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