The Marathon of Letters: Writing Novels to the Finish
By Patrick C. Bishop
When amateur or new writers approach the novel writing process, it can seem like a daunting task. It seems so because it is so. Writing over fifty thousand words on a single work is difficult throughout, and even tedious at times. This often results in early enthusiasm that leads to a declining effort on the part of an inexperienced writer, where the quality of work degrades and the pace slows. Sadly, more often than not, a work will remain unfinished as the writer gives up on the craft out of sheer exhaustion. The reality is that many approach writing without any idea of the labor required to both master the craft, and at a much smaller level, complete a single work. When it comes down to it, writing is no different than any other art form or skillset: it requires dedication, practice, and work. It is not always easy, almost never without some stress, and it will not turn out ideal.
Commonly, novels are defined as works of fiction that are over fifty thousand words in length. The range is difficult to define, because the word’s definition is loose, but what can be agreed upon is that novels are complex, lengthy works of fiction that tell a complete or partially complete story. Methods in writing novels vary greatly from author to author, with some moving chronologically through their story, and others opting to write certain planned scenes out-of-order with the chapter structure in order to maintain interest in their work. These varying methods are partly the key to completing the novel: writers must work to find what methods of story planning and execution work for best for them to continue their work. But there are essential truths that this author believes work universally to aid authors in completing long-form fiction, and get new writers to that proverbial finish line.
1) The first is simple, but surprisingly rare in writers: goals. Goals that are designed to force the author to continue writing at a certain pace can help eliminate fatigue by giving small points of accomplishment as well as giving the author a pace to which to hold himself or herself accountable. That being said, a particular type of goal can be a detriment as well as an aid.
There is no hard limit to a novel’s length, nor is there even a clear point of defining the work as noted above. Therefore, it is unlikely that a writer will be able to effectively estimate or plan exactly how many words his or her novel will be. If one were to approach with a goal of writing a one hundred-thousand-word novel, they would get a sense of failure if the story completed itself at eighty thousand, or if it continued on to a hundred and twenty thousand. These types of goals are ineffective, because the merely set an endpoint that was already inherently in place—once the story is complete, that is the author’s undefined endpoint.
Instead, it works better if the author sets a pace goal, such as a certain number of words to be written daily, or amount of time spent writing each day. This allows the writer to work toward that goal and hold himself or herself accountable for that number, while still allowing their story’s total word count to remain fluid.
The length of the goal must be tailored to the author, and their own work ethic, writing speed, and available time. Some common word goals range from five hundred to two thousand words a day, and time goals can range from writing for twenty minutes before going to work each day, or spending two hours working on a novel in the evening. The key is to maximize the amount of time or effort spent on the craft while keeping a balance within one’s own life. Too much writing—even if the time is available to the writer—can fatigue a writer just as much as too little time spent writing. Morale is a key factor in maintaining pace, which plays into the next key method.
2) Authors must maintain their own morale within the craft. Morale, in this particular sense, is the author’s motivation to continue writing their novel. Maintaining it is much easier said than done, and while pace goals can keep an author on track, morale is the key that keeps them wanting to hit those goals.
The common term for a writer’s inability to write is “writer’s block”. Many authors find themselves in this spot at one point or another, and many authors of a different mindset believe that writer’s block does not exist at all. This author believes that it is a self-fulfilling condition, caused by a failure in the writer’s morale. If an author stops writing for one reason or the next, writer’s block is formed when they are mentally unable to motivate themselves to continue their craft. While some have blamed a lack of ideas, or not knowing what the next word or plot point of their story should be, this author believes the root cause is located within that author’s mind.
The real trick, though, is maintaining that morale and avoiding the block, no matter where its source truly is located. Pace goals can provide some relief. If an author sets a goal and continues to hit it, day after day, a sense of continuing accomplishment keeps their morale high. But inevitably, other factors outweigh these accomplishments and the writer may lose his or her momentum.
When this happens, a few techniques can restore passion to the craft, all of which may or may not work for an author. Many authors advocate taking a break from a work-in-progress and gaining some distance from the work before approaching it once again. This author believes that this is acceptable, only if the author in question continues to write elsewhere. Stopping the craft all together is the first step to failure, and can destroy momentum. Writing shorter works, short stories or flash fiction for example, can renew the sense of accomplishment while distancing the author from the primary work, the novel.
Another potential technique for maintaining author morale is plotting the story further. Many authors will start with a complete plot structure or outline for their work, and others will not. If a writer is plagued by fatigue within the work, readdressing this step can provide respite. Whether he or she began with an outline or not, examining the remaining parts of the story in detail can act as a way to bridge the story from its current place to the proposed end. Sometimes this can be as complex as chapter-by-chapter notes of what will happen in the tale, or even just general thoughts of how the story will progress; again, this depends highly on the author’s personal preference in this area.
