How to Finally Finish That Novel

Today’s guest post is by multipublished author and writing instructor Cathy Yardley:

Are you a closet fiction writer? Have you been playing around with a story for months—maybe years—but you just can’t seem to get it on paper? Or have you been trying to complete it, only to get sidetracked and stall out, time after time? In my experience, most resistance to writing a novel falls into the four following camps:

  • Time
  • Energy
  • Fear
  • Process

“I don’t have the time to write.”

If you’re like most closet fiction writers, you’ve got a day job, a family, a busy social life. If you have been hesitant to identify yourself as a novelist, writing and finishing your story probably takes a back seat to the other pressing concerns in your life. You may feel guilty spending time on something that seems so “selfish.” Or you might simply reach the end of each day wondering where the time went.

Quick solution: For one week, track your time. I had a coaching client do this exercise and she discovered she was spending literally seventy hours a week in the office! See what you’re committing to, and where you might be wasting time. Then, look at what you can pare back, and when you can get some pages done. Until you set some definite time to write, it won’t happen.

“I’m too exhausted to write.”

This issue is closely related to the time issue. If you’ve overcommitted yourself to the point of exhaustion, not writing may be the least of your issues. You may be headed for burnout without realizing it. A different client felt disappointed in herself for not completing her novel. Then she realized that she was taking care of two small children while working a day job—she was on the go from six a.m. to almost midnight. Of course she was too exhausted by the end of the day!

Quick solution: Take a realistic view of your commitments and schedule. Cut back on things that you don’t need, or don’t enjoy, even if it means some unpleasant confrontations. Come up with some compromises, or delegate. Most importantly, create dedicated time for replenishment. Even if it seems to take time away from writing, it will refill your creative well—which means you’ll write more effectively even if you have less time to spend. Many students take a week off before getting back to their projects after doing these exercises, only to find the words flow much more freely after they take some time to rest and reconnect with why they liked the story in the first place.

“When I try to write, I can’t.”

This is fear, also known as “writer’s block.” It’s the most prevalent and pernicious of the obstacles to completing a novel, often disguising itself in time wasting and overbooking. Whether this fear manifests as avoiding writing entirely, polishing the same scene fifty times but never completing anything, or even simply staring at the blank page, it needs to be addressed before you can complete a novel.

Quick solution: There is no true “quick” solution, but there are techniques that will help you work around fears that lock up your creativity and writing drive.

  • Journal: Use a meditative state to write out what you’re really afraid of—and what the payoff is for not writing. Then see if there’s a way you can compromise, to get the writing done without the fear stopping you. For example, if you’re afraid to write because you think people will judge you, write down the negative consequences for not writing (beating yourself up for not finishing, being driven crazy by the story idea, etc.) and then come up with a solution and affirmations that helps ease the fear. For example: “I will only let people that I trust will be kind read it first. I’ll go slowly. I just want to get the book done. I can always fix it in revisions.
  •   Use Write or DieThis online or desktop application encourages you to write without focusing on your internal critic by using negative reinforcement: every time you stop typing, either your monitor will glow red, an annoying sound will start playing, or (in “kamikaze” mode) your words will actually start being erased.
  • Join an accountability group:There are plenty of online groups to check in with, although I find a face-to-face group especially helpful. If you swap work, just the accountability of people expecting pages is usually enough to keep you typing. Just make sure they are compassionate and encouraging—if you’ve got fear issues, now is not the time for a tough-love boot camp.
  • Participate in something like National Novel Writing Month: This provides a game-like, competitive aspect, as well as group support and accountability. It also celebrates completion rather than perfection.
  • Get a “crazy check” from a beta reader: When you are frozen by fear, you’ve lost all perspective. Handing it off to someone whose opinion you trust will help give you some space and some useful feedback and prevent you from blowing your concerns out of proportion.

“I have no idea what to do with all these notes.”

