How I finished my first novel

Often when people find out what I do it turns out that they harbour ambitions of writing a novel too. Mostly they just daydream about it. But sometimes they confess that they’ve had a whack at it but not very successfully. “How do you actually finish a novel?” they’ll ask. “Starting’s easy but how do you finish?”

I cannot tell you how many novels I started but did not finish before I finally managed to complete one. Not because I don’t want to tell you, but because I honestly don’t know. On the hard drive of my current computer there are fourteen unfinished novels. But there are others that didn’t make it to this computer. Not to mention many notebooks that are lost or in storage. I started my first novel before I was twelve, started many more in my teenage years, not to mention my twenties, but I kept stalling.

Every. Single. Time.

I could write beginnings. Some of them are corkers. I could even get some of the middle stuff happening. But I could not get to the third act. Hell, I couldn’t even finish the second act.1 None of my unfinished novels get anywhere near the climax, let alone the actual ending.

There were lots of reasons why. My short attention span was definitely part of it. I’d think of some other shiny shiny idea and start on that instead. Or I’d get bored with the work in progress and go read a book instead. Or I’d get stuck and have no idea what happens next. Or I’d decide the whole thing sucked and realise I could never show it to anyone else because of its hopelessness and give up. It could also have been the absence of a deadline—I find they concentrate the mind quite fabulously well.

I also suspect part of my problem was that I never had a clear idea of the whole book. I’d just start writing a conversation, or describing a scene, and figure out who the people were and what was going on as I went. I had never heard of outlining so it never occurred to me to do so. Maybe it would have made a difference and I’d have finished a novel much earlier. I’ve always imagined that writers who figure out the plot ahead of time, who know who their characters are and what they’re going to do before they start typing have a much easier time finishing their first novel.

Left to my own devices I suspect I would never have finished. I’d still be an academic. Or possibly a rabbit farmer. Or a stringer for National Enquirer.

But one fateful day I got talking with an acquaintance, who happened to work at a book shop in Sydney where I fed my book habit frequently bought books. I’d been going there for years. We’d chatted many times but didn’t really know each other. On this occasion we both confessed that we were wannabe writers. I remember how embarrassed I was by the confession. How stupid it sounded. But she was embarrassed too, which encouraged me to admit that for all my ambitions I’d never managed to finish a single thing. Turned out she hadn’t either. Somehow we ended up agreeing to read each other’s stuff.

Once every one or two weeks we’d meet, swap pages, have lunch, talk about what we’d written, offer (very gentle) criticism, and cheer each other on. Within six months I’d finished my first novel. Or the first draft of it anyways. A novel I’d started in 1988 was finished in 1999. Greased lightning!

I could not have done it without her. Writing can be a lonely, frustrating business. Having someone who’s in it with me made a huge difference. Because back then I had no idea whether I could finish a novel. And not knowing if that was possible made finishing really really difficult.

Now when I start a novel the fact that I’ve already finished six makes me pretty (not wholly) confident that I’ll finish this one too. Even if it is turning out to be longer than expected.

  1. Possibly because I have never thought of my books in terms of acts. But whatever. []

17 comments

  1. Karen on #

    This comes at just the right time, Justine, thanks. (And I’m glad you made that embarrassing confession to your book shop friend!)

  2. Lizabelle on #

    As with Karen, this post really comes at the right time for me, so thank you. I’m 70,000 words into a first draft, and I…hate every word of it. I want to be writing anything but this. But I know I have to keep pushing on until I have at least a full draft before deciding whether to ditch it.

    You’re so right that sharing your work with other writers keeps you going. At the moment, that’s the only thing that’s making me stick with it – I don’t want to turn around to my writer friends and say, “I’ve changed my mind, I’m giving up”.

    I’m very glad you found your acquaintance, too! Imagine a world with no Magic’s Child :).

  3. sherwood on #

    Oh, good post. It’s amazing what a good writing partner can do for one…and unfortunately, there’s no danger like a bad writing partner, sigh.

  4. Justine on #

    Karen & Lizabelle: Oh good. I’m so pleased. I wrote it cause I have a friend struggling with the same thing and she was holding me up as a model of someone who managed to finish a novel first go. I laughed in her face!

    Sherwood: Yes, indeed. Joh was perfect. She was ALWAYS so encouraging. And her crits were smart and useful. “Why are there suddenly crazy monks? Why did you set the city on fire? It doesn’t make any sense!” But she never got into sentence level stuff that would have just slowed me down. So I gave her crits in line with what she was giving me. I learnt A LOT.

  5. Diana Peterfreund on #

    So what happened with Joh? Did she finish her book? Does she still work in Sydney?

    (Almost fell off my couch when I heard you drop the “A” word in a post. And “outline,” too!

    I shall admit, as a lifelong outliner, that it does NOT help you go past that hurdle. I outlined from the very teenaged beginning of all my unfinished novels, and I had the exact same problem. Writing is a lot harder than thinking about writing, true, but it’s also a lot harder than planning it out.)

  6. Rachael on #

    Thanks for this great post, Justine. I had the exact same problem for many, many years (even many years in which I outlined like crazy and also found it didn’t help, like Diana), and thinking that I might never be able to finish a novel frightened the goop out of me because I love writing so much. It’s nice to hear that there are others out there. (And my first novel, polished and shiny after nine drafts, is just now poking its head out into the world.)

  7. Mark on #

    A great post, and it highlights one of the difficulties of writing. I’ve joined several writing groups but they all are essentially crit groups and there is little social support. If I wrote “I’m depressed and I need some encouragement” I know someone would write a “go get em” email but I think live person-to-person contact is considerably more important. The difficult part is finding someone.

