Okay, you’ve decided to take the plunge. Maybe you’ve written short stories over the years. Maybe you’re the sort of person who’s good at finishing them—or maybe you’re not. Maybe, like me, you’ve scribbled ideas for stories all over the place and you’ve piled up fragment after fragment of stories that you’ve been telling yourself you’ll finish for ten years—and, consequently, you keep an unprecedented number of old notebooks squirreled away because you cannot bear to throw out a single one of those ideas. But as precious as those ideas are, you never manage to get around to finishing them.
But now, you’re ready. Today is the day, goddammit. You’re going to do the thing. Whether you’re gearing up for NaNoWriMo, or you dream of someday being free of waiting tables or going over business reports while your coffee-breath manager leans over you in your cubicle, you’ve decided you will write your novel, hell or high water.
It’s no small effort to crack out fifty, seventy, or one-hundred thousand words. And depending where you go on the internet, you’ll get the whole spectrum of advice on how to achieve this Herculean effort. But as I’m sure you know by now, beginning is easy. It’s the finishing part that’s hard. So how do you wade through the crap to figure out what’s actually going to work for you? The answer is this: there is no magical bullet. You’re here because you want to finish but you don’t know how to get from the beginning to the end, so I’m going to do my best to give it to you straight. Like Sky Masterson says of his father in Guys and Dolls, I am going to stake you to some very good advice.
Any idea will do. I mean, really, it will.
You can’t write a book unless you have an idea. That idea may be something you’ve been cooking up for years, or you want to write a book but you have no idea what to write about. Whatever the case is, let me share a very controversial little secret with you: your idea is the least important part.
That’s right. I said it.
It’s easy to get psyched out and bogged down by the obsession with originality, but to badly paraphrase Elizabeth Gilbert, no one cares about how original your idea is. They care about how authentically you tell that tale. I guarantee you that you will get a lot more mileage realizing that no matter what the story is, you will have a unique and authentic way of telling that story, rather than busting your ass to come up with a story you think no one has told before. Sorry to burst your bubble, but I’m here to tell you that it has all been done before.
All of it.
The stories we’re recycling now were old when Shakespeare was writing (though, granted, the trimmings are a bit different—Shakespeare was not writing about cyborgs or dystopian teen gladiators, but the pulp writers of the 20th century got to all of that before you did, buttercup). Focus on writing a story that excites you. Your enthusiasm will catch the imagination of your readers and your passion for your story will make them fall in love with your book. (That being said, plagiarism is not only illegal, it’s also really gross. Don’t plagiarize.)
Ask yourself why you’re writing this book.
Okay, now that you have your idea, it’s easy to get super pumped and gung-ho about writing your book. But eventually that juice will run out. And until you get clear about why you’re writing it, it’s pretty hard to establish goals around the writing itself. Without goals, let me tell you, your project will run out of gasoline and eventually it will be yet another inert thing you will prod at before sadly wandering away, wondering how this happened again.
The endgame may be very clear—a deadline for a client, NaNoWriMo, a writing competition, etc. Or, you may be writing for personal pleasure, or the dream of someday publishing your own work. Whatever the case is, get clear on what that reason is, or you will lose focus, you will lose your vision, and you will wind up with a book that didn’t make it or a client that is very unhappy. (RIP to all the books that didn’t make it.)
Set goals for yourself and make this routine.
Now that you’ve figured out why you’re writing this book, figure out when you’re going to finish it. If you give yourself the rest of time to toodle around with your manuscript, you may never finish it. In fact, you likely won’t.
If you’re like me, having a deadline may be the only thing that gets you going. I would highly encourage you to do this because you will have something to hold yourself accountable to. One of the things I’ve noticed that’s the hardest about writing is that it’s difficult in our adult lives to justify spending time on things that we are not immediately benefiting from, financially speaking. When you sit down to write your book, unless you’re lucky enough to have an established reader base on Amazon, a publisher, or a client who will pay you for your work, there is no guarantee that anyone will ever pay you for all of the hours and the pieces of yourself that you’re going to pour into your work. The best thing you can do for yourself and the health of your book is to simply make writing part of your routine and quit obsessing about the payoff. Your other responsibilities will dictate how much you will be able to write–job, kids, family, etc.
Some people function best with a certain daily word count. Stephen King, for instance, writes 2,000 words a day. Other people have only twenty minutes to write in the morning, so they set an egg timer and get as many words on the page as they can in the time that’s available to them. But even if you can only write 200 words per day, remember that it’s 200 more than you wrote yesterday. If you write 200 words steadily for 365 days, you will have 73,000 word manuscript by the end of it. A perfectly respectable length for a novel. Remember, always, that the time will pass anyway. You may as well spend it writing the novel you’ve always dreamed of.