Maybe you have a jumble of thrilling scenes, snippets of wonderful dialogue, and sketches of fantastic characters, but you have no idea how to transform those random pieces into a coherent storyline. You’ve got the time, the energy, and the motivation, but no direction. This suggests you have a problem with your process. Maybe you haven’t finished a novel before, so you’re in uncharted territory. Or maybe you simply haven’t identified a system for writing that works for you.

Quick solution: Write out your plot points. You may recoil from the idea of writing a full scene outline, thinking that you’ll lose all the fun of discovery if you know how everything’s going to turn out. That said, unless you at least have the structure of the character development and an escalating conflict, you’re going to have a tough time compiling your bits and pieces of a novel into a compelling whole. Just writing down the major turning points will give you something to aim for and confidence that your story is structurally sound, while still providing you with plenty of room for exploration and surprise.

Write that novel this year

There is no feeling like finishing a novel. Even if you never publish it, it changes you as a writer and a person. When you complete a novel, it inspires you. What do you feel is your biggest obstacle to writing that novel? Please share in the comments! Cathy Yardley headshotCathy Yardley is the author of seventeen novels, published with Harlequin, St. Martin’s, and Avon. She is also a teacher, editor, and writing coach at Sign up for her free e-course Jump-start Your Writing Career, and check out her ebooks on plotting, revising, and writing, as well as her novels, by visiting her Amazon Author Page here.

Featured Photo Credit: Toni Blay via Compfight cc

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  1. Great tips for all of these common writer woes. 🙂

    Exhaustion is the one that hits me most often. That’s one part busy schedule and one part ongoing health issues that can zap my energy at a moment’s notice. Because of that I can’t squeeze in as much writing as I used to, but I still manage quite a lot between freelance writing projects, several blogs, and books & e-books. I’ve just had to learn to adapt, taking advantage of those times when my energy is up and allowing myself to crash and refresh when I need to.

    1. Jennifer, it sounds like you’ve got your system dialed in! You’re very aware of your energy issues, and that makes a huge difference. That said, it sounds like you do a lot already — I can only imagine what productivity looked like prior to your energy drop. I think authors don’t recognize, or appreciate, how much they do. Congrats on your accomplishments!

  2. Exhaustion can be your friend. I wrote my first novel almost entirely between 9 p.m. and 3 a.m. with two small children – really small. Later realized that I had to be exhausted, ‘to get beyond myself’ is how I thought of it, to quit resisting writing and just to write. Every night, until the first draft was done.

    Whatever is our reason (read ‘excuse’) once we run out of excuses we must sit down in front of that keyboard or take up the pen and just do it.

    1. I don’t know that I’d call exhaustion “your friend.” It can be an effective incentive for some people, and it’s good to put a positive spin on it, but I found a dark side to that — after a while, the only way I could write was under brutal deadline, just so I wouldn’t worry about my internal editor or project about future critics. The problem being, I didn’t have enough time or energy to really give the project the attention it deserved. And when it went to my editor, I started rationalizing “well, it’s the best it can be for a manuscript fueled on Mountain Dew and all-nighters!”

      I also think that it’s more than just “excuses.” Some of my clients have told me they’re lazy, that they’re avoiding, but I’ve seen how hard they work in other areas of their life. It’s not that they’re lazy, it’s that they’re afraid. In my experience, saying “it’s just an excuse” and “just do it” doesn’t work with people who aren’t aware of what they’re afraid of — and who don’t have coping mechanisms in place to circumvent the fear enough to get writing done.

      Thanks for commenting!

  3. “Even if it seems to take time away from writing, it will refill your creative well—which means you’ll write more effectively even if you have less time to spend.” –Such great advice, and something most writers might be afraid to recognize as a necessity without this validation.

    Loved the article. Brilliant as always.

  4. Thanks for all the great tips! I’m working on my first novel, and I pass through each of these camps in phases. 🙂

    I recently joined a great writing group, and that motivates me to keep at it. What’s more embarrassing than bringing bad writing to the group? Showing up and saying I didn’t meet my word count goal and don’t have anything for them to read!

