Procrastination. The writer’s greatest enemy. Oh, I know – there’s 1001 things you can find to do except writing (I know that, because I do them all). But here’s the simple solution to finishing a novel – you just have to write.
I began working on my MG fantasy novel many years ago – I don’t even remember when I started – and it was really just a collection of interesting scenes that vaguely hung together in a plot. I began to read up on writing, joined a fantastic online writers group (you know who you are!) and also started critiquing other writers’ work. I spent six months writing short stories for competitions and it helped me enormously. Once those competitions were over, I was looking forward to finally getting back to my novel. Yet I suffered a huge sense of trepidation, not least because I’d learnt a lot about why so many stories fail.
I began to outline my novel, something I’d never done before. It was fairly rudimentary stuff – the basic outline of the plot and what needed to happen in Acts 1, 2 and 3. I didn’t want to waste more time stringing interesting scenes together, only to find that I’d lost sight of the overarching plot. It was an invigorating process and helped me identify a whole host of plot gaps and questions that needed answers. Then came the dilemma. Should I continue slaving over the outline, refusing to pen a single further word until I had all the questions answered? Or should I balance outlining with writing, slowly chipping away and refining both simultaneously?
Well, I opted for the latter and I’ll share with you why. I’m not suggesting this as a definitive approach – after all, everyone works differently. However, this may encourage some of you who have reached a stall in your writing. To that end, I’ll simply share my own perspective on this.
Outlining is essential for me, because it provides the main tentpoles of my story. Once I have these tentpoles, I can start to populate the structure with individual scenes. It helps prevent that dreaded writer’s block, because I no longer need to write in a linear fashion. Now that I know the broad outline of the story, I can dip in and write whatever scene feels strongest in my mind at any time.
But writing scenes, even when the outline is incomplete, is also essential. That’s because – as it is for most writers – my story is organic. It does not currently sit fully formed in my mind right now. It takes on a life and shape of its own as I write. I don’t mean to sound pretentious – it’s just the truth. I know that I’m often most inspired when I’m actually crafting scenes; little tidbits and nuances slip in and help shape those vital aspects of character, setting, dialogue, etc.
Case in point – a scene I wrote today was supposed to show my protagonist go to the school library at lunchtime. Building up to this, I had him buy a slice of pizza and sit on a bench to eat it. Then it made sense to have him sit down to eat it (can’t take pizza in the library, right?). Then I had him joined by a key character and found it an opportune time to introduce her. She sits beside him, sketching a tree on her pad. Then I had in mind that she would like to be a police sketch artist when she’s older, a rather delicious foreshadow of something I knew was to come later in the story. 948 words later, I had a complete scene (albeit first draft). Totally organic, and not something I could have outlined in that way. As an extravert, I can only think and pre-plan for a short time – then I have to act.
So my advice is this – just write. Not only to finish the story, but to actually make that story come alive. Writing a novel is truly daunting, but getting that first draft out is like getting a solid lump of clay on the potter’s wheel. Once you have the clay there, you can start to shape and form it into your very own work of art.
You want motivation? Then write. However rough or messy, just write. Nothing gets you fired up like seeing your work come alive before your very eyes.