Lastly, reading other novels can provide a serious boost to morale as well. Examining works within or outside of the genre the author is crafting their own novel in will allow them a break from their own work as well as offer examples of completed works. Many artists of all kinds look to completed works for inspiration or technique, and writing is no different. This author argues that reading novels voraciously is a necessity of good writing. After all, a musician who has never heard a note of music would be equally ineffective as a novelist who has never read a novel. Structure, form, and storytelling are all learned from reading, and without seeing literal examples of novels, one cannot truly understand how to complete a novel.
Inevitably, there will come a time within the crafting of a novel that a writer will likely lose momentum, fail to maintain their morale, and they simply must find a way to continue otherwise.
3) Raw perseverance remains the most difficult to master of these methods, but arguably the most important.
As said earlier, often times novice writers enter the craft thinking it an easy art to master. As human beings, we use language daily in our own lives, tell stories orally, and experience them just by being alive. Thereby, it stands to reason for some that these experiences and linguistic techniques need merely be transferred into written word, and voila: a novelist is born.
Nothing could be farther from the truth. Writing is as much a learned skill and mastered craft as it is a talent. And while language and stories and experiences are a given part of life, translating them into some form of written tale is a practiced art; one that cannot be mastered overnight, and cannot be maintained without perseverance.
There are two ways an author can hone their skills: reading and writing. Reading allows them to learn techniques and experience stories as other authors have written them. The more diverse the library, the better the writer becomes, as they are then afforded greater ranges of technique and story-telling mediums. Writing simply must be done very regularly for an author to grow in their talent.
To complete a competent novel, an author must continue to put one word after the next toward that goal. This can be incredibly difficult, and many new authors fail to understand that no writer wants to write all the time, nor necessarily enjoys writing all the time. In fact, many prolific and accomplished authors must force themselves to write out of necessity to avoid stagnation.
Writing is hard, and requires hard work and dedication. Many stagnant authors will counter this statement, saying they wish to write but simply do not know what to write, or what to write next depending on the situation. This is not a learned trick, there is no magical technique that tells one author how to write the next word, and there is no need to wait for some ineffable inspiration. The simple fact is: an author sometimes must continue writing words—no matter how poorly written—in order to maintain momentum. Novels can always be edited, amended, altered, or fixed after the fact. But in order to complete a novel, the author must be writing it.
This means that instead of musing on why they are unable to write, they simply must write. It’s a mental shift that only can be achieved by the author, but once this critical shift is achieved, the author can not only complete one novel, but many.
But sometimes an author will be unable to move forward and their mental block may seem insurmountable. In these instances, sometimes the author must look elsewhere.
4) Seeking help may seem, to some, like giving up on some level. After all, the tropes say that writing is a solitary effort. But it’s actually often just the opposite.
Two methods can offer a struggling writer some relief, one more obvious than the other. The first is asking for help. Be it advice on how to write the next part from a veteran of the craft, or just asking a friend for a second set of eyes on a piece, an outside opinion offers a fresh perspective. And while the author might not always agree with the advice of a reader or a fellow writer, taking it into consideration on its own can spark an idea in the writer. It can also show issues that need to be addressed, even if not how to fix them. A good author will always accept criticism, and consider it. He or she might decide not to follow the advice, but either way they must be willing to hear it and reflect on it.
And the second method is less obvious, but just as critical. The only way a writer can know how characters will act is if they know how people act. And the only way to know people is to interact with them. Sometimes, the act of getting away from the work to be with other people is the solution to a writer’s issues. This goes along with the above morale booster of stepping away from the keyboard or pen, but with a focus on observing real-life characters. Seeing and understanding how people react to situations in reality affords an author the knowledge to adapt that understanding into their own characters, who define their story. Like the previous method of stepping away from the keyboard, though, the author should use this in moderation, however, as any activity that pulls the author away from the writing process can quickly become a detractor to his or her craft.
Completing a novel demands a level of endurance that can be daunting for most attempting to start with the craft. Often times, new writers will enter into this journey and become lost somewhere in the middle. With a combination of perseverance, mental fortitude, motivation, and possibly even a little help, the completion of a long work of fiction remains well within the grasp of most budding authors. Some will still falter, and some may find their own way of maintaining the motivation and the drive to power through the work, as each writer is unique in their approach. But no matter how one gets there, it is still an accomplishment to finally reach “the end”.