In recent weeks, I’ve been offering some ‘real talk’ about writing and money, the boo boos people make when submitting and the nuts and bolts of the self-editing process. Today, I want to address an astonishing statistic I heard recently about how only 3% of peeps ever finish their novels. Yup, the truth is 97% of authors never get to the point of typing ‘The End’!
I never want you, my beloved scribe readers, to be part of this group – I want you ALL to be part of the 3% who get to complete their manuscripts and cry all over the keyboard as I do every single time I finish a book! It’s an amazing feeling and I want you to have it in all its glory, but this is where this week’s ‘real talk’ comes in – there are certain things many first time novelists do which hamper their chances of getting their manuscripts done. If you want to blaze across that literary finish line with Chariots of Fire streaming through your silken hair, you need to pinky swear promise NOT to do any of the following things.
1. STARTING A NOVEL WHEN YOU’VE NEVER EVEN FINISHED A SHORT STORY BEFORE: This is something I see ALL the freakin’ time. I get that even new writers have marvellous imaginations, bursting with book-length ideas … but it’s a bit like an inexperienced musician saying, ‘Look, I’ve never even written a song, but I am going to write a symphony!’ And then the poor musical genius wonders why she feels overwhelmed and is finding it so crazy hard to get the symphony written. The official critical theory name for this phenomenon is, ‘Biting off more than you can chew’.
Not only is it really good to start submitting stories to journals and competitions from the get go in order to beef up one’s writing CV so you can submit to agents saying how you were shortlisted in this comp or had a story in Fancy Literary Pants Magazine (I may well found this!), but short stories are also a great training ground for learning the fiction writing craft. In fact, I would say they are the school for fiction writers and a novel is a university.
These two genres do differ in scope, it’s true, and novelists have to learn craft and other personal skills which short stories scribes don’t (see below), but you can learn an awful lot from writing briefer pieces of fiction which will help you no end when you tackle a novel. And if you cannot get a character from A to B across the few pages of a story, what chance do you have of getting them from A to Z over the course of a whole book?
It’d be nice to be able to skip and flip straight into writing a novel, but it’s really like saying you don’t want to expend the effort to learn your craft (which Monica Wood says takes ten years) or, worse, you don’t feel you NEED to learn about writing fiction as you’re so darn magical.
That is hubris, folks, and it’s pretty dangerous for our creativity. Look out for those wings, Icarus, as you get too near the sun. And watch out for that unfinished novel falling from the sky behind you.
2.JUST KINDA SORTA WANTING TO WRITE A BOOK: I pretty much think that EVERYONE on this blue, beautiful Earth wants to write a novel – and probably the animals and fish do too, but we just speak a different language, so they can’t tell us about it at a dinner party. This is wonderful news for people like me who love writers more than any other kind of being (except possibly cats), but it also brings up a key thing which stops many of those who start a novel from actually finishing it and that is … commitment.
I’m not talking about dating (so, guys, you don’t need to close your laptops and run away now – cheap joke!), but it has parallels in that if you really want your relationship to work you have to be ALL IN. Not kinda sorta in. Not ‘I like her, but it’s only good ’til someone hotter comes along’ in. If you want to beat all the odds and complete your book, you need to WANT IT LIKE IT’S HOT PIZZA. You need to decide that you are writing and finishing a book and that NOTHING is getting in your way.
Liking writing won’t really get you far. Loving it will help. But there’s nothing like determination and NOGOINGBACKITIS to really seal the deal. Tony Robbins says that a lot of people sorta want things, but they lack the real passion to follow through and GET IT. So you have to choose to make completing this book a priority and keep going, no matter what gets in the way. (And a lot will – that’s life.)
Novel writing is tough and not for the faint of heart, so you’re going to need much more than sorta kinda wanting to finish this baby if you’re going to get past all the days when you’re tired after work, you’re not sure you’re any good, your dog just dissed your lead character, you’re scared you’ll never get published, you wonder what’s the point and on and on.
Only people with real fire in their belly will see that last page – if you’re not sure you really want to write a book that much, try writing short stories, flash fiction, a journal or even poetry. Maybe they will satisfy your word lust and build your stamina, ready for the marathon that is a novel.
