How to finish a novel

This first post in a series of blogs about writing was going to be on how to start a novel. But I feel like starting is rarely the problem – whereas finishing often is. Whether you plan a book out or plunge right in, the beginning is always full of shimmery possibility. And then… the reality of the words on the page often disappoints. Hence the urge to polish and polish, re-writing the first chapter or section over and over.

Obviously, I’m not the only writer to go on about finishing a book. Almost any writerly advice – from the most informal twitter thread to expert guides – usually underlines the importance of getting to those magical words: The End. But I think that’s because there really is something magical about them. I remember feeling a distinct sense of achievement, a zinging new feeling that I could finally, really, call myself a writer, because I’d done what few manage and actually finished the bloody thing. Even if it was a mess, and too long, and somehow still missing bits… I had written a book.

How to manage it though? Life is busy, we all spend too much time staring at screens, and affording to carve out time to write is not easy financially. Plus, writing a novel is a long and solitary endeavour – keeping the initial enthusiasm going can be tricky.

Here are a few things that can help keep up the momentum – although there are no hard and fast rules here. Overly bossy threats and promises of miraculous ‘hacks’ are unhelpful, if not downright deceitful. Ultimately, you have to find what works for you. Here’s what worked for me.

Like your story and characters

This sounds so obvious – but it is worth reminding yourself of, especially in the early stages of writing. You’re going to spend So Much Time with this story and with your characters – and if you aren’t entertained, compelled, fascinated by them, will you actually want to sit down to write them? Are you as interested in them as you are in going to the pub with your real-life friends, or reading someone else’s infuriatingly brilliant book, or having a nice nap?

There was lots I liked writing about my first, unpublished book – but by the end, I got pretty fed-up with my protagonist. When plotting What Time Is Love?, one of my starting points was making sure I had a lively, determined lead female character I knew I would root for all the way.

Get into a habit, but don’t be too precious about it

For many writers, getting into a habit of when to write can be helpful. Writing for an hour every morning before even opening your inbox, or an hour before bed. On commutes, or lunchtimes. Dedicating Sunday afternoons to it, or one ring-fenced weekend a month.

Basically, try to build it into your life. Getting into a groove of little-and-often can be really useful, especially in preventing you just constantly going back to the beginning again. And don’t sweat the word count too much: any new words are an achievement. We’re all different on this, it’s comforting to remember – some published writers consider a few hundred words a day a good haul, others several thousand (anything between 800 and 2,000 is grand for me).

That said, don’t fall for the tyranny of the advice that you must “write everyday”. It is simply not practical for most people, and can become a stick we use to beat ourselves with or even a reason to give up. Reality check: I don’t manage it, even now I have a deal to write my next book. But what I do find crucial is a sense of forward motion – of progress. So even if you take a few weeks or months off, when you pick it back up, try to get on with writing the next chapter. Or just the next paragraph.

Keep moving

Don’t read chapter one again. Just don’t do it.

Perfecting what you’ve written before moving on is a valid way of working for many writers – but I think for many more, it can hold them back. I now just focus on getting the words out and down, knowing I can – and probably will – change most of them later.

My way of keeping myself moving forward is to try to limit the re-reading I allow myself: each day, I start by reading over what I wrote the day before, but only let myself go much further back (e.g. reading a whole chapter or section) if I’ve had a bit of a gap and need to get back into the world of the book, or because I’ve reached a natural break and need to see how a section is working as a whole

But such a linear approach doesn’t suit everyone – if you feel yourself getting slow or stuck, try switching it up, jumping to a different section, or time period, or character, as a way of recharging your enthusiasm.

Similarly, for many stories, some research will need to happen before you can put pen to paper. But once you’re in the writing phase, it can also distract become a procrastination tool. Unless I have a question I can find an answer to very quickly, I try not to google things while I’m in the flow – that way, internet wormholes lie. Instead, I make a note of things I need to research and do it after, adding salient details or making changes the next time I read and re-draft that section.

Find a community

Having someone – or several someones – to hold you to account for your writing can be remarkably helpful. Hence the proliferation of writing groups in recent decades, which can range from informal arrangements with friends to highly professionalised course. While the latter can be alarmingly expensive, there are often bursaries for those on low incomes. Check out Arvon, the Faber Academy, and Curtis Brown for three top-tier options, with expert tutors and much more advice than I could ever squeeze in here.

There can also be a sense of camaraderie and understanding in writing groups. I did a Work in Progress Faber Academy course, and it was invaluable in making me get on with finishing my first novel – but also in feeling supported in that endeavour.

Getting feedback, reading and thinking about other people’s writing and why exactly it is working – or not – is hugely helpful for developing your own writing. But it’s often having an external deadline, and peers waiting to read your work, that can be the truly motivating thing. It helped me to prioritise working on my novel, because I knew I was going to be taking up other people’s time with it. It helped me to take my writing seriously – and that was crucial.

‘What Time is Love?’ is published by Orion 26 May 2022, and is available to preorder here

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