    1. I know just what you mean — I always hated feeling guilty when other people brought pages and I didn’t, it was just the nudge I needed to get my butt in the chair and hands on the keyboard! 🙂

  5. Thank you Cathy.Yes, alot of the above. The main thing though was I lost my passion and stopped consistently writing. I think it’s more about my thoughts of ‘getting it out there’ once it’s finished that’s stopping me because I find ‘marketing’ so hard! Funny really cause if I don’t finish it, it won’t get out there!I am very passionate about my new novel when I write it.
    This has helped, because maybe I will change how I am thinking and go back to the publisher of my 1st book and see what happens, rather than self publishing!

    1. Sherry, I’m so glad this helped! Marketing can be a daunting proposition for anyone — a lot of my clients have expressed their fears and frustrations, since it’s so different than the process of writing the novel itself. I think that marketing can be simplified, though. Good luck with your writing project!

  6. This article hit my problem right on the head. Fear has stalled me for a couple of years. Fear of what my family will think, fear of what others will think, fear of not being good enough, and fear of failure.

    I’ve been facing my fears head on and knocking down each obstacle. I’m almost done with my first manuscript.

    1. Fear is the most insidious of the “stuck points” because it’s so easy to downplay — “just do it” tends to be the pat answer. But if you could do it, you would have. In my experience, 99% of the time it’s not laziness, it’s fear. Being cruel and abusive to your fear doesn’t tend to work. Being gentle, finding support, and taking small but consistent steps is the key. Good luck!

      1. Fear had me stalled for twenty years. Last fall I finally started writing the first of the several novels I had been writing in my head for all that time, and I am finally close to having the first draft done. I even have the sequels planned – one completely outlined, synopses for a few others. Getting it actually edited to the point of being able to publish (whether self or traditional)? That’s another story… LOL. I guess there’s still plenty of fear left.

        1. Hi Laura, it helps to hire an editor/writing coach to help you along–both with encouragement and direction. One of the hardest things about being a new novelist is gaining confidence in handling all the elements of novel construction. It can be overwhelming and paralyzing. I wish I’d had someone like me thirty years ago when I started and had no clue how to proceed and what I needed to know at each step along the way!

          1. I agree. I’ve worked with several of my clients from beginning draft, when they’d never completed a single novel (or even started one!) all the way through to contracted publication. Sometimes, a little help from an objective outsider can work wonders. (And an editor, or trusted beta readers, should be part of the support network I think all writers should have!)

  7. Fear keeps me from not finishing my novel. Fear of forgetting, fear of losing my time to get it done, fear of no one hearing the story I have in my head. At the same time though fear makes me rush, makes me push so hard that I inevitably have to go back and rewrite and reread things a million times. I don’t like you fear, you are a mean mean little thing!
    My biggest problem right now is deciding I am actually DONE done with my novel. It’s written, but how many times do I need to edit it. At the moment that answer seems to be, “for the rest of your life!”
    Maybe my fear of rejection from publishers is keeping me from finishing editing though….hmmmm, food for thought.

    1. If you’ve edited it a few times, you might need an outside opinion. Beta readers that you trust, that read the genre you’re writing in, might be the way to go. (Ask them to be gentle with their feedback, and be specific regarding what you’re looking for. Do you want them to look at overall story structure? Pacing? The writing itself?)

      Hang in there!

  8. Great post! I really like the kindness (and reality) of your suggestions. After years of thinking about it, I’m finally writing–but I have a busy full-time job,family commitments and I also like to READ actual published books:) So there are times where days pass and I haven’t touched my novel…I used to feel very guilty about that. I read somewhere that writers write–everyday, and I can’t claim to do that. However, I set weekly word count goals and I know that if I don’t write much during the week I’m going to have a busy weekend.

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