Or maybe it just sounded like a fun idea to write a book and you figured your friends and family would think you were cooler if you did it – that’s okay, but just know you are darn cool as you are and you don’t need to pump out hundreds of pages to prove it. Leave it to us suckers who cannot help but churn out novels, no matter what writing throws at us in her hissy fits – just kick back and relax and laugh at us as we slog on and at your narrow escape from Novelville (you can check in, but you can never leave!).
3. THINKING PLANNING IS FOR TOWNS, NOT BOOKS: I know a lot of professional writers who just start clacking and the story comes out, all lovely and pink as a newborn baby. This is mainly because they’ve written a lot of novels and now know the tricks of the trade like the back of their hand (not two cliches in one sentence – wheee!). They’ve absorbed the writing craft rules by osmosis and so automatically know how to shape a book in a powerful and clear way. Even so, some authors, such as Siri Hustvedt – who I was lucky enough to meet – still ended up taking six years on one book (What I Loved), rewriting it from start to finish three times in order to get it right. Every two years she’d show it to Paul Auster and he’d tell her it wasn’t there yet, to which I said, ‘Did you tell him his dinner was in the dog?’. Siri replied, ‘I didn’t say that it was fun.’
I’m saying all this just so you will consider how tough it can be to write a novel without a plan as it often means more rewriting, even if you happen to be a very experienced and talented author. My point is if it’s easy for literary greats to struggle without a roadmap for a book, what’s the likely fate of newbies to the novel craft? I think the answer is that most of them get lost in the woods and then give up. Hence the low percentage of novel finishers.
It’s for this reason, I’d recommend learning some literary craft before starting a novel. There are lots of amazing books about plotting and I truly wish ALL my writer clients had read them before beginning their books as it would have meant less redrafting for them and less time spent writing tangential material which later got cut. I do feel we never waste any writing as, even if it cannot be resued, we learn from the process and get better as a result, but the coach in me cannot help wanting to save people from going off course in their narratives or from a failure to understand inciting incidents which means their novels don’t have compelling opening sections.
The writing craft is there for a reason and it represents thousands of years of storytelling tricks, gathered by the wordsmiths who came before us – we should respect it and them and use the craft because it works. Studying how narratives work before you start may seem boring compared to just jumping into the novel writing itself, but remember that this craft stuff will make your writing better. And we all want to write better, right?
I know many of my writer clients like to tell themselves a story as they go and find it hard if they’re going through stuff they’ve already planned on paper, so maybe you’ll have to accept that you’ll ride fast and loose in the first draft, but you’re prepared to learn your craft stuff and edit like hell bearing it in mind, once the first draft is done.
But my worry for so many writers is that they’ll get a part way into a book just based on the fumes of passion … and then the ideas and the energy runs out and … boom. Yup, we’re back to why people don’t complete their novels again.
Deciding to write a novel is really important, as I said above, but I think it’s really good to know where you’re going with it. A novel outline can be as detailed or as basic as you like, but I’ve found that when I sit down to work on my books and I can see that today I need to get Mitzy to the hairdressers in the next scene where she’ll be eaten by a werewolf, suddenly my job as a writer just got a helluva lot simpler. I don’t have to think about what comes next and how that fits with the narrative arc and whose viewpoint it should be and where it sits in the timeline – I just start typing because all this thinking has already been done and I can just play and have fun, knowing the book is heading in the right direction.
It’s great to have a plan as well for when the feelings of doubt and confusion comes – as they always will. Then I can just look at my novel plan and take the next step. (Doubt, go suck on that!)
I’m not saying that you must always keep to the plan, even if a juicier idea happens along – in fact, this will often happen once we’re really getting to know our novel and its players (I had a character become pregnant on me in Welcome to Sharonville, without even asking my permission!). By all means, go with the flow and embrace your creativity, but purlease also respect the writing craft and plan longer projects – it can make your life as a novelist way easier and thus increase the chances that you’ll become one of the lucky 3% who get a book under their belt.
