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For Aspiring Writers

How to finish a novel

These comments were taken (with permission) from an e-mail group of writers.

THE QUESTION: Can anyone suggest any techniques or methods to get through the writing process without it becoming too overwhelming?

Answers by:
          Scott Parkin
          Thom Duncan
          Jonathan Langford

From Scott Parkin:

I have two responses to this—one that's very cranky, and one that's slightly less so. My first response is a giant sigh followed by a well-rehearsed rendition of Scott's Standard Lectures on Writing, Part 1B:

"The only way to finish a story is to sit your butt down in a chair and write until you're finished. When you're finished, print it out and either show to someone to get comments, or put it in an envelope and send it to an editor. Immediately start on the next story. The only meaningful technique or method for writing is to write. If it's too hard, or you just can't find the time, you're not really a writer and no answer I can possibly offer is going to turn you into one. When writing itself becomes more important to you than 'being a writer' you have a fighting chance of succeeding. Until then, you're just a dabbler. End of lecture."

If this response seems cranky to you, I can only suggest that writing is hard. Far too many people sit in the living room and theorize about writing, but don't want to work at doing it. Writing is like sports—anyone can do it badly, but you have to work very hard to do it well, and even harder to do it at a professional level. You have to write and write and write until you learn the craft of writing, then you need to start in on the art of storytelling. Writing well takes a lot of hard work. If you think you can just jot down a story without working at it, I think you're in for disappointment. It's not a casual thing.

My second response is (hopefully) somewhat more informative:

* Read a good book on how to write (actually, read three or four of them so you get some contrasting views). Some titles that come to mind include Orson Scott Card's Characters and Viewpoint and Damon Knight's Creating Short Fiction. These talk about story structure and offer some good advice about both the creative process, and the parts of a story. These can help you start thinking like a storyteller, and can help you feel confident about your ability to create a readable—and sellable—story.

* All crankiness aside, make writing a priority. Rather than watching The X-Files, go in the other room and write something—whether it be notes, character sketches, or the story itself. The best way to improve as a writer is to write.

* Work on more than one project. Sometimes you get stuck on a story or a novel and you just can't move forward. Work on something else to clear you mind and restart the creative process. But make sure that other project is a writing project, too.

* At least half of good writing is good research. When ideas seem sparse, refill the idea tank by reading something. Research a topic, and when you find yourself meandering to other topics, follow the instinct. Often story ideas come from the secondary sources that you find while researching a primary topic.

* Read the kinds of stories you want to write. Study their structure and language. See when you start to lose interest, and how the author gets your attention back. Then steal mercilessly from those techniques to make your own work better. One method is to emulate the structure of a published story to help you get the feel of it (a writing assignment at BYU was to write a story based on the structure of a parable).

* Make the time. This is something of a rehash of an earlier comment, but it's a key concept that a lot of people don't seem to get. Until writing is your first choice, you're unlikely to do any of the other things that will make you more successful.

* Write a simple, straight-forward story. Sometimes we get so caught up in structure and POV and voice and style that we forget to tell a plain old good story. No amount of stylistic or structural niftiness will make up for an uninteresting story. As Algis Budrys (an excellent writing instructor) once said, "You may be able to make a silk purse from a sow's ear, but why not start with silk in the first place?"

(Text was snipped here for reference to a previous post.)

Algis Budrys (again) suggests that a story consists of seven parts. 1) Put a character 2) in a context 3) with a problem. 4) Attempt to solve that problem, and 5) fail. Repeat the try/fail cycle until the characters learn enough to 6) attempt an all-out, last ditch effort to succeed, then 7) validate the ending you choose.

I'm a professional technical writer by day, and a nearly professional fiction writer by night (19 short story sales so far). I currently have about two million words in print in seven languages. I've won awards for both technical writing and fiction, and make a perfectly adequate living from writing.

In an average year I'll write well over four million words in order to publish about one million words. I've been known to write as many as 200 manuscript pages in a day (my maximum fiction output in a day has been only 60 pages, though I once wrote 20 pages in an hour).

Sometimes I get tired of writing—I write all day, then I come home and write at night. When that happens, I tend to go on movie-watching sprees that involve the whole family. You get social time and relaxation, at the same time that you get to see how other people have told successful stories. It replenishes the tank.


I guess it depends on where your threshold of "too overwhelming" is. You can push that threshold back by writing things—anything. But to write stories well you have to write and study stories, and to write scenes well you have to write scenes.

Was that less cranky? I hope so, because I think writing is one of  the neatest things in the world. I encourage everyone to try, but I  also warn that not everyone is able or willing to succeed. That takes work. But when you love it, the work is easy—or at least tolerable. It takes commitment and effort. But if you make it a priority and put in the hours of practice, anyone can succeed.

Scott Parkin

From Thom Duncan:

After struggling for many years to complete one of my half-dozen novels in progress, it finally hit me (I can't remember whether I learned this in a writing seminar or not): just write. Whatever comes into your head. Get the dang thing done.

I had previously written many plays, a few screenplays, so I knew I could write lengthy stuff to completion. I didn't worry about the grammar, the sentence structure. Characters names changed—I didn't care. I plugged through to the end. I set the 40,000 word novel aside for two weeks. When I picked it up again, and read it, I was amazed. It wasn't so bad. The sentences were a lot cleaner than they had seemed while I was writing them.

I sent the novel off the Horizon Publishers—the first one I had ever completed as an adult. They published.

I side with those who've gone before me on this thread. The only technique that works is to write, write, and write some more. Slug through to the end. Write even when you don't feel like writing.

Thom Duncan

From Jonathan Langford:

Let me suggest a few possibilities:

* Part of the problem may be that you have one idea for your story. Orson Scott Card comments that the best stories always have at least two ideas. Not an infallible rule, but there's a lot of truth to it, especially for beginning writers.

* Figure out what part of the story you care about the most, and write that part first. Then ask yourself, "What comes next?" (or, "How did we get here?") Build out from your story's area of strength.

* The fact that you have ideas and can begin the story but not end it suggests that the story isn't complete yet in your mind. Try outlining as you would do a technical report. Not all good writers use outlining—many good ones start at the beginning and discover what they're saying as they go along—but other writers find outlining indispensable. The fact that you've written technical reports, and that starting at the beginning and just going ahead hasn't worked for you, suggests that you may be one who would benefit from an outline.

* If you do use outlining, give yourself permission to let the story evolve and change during the actual writing process. The outline is what you start with, not where you end. Many writers don't feel that the story has truly taken off until it starts throwing unexpected curve balls at them (like the absence of Gandalf; Tolkien once wrote to W.H. Auden that "I was as mystified as Frodo at Gandalf's failure to appear on September 22").

* Simply do a set amount of writing each day. The joke goes that you keep writing, and when the pile falls over, it's a novel.

These are none of them hard and fast rules; each different writer has his/her own method of writing, and what works for one will fail for another. Part of becoming a writer means learning what particular set of motivations and habits will work for you.

Jonathan Langford