    I look at it like the gym, it is possible to go to the gym and work out all by yourself, but for most people once the novelty wears off its difficult to maintain it solo, wheras if you have a workout partner, someone you are meeting and will work alongside you, it gives you that extra incentive.

  8. Jana Stocks on #

    Heh…it is nice to hear that others had the same problem finishing their first novel. I got past that point because my mother threatened to take the computer away from me if I didn’t finish this thing I’d be slaving away on until unholy hours of the morning – this was in high school. She made me finish. It’s a book that will never see the light of day again, but finishing one made it possible to finish others. Now I’m in the slippery slope of finding the right publication place for it and she won’t let me quit on that even though it’s decades after she made me finish the first one. Having people that believe in your ability is a huge help!
    ~J

  9. Kirk on #

    Great article and very timely. Thanks much, Justine. (It’s nice to have a [gentle] kick in the pants every now and then.)

  10. atthecross on #

    i have so far finished one novellete, handwritten one 70-sheet/140-page notebook of a will-one-day-be-a-novel, and have-not-yet-given-up-on another novel-hopeful and a trilogy-hopeful (tho to be fair i am so frustrated with just the first few chapters of that that i reduced to “i’ll rewrite it… eventually…” i have at least one that i started and never finished, and one that i loved but lost.

    novellete: no outline, but a very simple plot. hence the fact i got bored and ended it.

    1st novel-hopeful: i am just now beginning to outline, nearly a year into it. isnt that sad? oh well.

    2nd novel-hopeful: i did the barest hint of a plot and character outline. its so different now that its barely recognizable as such, but oh well.

    3rd novel-hopeful/ trilogy beginning: i spent MONTHS on a character and plot outline, and u know what? it didnt help much. especially the character one. i like to “discover” my characters as i write. sometimes the character i plan and the character that makes into the story are barely the same person! so from now on i will only do physical descriptions before writing.

    anybody have good suggestions for how to outline a trilogy? thats the one im the most mad at right now, its not working the way i wanted it to.

  11. Diana Peterfreund on #

    Rachel @ 6 who wrote:

    (even many years in which I outlined like crazy and also found it didn’t help, like Diana)

    To clarify, it’s not that it didn’t help, because when I finally did finish my first novel (and the 7 that followed), I outlined like crazy. All I’m saying is that I disagree with Justine’s assessment that outlining is a cure for the “oh, golly gee, shall I write a novel? Shucks, this is harder than I thought” period we all go through.

  12. Mark on #

    I think each person has to see what works best for them, unfortunately many people never try the outlining method.

    I’ve been experimenting with different methods myself.

    My first book (written for Nano – the pressure was great to actually get me to write it) was total seat-of-the-pants, I started with some characters and a situation and just dreamed up the next chapter each day while commuting. It got finished but it wasn’t pretty and needed a lot of work.

    My second book had a general outline of the whole plot from start to finish, but I found I had a lot of trouble fleshing it out as I went along.

    My third book was pretty carefully outlined from start till almost the end and that technique worked well for me. Unfortunately by the end of the outlining I got sloppy: “and they somehow killed the big bad monster” and now that I am writing from the outline I’m struggling to come up with details to fill in the plot in an interesting way.

    I think many people really can benefit from outlining but thats seen as too much work for many budding writers, they want to get to the “fun stuff” quickly and then get bogged down.

  13. Camille on #

    So wait — I get to count that near-plagiarism of Lewis Caroll I did when I was ten or that near-plagiarism I did of Kenneth Grahame when I was 11 (into which I’m pretty sure I tried to incorporate the words “the sun also rises”), or of Gwendolyn Brooks when I was 12, or of Judy Blume and/or Betty Smith when I was also 12, or that 250 page Terry-Brooks ripoff I committed from the time I was 14-17? (Not much in the way of coherent plot, but I had at least one pretty damn exciting swordfight. Oh yeah. I don’t think Brooks did as much “pre-snog banter” though.)

    Okay, now I am humiliated. But in a fun way.

    I think it was Adam Cadre who said you have to write a million crap words before you write your first good story. (I’m not sure who he was quoting. The mysterious “They” who say everything first…)

  14. Patrick on #

    I’ve noted that many writers I know got through their first novels with the help of a friend(or writing group, but usually it is a friend) at the same point in their career.

    I fall in the started writing pieces of novels since I was 12-14 category, but still haven’t finished, though I did make it to 60K on one before I scrapped it.

    I’ve had a few people I have attempted to pair up and it hasn’t been the inspiration/motivation yet and they have all dropped by the way side(Or I dropped by the wayside, I’m not always clear on that)

    It’s that elusive criptique partner who gets you.

    GREAT POST!!!

  15. Shawn Powers on #

    Odd that we find comfort in the failings of others, no? :D

    Great post, thanks for the insight.

  16. Nicky on #

    Interesting reading. I like the struck through feeding habit (those shops are so like that).

    Since I’ve begun one-one mentoring we’ve discovered I’m the opposite way (I always knew I was backwards). Finishing isn’t the problem. Getting past the 1st scene has been the issue.

    I was having a case of the “why do I even think I’m a writing (even if it is like breathing) …I can’t even START a flippin story”, or something to that nature!

    Turns out if I leave out the absolute 1st scene (or pretend I don’t have a 1st scene on paper), I can write til my heart is partially content. No wonder the 1st m/s I got through took so long. Hopefully this one won’t (but then, my mentor will see to that *lol*).

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