How I Rescued My Stalling Novel

Ten years ago, I started writing a novel.

The fact that it still isn’t finished is an occasional source of embarrassment, particularly since I’d made the mistake of telling everybody I knew.

That’s what you do, when you start something as mind-blowingly momentous as writing a novel.  You’ve moved a precious idea from intention to action, which feels amazing enough on its own. 

And so you talk excitedly about finally starting work on that potential masterpiece, living so deliciously in the moment that you forget about all the future questions you’ll have to answer.

The first of these is usually an innocent, “What’s your novel about?”  But during those early planning stages, I didn’t know how to summarise the convoluted plot I had in my head.  So I’d ramble awkwardly on about it being “something to do with families”. 

Riveting.

Then you’ll be asked politely about “how it’s coming along”.  But people tend to want pleasingly pithy and entertaining answers to questions like that, and I couldn’t provide them.

Occasionally, I’d try.  “It’s going well, thanks, but it’s a bit weird when you write about strong emotions that you then strangely take on in real life for the rest of the day.”   Or: “It’s tough.  One day I think everything I’ve written is fantastic, then I look at it the next day and it’s all pigswill.”

I’d watch people’s eyes glaze over as I spoke, and I realised that talking about writing was not my strong point.

Unfortunately, neither was actually piecing a story together in a coherent way.  I completed a first draft, but I knew how bad it was, even before I did what that nice Stephen King recommends in On Writing, and sent it out to five kind people to read and review. 

(My readers confirmed that the draft needed work.  Serious excavation, in fact).

Gradually, people stopped asking me questions about my hallowed novel, which left me free to just stop writing it if I wanted to.

Except I didn’t.

I did leave it untouched for a few years, while my own life changed around me.  A divorce and a complete career transformation later, I was ready to resume the novel-writing.

It was scary. 

Not least because the world had changed quite a bit in those few years.  For example, I’d started writing that novel before social media had taken off, which meant the first thing I had to do was go back and weave in a few references about Tweeting, and looking people up on Facebook (there’s a detective element to the book, you see).

As I read the whole thing over again, I saw how much the story dragged, and how much grunt work I still had to do before I could honestly say it was any good.

“Why don’t you give yourself a break, and start writing another book?” a well-meaning friend said.  “You’ll have some experience to draw on now, so the effort wouldn’t have been wasted.”

Part of me really, really wanted to stop thinking about that old novel.  But I knew that would be the easy option, and that I’d hate myself for it.  Besides, if I started another book, surely I’d come up against all the same issues sooner or later?  I saw myself in another ten years, armed with another shitty, half-finished manuscript to moan about.

So I decided to roll up my sleeves…and finish the one I already had.

Here’s how I’m doing it.

I reviewed everything I’d written thus far

Dumping two whole thirds of a first draft is unbelievably painful, particularly when it took you an agonising age to write it all.   

But as you read it through, a little voice inside you will tell you what works, and what doesn’t.  It’ll tell you what could be rescued with a bit more graft, and what really shouldn’t see the light of day. 

Listening to that voice means you might well have to “kill (some of) your darlings”, but you’ll end up with a much stronger and more coherent foundation for the rest of your story.  It’s strangely motivating.   

I created character profiles

I’d already created character profiles at the start of my novel-writing journey, of course. 

But those profiles had amounted to not much more than their dates of birth, a few notes about their childhoods, and their favourite foods (why?)

Now, as I read back through my work, I made lists of their attributes and motivations.  What specific role did each one have in the story?  What else would readers need to know about them? 

I completed a word count

This was probably the most important part of the novel-excavation process, because, simply, I didn’t know how much I had already finished.

I’d dumped a whopping two-thirds of the first draft, so I convinced myself that I still had a long way to go until I’d reached the drama of the second act (most novels follow a three-act structure).

My word count revealed that I’d written far more of that second draft than I thought.  That meant a key incident I’d assumed was still at beginning of the story was actually in the middle.  I’d moved from the first to the second act without realising it, and my story suddenly made much more sense.

I planned out the rest of the book

One of the reasons my novel had stalled was because I didn’t know how to get past a critical event in the story.  My first draft hadn’t properly dealt with it, and I was stuck.

So I made myself plot the entire story out in blocks.  Every block consisted of a set-up, some conflict, and a resolution, and I used just one simple sentence to describe each.

From this, I created a basic plan for the rest of the story.  Now, when I sit down to write, I know roughly what needs to be written, and that knowledge has removed my terror of the blank page.

I created new writing habits

I rambled on about this in my latest podcast episode

Basically, I did what James Clear calls ‘habit stacking’, in that I aligned my novel-writing sessions with my first coffee of the day.

I also followed his ‘two minute rule’, though I extended those two minutes to thirty, because just two minutes of writing felt silly! 

A thirty-minute writing session is unintimidating. I can’t argue that I’m too busy to get it done – if I try, I know I’m fooling myself.  It’s far easier to just get on and do it.

I’ve been starting every weekday with coffee and a writing session for two months now.  It’s a simple ritual that’s moved my progress along so much that I’ve felt confident enough to enter my book into a First Novel competition.

I won’t win.  But the act of entering that competition is important, because it represents a commitment I’ve made to myself. 

I am going to finish my novel.