I’m no Katherine Dunn, Stephen King, or Franz Kafka, but I like to write books. To date I’ve written four novels, a memoir, a children’s book, and will soon finish a draft of my first novella. This, of course, says nothing of the quality of any of those books, but it does speak to their completion. I write books.
When it comes to writing, resources are unlimited. Ubiquitous. And if you’re anything like me, the idea of reading a reference manual on writing, even when you love the craft, sounds freakin’ boring. When I was all amped up on writing my first novel some ten years ago, it seemed like a worthwhile venture, but one whose application—let alone entertainment value—quickly ran thin. Other than Mr. King’s excellent book, reading about writing is more than a little dull, and about as varied in its opinions (which are, at the end of the day, all any author has to offer) as parenting blogs or a debate on capital punishment.
Nonetheless, there are a handful of tidbits I’ve acquired (either experientially, or from someone else) that have been of tremendous value in my own writing. My books may or may not be any good, but I finish them. That’s what this advice is all about, finishing books. Writing well is up to you and, depending on who you ask, I may not even be the person to ask. But I know how to finish.
1. Outline the crap out of it.
My novels have all begun with a single idea, some randomly occurring notion mostly triggered by something else. I write it down. I think about it before I fall asleep for weeks. More ideas come, I write them down. I start doing whatever sort of research might be involved (writing Cannibals, for example, required several dull books about rabbits and physics). Eventually, there’s enough free-flow brainstorm and inspiration in the tank to actually structure an outline.
I decide how long the outlining process should take, how many days a week I can work on it, and for how many hours each day. I write a synopsis for the novel—the thing you’d read on the back cover. I make it longer. Then longer. I summarize the first, second, and third act. I figure out the conflict, the rising action, the climax… if all or any of those elements are involved. I work out how many chapters it might take to accommodate the story. I write synopses for each chapter. I write short (or long) bios for each and every character. I write descriptions for each location. I cross reference the characters and locations with the chapter outlines. I put all my notes, research, and outlining in one place (a program called StoryMill).
Time to start the first draft.
2. Impose a deadline and daily quota, and meet it no matter what.
Writing exclusively out of inspiration is a great way to never finish a book. When I begin a first draft with the same imposition I’ve crafted for my outlining phase: A schedule, calendar, deadline and page quota. Before I had a full-time job, I worked 9am to 5pm five days a week, clocking in about 6 to 10 pages a day. During my last (and current) book, I was and am working full-time and have to relegate my once cushy writing schedule to three days a week, after work, five hours at a time, 20 pages each sessions. The roomy 9 to 5 schedule is comfortable, with time to make sandwiches, drink coffee and go on small research tangents. The three-days-a-week schedule is grueling, focused and exhausting, but I finished the dang book. I always work to finish my books in 6 to 12 weeks.
How? A quota and a deadline.
3. Don’t talk about the story. With anyone.
You want to write a book because you think you have a cool story to tell. If you describe the story to someone—anyone—you alleviate the need every author experiences, i.e., the need to tell the story. I’ve met so many would-be writers that have described their ideas to me in such hopeless detail that I can’t imagine they’d ever want to have to actually write it down after the fact.
If someone asks what your book is about, answer them with a single sentence (without being rude, of course). To your loved ones, promise them they’ll be first to read your manuscript.
Not sharing your story (with anyone) will intensify your need for the story to be heard to such a degree that you’ll write better, longer, and with more dedication. You want the story to be read and you know it won’t unless you get it out. And since you can’t talk about it, writing is your only option. See where I’m going with this?
Until that final draft is done, keep your mouth shut.
4. Write it again.
Every writer knows the whole “there’s no good writing, only good re-writing,” thing. But seriously, you’ve got to re-write. I do a first draft, then put it up for a week or two. It’s too fresh, too familiar. After it’s been out of sight (and to the best of my abilities, out of mind) for a while, I drag it out and set to work on a second draft. When draft #2 rounds the final lap, it goes to an editor, comes back covered in red ink, and gets rewritten again. The jury is out on exactly how good each draft needs to be, or whether the first draft is more about completion than quality, but either way, you’re going at this thing for several rounds.
By about the third draft or so, you’ll start to be fatigued by the story. You’ll re-read it too fast. You’ll miss things. Spacing out your edits to give your brain a nap is crucial. You can’t afford to not re-write, and you can’t afford to not re-write well.
These four tips have all been tremendously helpful to my decade of writing (and finishing books). Go write.