Friday, November 16, 2012

Five Good Reasons You Won't Finish Your Novel

This dude was so proud, he
named his novel FINISHED.
by Lydia Netzer

In November, lots of people start new novels, as participants in National Novel Writing Month. Few people will finish those novels. That's a fact. Finishing a novel, slapping your hand down on a stack of papers and shouting, "DONE!" either literally or metaphorically -- that's something pretty rare. Why? Why do most people who start novels lose their way? Statistically speaking, if you're writing a novel right now, at some point before the end you will slow and stop. Why?

I do not believe that the reason you won't finish your novel is that you're not a writer. 

Novels are just words. We all have access to the same ones. I don't believe everyone can write The Old Man and the Sea or Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norell or Ulysses or Geek Love. But I do believe that you and everyone else who wants to can write a perfectly good novel that brings fulfillment to you and enjoyment to readers. So why are you not done? Here's a list of possible reasons.

1. You're writing the wrong book. 

Your idea is fabulous -- everyone says so. It exists as a beautiful crystalline work of art in your mind, so perfect in all its facets, so gloriously fresh and interesting and flawlessly structured. But you just... can't... seem to write it.

Truth: It can look like the right book, and still be the wrong book. The wrong book can sound great when you talk about it! You might be telling yourself how easy it will be to pitch, how neatly the plot comes together, how cute that one scene is, when she gets the phone call about going to the marina and what? -- she's already there. But if it's not the right book for you, for this year, for this moment in your life, then you need to grab your valuables and abandon ship right now. Write something else. If it makes you feel better, you can tell yourself you'll come back to it. Whether or not that's true doesn't really matter -- what matters is getting you out off the slowly sinking vessel that is this manuscript. Do something else. Swim away. Even if you've spent ten years working on this wrong book. Even if it's the only idea you think you're ever going to have. Because you know what? You're never going to finish it anyway.

Find the book you're supposed to write. It might be underneath the one you're working on, or beside it. It might be on the other side of a wall you've built to protect yourself from it -- maybe you've put the real storyline in the past, or you've killed off a character forty years ago that should be the star of the book, or you've shirked on telling a backstory that should be center stage. Look for the real story. If it looks perfect and easy and like it will write itself, that's probably not it. If it looks hard and awful and kind of makes you sick to your stomach, guess what? You found it.

Can this many people really care
about zombies all at the same time?
2. You're writing to be on trend. 

If your novel contains a school for children with special abilities, godlike qualities, or magical powers... If your novel contains werewolves, vampires, zombies, or trolls... If your novel explores a post-apocalyptic landscape where a remnant of humans struggles to rebuild their world... If your novel follows a plucky group of strangers through a zombie onslaught...

Examine your motivation.

This is not to say that a new book cannot be written about vampires or special kid schools or the earth after the apocalypse or zombies. Obviously it can. I'm saying that if you're writing about one of the above scenarios, or one of a dozen other trendy elements we all could name, and you find yourself faltering and failing to make progress, consider the possibility that you're writing to be on trend and you don't really care about your book.

Write about something you care about. Not about something that's popular.

Third time's a charm.
3. You've grown away from your book. 

I started writing Shine Shine Shine in spring of 1999. I started over twice: two times I was looking at a blank page, thinking let's-take-another-run-at-this-thing. Why? Two major changes happened in my life over the course of writing the book: I became a mother and my own mother died. Each of these changes caused me to start the book over. The final product bears little resemblance to the first draft -- except that it's still about motherhood and love and death. There are a few stray paragraphs that made it back into later drafts from that first effort, but calling it the same book is really sort of disingenuous.

Had I held on to those first characters, that first plot, and kept trying to make it work, I would never have finished. I changed radically in 10 years -- I could not have stayed with the same book during those changes. I grew up, and the book had to grow up too. That necessitated some painful cuts, and trashing a lot of words that I'd slaved over and loved. But eventually I did finish, because I let the book change with me.

4. You want to say everything. 

This is a big factor for first time novelists and it was a big factor for me. A major problem, really, especially as I neared the end of my final first draft. I felt like I would maybe, if I was lucky, if I could manage to swing it, have one chance to say everything I've ever wanted to say about life, death, humanity, space travel, parenthood, robots, love, the world. I wanted to open up my brain and remove the whole thing, cram it into the pages of a book, and anything less than that felt like I wasn't doing my job.

That was dumb.