4.BELIEVING THAT BECAUSE YOU WRITE, YOU NEED (AND DESERVE) TO BE PUBLISHED: This is probably the most controversial thing I’ll be saying today (oops!), but I remember a top person in the literary consultant biz saying to me how she plays the piano, but she never expects to perform at the Carnegie Hall, whereas everyone who writes expects to be published. My own experience as a writing coach also leads to me to draw the same conclusion. It’s a bit like me, as a keen amateur snapper, suddenly thinking I need to be Cindy Sherman and have shows all over the world. Er, nope, not really.
This links to the small number of people who actually complete novels because I think there’s an extraordinary pressure on people who write to feel their creativity is not valid or valuable if they’re not traditionally published. And the most lauded form of published writing is, arguably, the novel, so, of course, people go after that goal, even if their writing skills or ideas aren’t yet up to the task. There may even be an element of self-sabotaging involved because they’re chasing something that, deep down, they don’t truly want, but just feel forced to go after as it feels like the only way to get credit for what they do. I’m not saying it’s weird to want to finish a book and published, but it may mean that a lot of people are writing books for the wrong reasons and that could be another thing which prevents most novels from getting finished.
As a coach, I see all the time how people tie themselves in knots due to limiting beliefs – usually they involve feeling unworthy or not enough in some way (we’re tediously alike in our fears, so we should never feel alone!) – and I feel that the need to get published is, for many people, just a way of feeling worthy or gifted or special or heard … Yes, a writing career can provide some of those feelings, but, as I’ve discussed before, it can also be a rough road, full of isolation, rejection and criticism and it’s a path which isn’t generally financially rewarding either.
Writing a novel is a long-haul project, requiring grit, determination, smarts, logic, hope, emotional awareness, empathy, faith and the ability to withstand solitude and, sometimes, to work for years without praise or even the most basic feedback. Dare I say it, it requires healthy self-esteem to withstand all the above challenges – so you can see why if you’ve got into writing a novel to feel better about yourself as a person or a writer, you may find yourself unable to stay the course and finish it, ending up as one of the 97% who don’t complete their books (and probably feeling even worse than when you started as a result).
So what am I saying then? That only a rare elite deserve to be published and that the rest of us shouldn’t even try? Not at all – all somebodies were nobodies sometime! I would just like more people who start books to look hard at WHY they are wanting to write a novel – and if they find it’s mainly to do with ego or insecurity to work on healing that part of themselves before begininng such a big writing project. Your other reasons for wanting to complete a book – such as the joy creativity gives you – will sustain you far more than the superficial stuff when you hit bumps as you write a novel (Brene Brown says our values are the lantern which sheds light in stormy times). This way, you’re far more likely to finish your manuscript.
However, you should also remember that you don’t have to be published to be a great writer. In fact, I was no different in terms of my talent on the day I got published from the day before! It’s perfectly okay to write ‘just’ as a hobby, ya know. It’s like me with my Nikon – my snaps will never bring me fame and fortune, but I feel happy every time my camera and I are out and about together and that’s reward enough for me. These days too you don’t even have to pursue a big traditional deal with an agent and the works to be read – you can just pop on to Amazon and all your friends and fam can enjoy your story.
I say this because I feel that maybe a LOT of books don’t get finished because their writers scare themselves to death by thinking how they’ll never get traditionally published and so they give up (I saw my debut novel going through a shredder at agent’s offices so many times in my mind when I was writing it – eek!). Take that pressure off yourself – unless you’re dead set on having a literary career (again, ask why you want this, as I’ve mentioned above), you don’t need to be worrying about publication – just enjoy the process.
In fact, I’d say that to all of us who are writing books – focus on the process, not the outcome. The publishing world’s mercurial and not in our control, but the worlds we create in our novels are. Hold onto the love of that, learn your craft and forget the rest and soon you’ll find yourself completing your novel. Let’s try to make it so that 100% of novels that are started are finished. Just because it feels really, really good.
If you’d like some support to get your novel planned or written, please feel free to contact me or join my private Facebook group where we discuss stuff like this all the time and share our wisdom.