even you lose interest!)or
  • you can't work out how to resolve the plot!

First, you have to decide to do one very important thing: FINISH THE BOOK. (I will never forget one successful author who was asked if she could tell the attendees at a writers' conference the 'secret' to writing her best-selling books. She fixed the crowd with a gimlet stare and said "Yes - finish the damn book!") Second, you need a plan that will help you to do this. Here are some tips.

1. Commit to THIS story.

Avoid the lure of "the next book". It's all too easy, when things are moving slowly in your current book, to be tempted to find something that's more exciting. (Akin to having an affair to liven up a dull marriage?) Don't. Jot down that new idea and put it in a separate file. But stay with your work in progress. If it's not working, take the time to work out why.

2. Work Out Where You Are - and Go From There.

This might sound too simplistic. It's not. "Where you are now" could be:

  • halfway through the first chapter
  • halfway through the book (and stumped/bored/tired)
  • stuck on a particular scene
  • wrestling with the characters

There are many reasons your work could be slowing down. Your job now is to analyze your work so far. Ask yourself:

  • What is the current roadblock?
  • When did I start feeling that this was not working?
  • Do I still like the characters?
  • Do I still feel the plot is going to work?
  • What do I need to do to fix my novel? IS it fixable?
  • How far back do I need to go to fix the problem?
  • How much time will it take to fix the problem?

By analyzing your work in this way, you are on the way to coming up with a solution. It is far better to take action than to sit there feeling miserable and unmotivated. And it's far better to have the experience of actually finishing a book than it is to give up and start again because it's all too hard.

Quitting can become a pattern. To understand where your novel is going wrong, you may need to get help from a critique group or a manuscript assessment service. (Often writers know that something's not working but are too close to their own work to know what the 'something' is.)

Talking over your concerns with another writer (in person or online) might be enough to do the trick. However you go about it, do persevere until you have a list of what might be wrong.

3. Set Goals.

Once you've identified what it is that is not working, decide what you can do about it. Step by step, you can bring your novel back to life. Set daily or weekly goals. As you see your story starting to move forward again, your enthusiasm will be rekindled. You didn't need a new story. You just needed a new approach!

Try using some sort of measure of how your story is growing. Some writers use bar graphs and colour in a new bar every 1000 words. Others check off each new scene or chapter on master list. It doesn't matter how you measure your progress - as long as you do it. It really does help to see that you're moving ahead.

4. Push On To The End.

Endings are important. A fizzer of an ending can spoil any novel. So can endings that go on too long, or are too far-fetched, or that rely on the intervention of minor characters (or a cataclysmic event) to save the day. What you must not do is spend months (or even years!) trying to write the perfect ending.

We've all heard of writers who are so keen to make their first chapter a stunner that they never get beyond Chapter #1. Well, there are writers who are never, never satisfied with the ending. Guess what? It's more important to have an ending than to have a perfect first draft. Just get it down. You can always go back and fix it later. But at least you'll be able to write THE END - you've finished that book!

5. Don't Send It Away Too Soon

Hallelujah!!! You've finished the book! Yes, heartfelt congratulations are in order. You should go out and celebrate. Take a week off. Take a month off. Heck, take six months off. And then... go back and get ready to start work all over again. The good news is that this time, it's more fun. You've wrestled the beast into its cage. Now you can turn the Beast into Beauty. A finished manuscript is one thing... a finely-honed, ready-for-the-publisher novel is quite another.

Don't set yourself up for disappointment by sending off your book too quickly. The temptation is there - oh boy, is it there. You've finally, finally finished it. You're sick to death of it. You want to just get it off your desk, into the mail, and into the hands of an editor. Time someone rewarded you for all your hard work, right? Yes. Sure, it's time you were rewarded. But make sure you get the answer you want. A "yes", not a "no". That's much more likely to happen if you take the time to make your novel the best it can be.

THIS would be a good time to start looking at all those ideas you have for your next book. Get some distance from that manuscript. Let it 'settle' for a while - then go back to really polish it, until it sparkles!

6. Trim, Polish and Wave Goodbye

When you've got sufficient distance from your manuscript to look at it objectively, take it out again. Now is the time when you read it through to see how it all hangs together. Read it through quickly with a highlighter and a red pen in hand. Don't do any corrections. Just highlight any sections that don't seem to work, for whatever reason. Scrawl a quick comment in the margin - something like "too slow here"; "characters seem 2-dimensional"; "dialogue stilted"; "why did he do this? not in character" and so on.

If you know other writers who will give you valuable feedback, ask them to read and comment briefly on the manuscript too. (Give them their own copy - you don't want them to be influenced by your jottings.) Give a copy to a friend who just reads a lot, too. Readers know what they like! Have a checklist in place, and work through each chapter and scene looking at:

  • Pacing
  • Emotional depth
  • Dialogue
  • Smooth integration of setting
  • Plot development (does each scene move the story forward?)
  • Characterization

Tighten your story; tighten your prose. Make sure your characters are so believable they all but walk off the page and shake your hand. Make readers care about what happens next. Make readers hungry to find out what happens next. Polish every sentence. Make your story SPARKLE!

When your novel as good as you can make it, print out a professional, clean copy and send it away. Now your book really is finished. And no matter what its fate, you'll be a much better writer for having pushed on to take your story to its conclusion, rather than giving up and chasing the next idea. You've done it once - you can do it again. And again. And again. And that's what it takes to build a writing career.

© Marg McAlister


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