For one thing, saying everything you can possibly think of makes a lot of noise. It's hard to hear any one good idea in a deluge of 50,000 ideas. For another thing, looking at this writing thing optimistically, you're going to want to write a second novel and even a third, and if you've unloaded all of your crazy -- excuse me all of your ideas -- into one book, you may find yourself looking at a blank page on book two and thinking, dang, what am I going to write about now?

Consider this a permission slip: You do not need to say everything in your novel. You can leave some things out. You can say some things in your next book, or the one after that. Pick one thing, or maybe two or three things, or even four or five, to say in this book. Focus. There is a long life ahead of you in which you can write many books. Don't let the burning need to include everything that's important to your world cripple you and prevent you from finishing this book. Don't.

5. You don't have time. You're sick. Your mother died. You have a good excuse.

You have a good excuse. We all have a good excuse. You have a special needs kid, you have a sick husband, you yourself are sick, you are working two jobs, your laptop broke, your desktop broke, you lost 95,000 words of your manuscript in a hard drive failure, you had to move, you had to change jobs, you got divorced, your mother died, your sister went insane, your leg got chewed off in a lawn mower accident.

These things happen, and they are really valid excuses for not writing a novel. They're all real. They're not insignificant. Life sucks sometimes and it can really harsh your writing buzz. People die. People need you in ways you cannot avoid. You get sad, you get sick, you get life circumstances you have to deal with. No one can deny that.

And no one will deny it.

When you don't finish your novel, and your excuse is one of the above, everyone will understand. Everyone will say, "I understand." And they'll go on with their lives. Because ultimately, they don't really care. The only person who really, really cares about your unfinished novel is you. Not your wife. Not your kids. Not your parents or friends or coworkers. It costs your friends and family nothing to understand all the reasons why your novel isn't done. They can be understanding all day long, all your life long. But then, you're someone who, in the end, did not write a novel and had really good reasons for it.

Novel writing is lonely. It's serious. At 1 o'clock in the morning, in the middle of your kitchen, when you're tearing your hair out over a scene you can't get straight, and you just want to go to bed, the only person who's responsible for persevering through that situation is you. Excuses are social, they're dependent on other people. Writing is insular. Your progress is between you and your book: you do it or you don't. You get it done or you don't. All the understanding in the world isn't going to get you to The End. It's up to you to decide whether your excuses are good enough for you. If you accept them. You're the only person that matters.

I hope this blog post pissed you off a little. I hope it put a burr under your saddle. I want you to finish your novel -- maybe not this month but soon. It is a great feeling, an addicting feeling, one that will get you pushing past your excuses, past the pain of abandoning drafts, and past the discomfort of writing something that really matters to you. You can finish, no matter what your circumstances. And when you do, you're going to really have something to celebrate. Finishing a novel is rare. Get out there and be someone who does it anyway.

Lydia Netzer is the author of Shine Shine Shine, which the New York Times called "A stellar, thought-provoking debut" and People Magazine called "a delightfully unique love story." It was recently chosen by Amazon as one of their Editor's Picks for the Top 100 Books of 2012, by Library Journal as one of five Top Women's Fiction Titles of 2012, and by Nancy Pearl in Publisher's Weekly as one of her ten favorite books of 2012. Written over ten years, two attempts at Nanowrimo, and many despairing moments, it's a novel about robots, motherhood, space travel, true love, and the perils of fitting in. Find her on her blog, Facebook, and Twitter


  1. Did you climb inside my brain again? (Hello, reason #1!) Really good stuff, Lydia. Thanks for writing and posting this.

  2. Amen!

    I've linked to this in my LiveJournal blog. Thanks for the permission to do so--and thanks for coming to talk to us on Monday!

  3. You know me too well. Oh? this isn't about me specifically? Book two is hard. Harder? Maybe it's just all these things. Great post, Lydia!

  4. *Fist Bump* That's all I have to say. Fist. Bump.

  5. Lydia,
    This was a great post. I think you hit the nail on the head.

  6. All hail the great Lydia. Fabulous post. I rewrote THE UNFINISHED GARDEN so many times I lost count. I even changed my hero at one point. Quitting was never an option, but still, it took close to ten years. And novel two? I dumped 90% of it and started over. Why do people think writing is easy?!

  7. Interesting blog post. Thank God I'm not "officially" in NaNoWriMo this year. However, all your points apply to my current WIP.
    Thanks for posting!

  8. This fits into last month's WIP Clean Up. Three WIP - all at over 50k words - deleted. No back up. Since then I started a book I REALLY needed to write. In three weeks I've managed 25k words, the plot unfolding, the characters frustrating me, the scenes enough to make the self huggy jacket smack me around. In other words, I'm having a great time.

    Great blog!!

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