When I was 20 I began writing a novel. That unfinished novel is still on my hard drive along with three other unfinished novels. However, as of just a few weeks ago, I finally finished a rough draft of one of my novels. This was one I started in September 2011. I finally finished the rough draft in July 2015.
How did I do it?
First of all, let me say I’m not expert. I didn’t take any classes or read any books on how to be a writer. I read some articles over the years, but ultimately the way I made myself finish was by a lot of trial and error. And what I did may not work for you or it may be an inferior method to several other methods. That said, maybe my experience can help others, so here it is.
When I began the book in 2011 I was working on a cruise ship as an improv/sketch comedian. I had more down time than I’ve had in my entire adult life. I used a small fraction of that free time to write. I worked another three cruise ship contracts (approximately 4 months each) after that one. I barely worked on the book at all during those contracts despite the fact that I had all the free time I could have asked for.
What stopped me? I could say ‘laziness,’ but that answer doesn’t help. There is no cure for laziness. And what does it even mean? I’m not lazy in that I don’t ever work. There have been times in my life where I worked impressively hard at things. So, why did this book go basically untouched for 3 1/2 years?
My best guess is that I was intimidated. The first draft is 95,972 words. That’s a lot. And there are over 70 characters, more than ten settings and a whole world I had to create. It’s a fantasy novel btw. So, part of me was just intimidated by the monolith that it was. Every time I wanted to continue my work on it I knew that meant I had to go back and read the nearly 20,000 words I’d already written in order to remember enough to keep writing the story.
Also, I had this awful mindset for most of my life that anything I created had to be amazing. I put a lot of pressure on myself to not dare to do something badly. Add to that, the idea that I had no real system or plan in place for how to go through the mechanics of writing and what you have is the perfect storm for me to start a book and never finish it. I may in fact be an expert and not finishing projects.
So, here’s a list of what I changed in my life in order to finally finish the book:
- Commit to doing it
It sounds like one of those cheesy self help tips, but it was really necessary. After my 33rd birthday I realized that the only way I was going to have a finished book by my 34th birthday was to make that a goal. So, I told myself that by October (my birthday is in July) I would have a finished rough draft.
2. Be realistic with my expectations
As October came I realized that there was no way in hell I would be able to finish my book anytime soon. I set an unrealistic goal without knowing it. So, I gave myself a new goal of finishing it by my next birthday. But I didn’t just pick that date out of thin air like I had when I originally said October. I did some rough math based on how much of the story I believed I had left to write and I figured an estimate for how many hours a week I could work on it and it looked like July was a good goal
3. I stopped beating myself up
I suffer from depression and have off and on my whole life. One thing I love to do is mentally flog myself for not doing things right. I screw up a lot unfortunately. Maybe it’s not a lot, but it feels like a lot. Either way, I always beat myself up for it and rarely reward myself for doing the right thing. Thanks to some books, some advice from great people and time with a therapist I got much better about treating myself better and giving myself rewards for doing good.
4. I gave myself permission to fail
I’ve never written a novel before. How can I expect to be good at it? I can’t answer that, but I know that I absolutely expected perfection out of myself. So, while I was learning to not beat myself up I also learned that it’s not only okay to suck at something, but it’s practically necessary. With few exceptions, no one walks into anything for the first time and becomes an instant expert. I told myself that my first book may take up a lot of my time and not be any good when its done. And that’s okay. Getting it done is way more important than getting it perfect.
5. I treated writing like it was already my job
Once I got my mindset in a healthier place (see #3 and #4) I needed to put in the hours. Thankfully, I still had some boat money in the bank, so when I wasn’t getting gigs (which happened more often than not) I treating my book like it was the gig. I spent multiple hours a day many different days in front of the computer writing as if someone was both paying me to do it and expecting me to get it done.
6. I learned how to be okay with doing just a little
I used to believe that a writing day had to be an all day affair. The idea of sitting and writing for half an hour or an hour never set well with my mind. For some reason I didn’t believe I could let myself go to that special creative place in my brain unless I could settle in for a good 8-10 hours. And since I like most people rarely ever had that much time on any given day to work, I hardly ever worked on my book. But somehow I was able to convince myself that my train of thought about this was incorrect and I was able to bring my A game even if I only had 30 minutes to work.
7. I recognized when I plan wasn’t working and I came up with a new plan
If you play video games you know that you have to change up your tactics each time you lose the game, otherwise you’ll never move onto the next level. The same turned out to be true for writing. I came up with several different plans of attack for finishing my book. In the end, the one that worked was the third or maybe even fifth plan (depends how how you differentiate them) I tried.
8. The plan that worked – Start over and keep a lot of notes
The plan that eventually worked for me was when I started over from chapter one and rewrote the book from the beginning. I took copious notes while I did it. I kept a glossary of terms, drew three maps of the world, kept a running tally of chapter summaries, made a timeline and kept a page of notes going. It was a lot of work, but in the end it was the only thing that allowed me to finish it.
9. When in doubt, remind myself of 1-8
There were plenty of times I got discouraged in the last year, but I kept reminding myself of all the things I just outlined: anything I get done is a victory, it doesn’t have to be perfect, I can change plans if the current plan fails, I can recommit to this at any time, etc.
In the end, I wrote a rough draft. It will change. It may change a lot or a little, but the point is that I cannot have a final draft without at least one (if not several) rough drafts. So, now that it’s out there and on paper I can look at it and figure out how to evolve it into something better.
A lot of people have asked (in a positively encouraging way) ‘what’s next?’ An excellent question. Right now I have a few trusted friends reading it. They were generous enough to offer to read it and give me notes. Once I get those notes, I’ll rewrite it a bit. Then I’ll send the second draft out to a few more trusted friends. I’ll repeat this process until I’m satisfied. Then I’ll start researching what to do with a completed manuscript and hopefully sell it to a publisher.
But for now I’m going to just pat myself on the back and relish the satisfaction I have in finishing my first book. It only took me fifteen years. Hopefully the lessons I learned on this one will help me write the next book a bit faster. =)