How do writers complete their novels?

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?

roadblockI 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.

Novel-RevisionSo, 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.

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22 responses to “How do writers complete their novels?

  1. It can be achieved!
    Even if the story is a hot mess.
    What I did was read the story few once and creating notes on what I generally wanted changed in terms of scenes, characters, themes, plot points etc.
    Then I read it through again and created short notes for each scene and what it had to accomplish.
    After that I had about 16 pages of overview on my story. It’s so much easier to move scenes around when you can look at them from above like this: What is the scenes purpose? How do things change? Would it be more effective if it was in another place?
    As for emotions etc. that comes down to writing.
    I root for clarity. I root for making reading an easy thing so readers can get to enjoy complex characters, settings, ideas and DELICIOUS conflicts.
    I ask myself if the conflicts are bad enough that readers will care.
    I ask myself if there are better ways things could be done.
    I ask myself whether characters are NEEDED.
    And in the final (fourth or fifth) runthrough I read it aloud. That really helps with dialogue.
    if in doubt about a sentence; read it aloud 🙂

    • Sounds like a great system, and one that I am currently trying to build myself. I’ve had to be really honest about the purpose of each scene and if it is clear enough to reveal that purpose for a reader.
      I love conflict, and as I’m rewriting I’ve been ramping things up to ensure things are really at stake for my characters and if the results are coincidental or actually caused by their actions.

      Not got to the reading aloud stage yet, but I often do this with dialogue as I write – makes me sound a little crazy but, eh, as long as it reads well! 😉

      Thanks for commenting and sharing your technique – I think it might work for me too, so it’s good to have a reassuring note to know it works for others.

      Take care, Cat

  2. Pingback: When is your novel finished? | davidmcgowanauthor.com

  3. I guess the annoying thing (if it is annoying) is that you could edit your novel a hundred times and you’d still change something if you edited it again. There’s no secret to creativity and finishing a novel is all about commitment in my eyes. And faith. Gotta keep the faith 😉 Keep chipping away girl…

    • Thanks doll. It’s about balance I think, knowing when to stay stop and being happy with the story you’ve eventually told.
      Appreciate the encouragement. Thanks for stopping by.
      Take Care, Cat

    • The creator of south park put it like this:
      They create an episode in six days. Sure, it could get better if they spent 6 months on it. But not PROPORTIONALLY better. It would be such small fine tuning that it wouldn’t really MATTER.

  4. Great post, Cat. Elena mentioned breaking your story down scene by scene and keeping a spreadsheet, and that’s a good option. Another is to just read your novel through from beginning to end without stopping to edit, and just make notes to yourself as you go through about things you want to address later. And your comment that you plan to rewrite because you’ve learned so much tells me you’re on the right track.

    Don’t be afraid to send your manuscript to beta readers or an editor for an evaluation—if something really isn’t working, they will tell you. On more than one occasion, I’ve mentioned a plot hole or a scene that I thought should be deleted or reworked, only to have the author tell me that his/her beta readers mentioned the same thing. If you get the same feedback from multiple sources, there might be something to that advice.

    Jumpingfromcliffs’s comment that “You can never know 100% that your novels “done”, you just have to write the story you want to write – and the story it wants to be – and then trust” is great advice. At that point, send it to a copyeditor—and let him/her know your story is complete, but you’re open to suggestions if he/she sees any room for improvement. A good copyeditor will take that diamond in the rough and work with you to make it sparkle!

    • Thanks Candace – it’s good to hear from someone like yourself that you think I’m on the right track! 🙂 Once this rewrite is done I’ve got a couple of beta readers waiting in the wings, then – as you say – it will be time to consider sending it to an editor (of which currently you are my preferred option, of course).

      All of these comments are a bit of a surprise – as I wrote the post mostly for myself. But the response has been lovely and I feel more motivated and confident than I did when I posted this.

      Thank you! 🙂
      Take Care, Cat x

  5. A really good post and an even better question. You can never know 100% that your novels “done”, you just have to write the story you want to write – and the story it wants to be – and then trust. there is always another way to phrase something, a different word you could use, an extra twist or turn or character trait that could go in. But at some point, you just have to say “OK, that’s it, enough” and call it finished.

    • That one word – trust. It’s a tricky one that. I’m definitely still learning on that front too! I don’t think I can yet trust myself to make judgement calls like this, but that’s why we have beta readers, critique partners and editors; right?

      Thanks for stopping by and commenting. I’ll try and remember your advice when I’m pondering over my hundredth draft 😉

      Take Care, Cat

  6. Inspiring and in-depth post.
    I feel that it’s true how we have to learn our writing patterns and our writing path. And in the same way, we have to learn to revise, too. Revising seems like a large milestone for me, which right now I haven’t been able to reach yet. But reading your post makes me feel motivated, and I like it. 😛
    Thanks for sharing this!

    • Thanks doll. I’m glad the post helps. It certainly helped me as I was writing it! Sometimes we just need to identify that which is blocking us and admit that we still have things to learn in order to start on the journey to learning them.

      Good luck when you get to your revising stage – it’s all about finding what works for us as individuals.

      Thanks for commenting. It made me smile. 🙂
      Take Care, Cat

  7. Loved you post, Cat! I am in the same boat right now. I just started editing my very first novel, and I experienced a moment of absolute terror the first time I sat in front of my 100,000 word draft and tried to figure out how to start. You are right, there is “one fits all” method out there.

    What works for me (so far), is to read the entire draft and create a scene by scene spreadsheet. Then look at my characters and story and determine what I need to change / accentuate / delete / modify in order to get my idea across. Then I start changing scene by scene. I am far from done with that though, so I’m still figuring it out.

    Just wanted to add that having a good beta (or several) is essential to the editing process.

    • I’ve heard of the scene list method before and know it works for some. It appeals to my level of organisation but the thought of having to sit down and go through the entire novel to identify each scene puts me off!

      What I might do is try and complete a spreadsheet as I rewrite – because I’ve decided I do need to rewrite the majority given it was my first attempt and I’ve learnt so much since then. Hopefully, doing it this way, it won’t seem like such a mammoth task and then I’ve got a scene reference sheet if I decide this technique works for me.

      Thanks for sharing it here – it’s definitely made me think about my methods for after CampNaNo!
      Take Care, Cat

  8. Hi Cat – the sad truth is there are no short cuts. You have to find someone with good editing skills who isn’t afraid to be critical. The good news is that it feels great to see people all over the world buying your book and you soon start thinking about the next one!

  9. This is a great post Cat, I’ve been wondering the same thing myself. It seems such an enormous task and the idea of editing both terrifies and excites me in equal measures. You’re right though; it’s all part of the learning curve and we’ll get there eventually. Thanks for the motivation!

    • I’m glad the post motivated you! It seems like a steep learning curve, but it’s reassuring to know that there are other experiencing the same thing. With a bit of mutual support we’ll make it.
      Thanks for stopping by and commenting.
      Take Care, Cat

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