Today is the kind of day where I ask myself: how do they do it?
Today I don’t understand how writers complete their novels.
The thing is, I have the writing part nailed. I can sit down and write out the novel that I have floating around in my head, create characters that have told me their story and weave in plot twists that come to me unexpectedly in the middle of night. That part I can do. It’s what comes next that baffles me.
How do you revise and edit your novel? How can you be sure that this paragraph needs to come out and this chapter moved closer to the end and how to clarify the motivations of a particular character? How do you ever know when your story is done?
I woke up today and wondered if I will ever get to know that feeling. It seems like an unending task; to revise those 90,000 words and shape them into something that could resemble a publishable novel. I realise that this is just a crisis of faith and that these queries I have won’t plague me for very long. I also know that it won’t stop me from trying; I will continue to wrestle with my own first draft and revise and refine it. But, for today, I wanted to put the questions out there, to share with other writers who sometimes feel as I might: that finishing – actually completing the whole process from first word to that polished last sentence – can often appear to be overwhelmingly improbable.
After all, you know it can be done. You have dozens to hundreds of books staring back at you from your bookshelves. You might read about writers who blog about sending their final copy to their editor or see images of bound proofs coming back from publishers on their Twitter feed. You know it can be done. You just don’t know how.
There is no instruction booklet on the best way to edit a novel. There are lots of suggestions, techniques and ideas but, ultimately, it’s about forging your own path. It’s the same with the writing process itself. It’s taken me a few years to understand that it’s important that I have a vague outline when I start and that, once I’ve started, the worse thing I can do is to interrupt the process. I need to write my first drafts in a month or two of frenzied writing just to see what’s there. And I’ve had to identify how and when I write best – be that on my sofa for an entire morning or in bed late at night. I know that when my heart’s not in it that I can manage about 500 words in a 15 minute slot and, if I’m still struggling, that I need to take another break. All these things I learnt by trial and error over the course of writing close to three draft novels and a hundred or so short stories.
So, inevitably, it must be the same with revising a novel. You have to find your own way. It will take time and patience and you’ll undoubtedly get things wrong here and there. But, you’ll eventually find your groove the same way you found your ideal writing circumstances. You can find advice and follow the path of others, discovering along the way that some things work for you while others do not. But the one thing that you can’t learn from other people is how best to approach the challenge on your own terms.
I’ve found dozens of story structures for a typical adventure novel, but my novels are not adventure stories. They are simpler than this, and while they have some elements in common it has taken me a long time – and a lot of pondering – to try and apply this technique to my own story. No one piece of advice will apply to my own unique situation because I have to make my own rules for my own story. It’s my decision how to structure and reveal the story, I am the one crafting it.
I still don’t know how writers complete their novels. Not today. But I will, one day, because I will continue to try until I have completed my own. And while, even then, I might not be able to tell you how to complete your, instead perhaps, I will be able to tell you to have faith in your abilities and to keep on going. You might just surprise yourself.