How to Finish Your Novel. Don’t.

Desperate titles aside, I find no shame in giving up on my half finished stories. It’s a loss, a failure, true. However, that’s most of the writing process. Erase and start over. Giving up on a story and starting a new one is that same process on a macro-level.

The first, and arguably hardest step in giving up on a novel, is knowing when to give up. This is very difficult for many new writers because they often start their first novel with big aspirations, creative ideas and a fervent, ignorant drive. I know I did. Knowing exactly when to give up is an intuition gained from many failed attempts.

For those inexperienced writers I can offer my advice from my many failures. Ask yourself, “Is this story challenging my prejudices, norms and mores? Is it still fun to think of new ideas for this story? Do I care to keep adding to the story? Am I obsessing over one or two or three chapters where my all my engaging scenes are?”

If a story doesn’t challenge you as a person, then you won’t grow to meet those challenges and your story won’t have as great an impact on the reader as it could. If brainstorming new ideas for your story makes you shrug instead of branching off into many new exciting directions the story could go, you won’t care to explore those ideas to their maximum potential. If the story itself doesn’t engage you anymore (maybe because you’ve outgrown it), you won’t put much effort into it. If all your good ideas are in a couple chapters with no sinew between them, then you might want to break them off into short stories.

I myself have maybe a 1 in 8 success rate with finishing my novels. Many times I start with great hopes and concepts I feel are spectacular and original. For many of the reasons listed above, it rarely works out that way. Even then there’s no guarantee the books are good. Yet, I’ve come to take it in stride.

The key to effectively giving up on your story is to set it aside for a few days or a week, at least until it’s no longer at the center of your mind, and then read it over. Ignore all the small grammatical and punctuation issues present in any early draft and search for the feel of the story. Pacing, characterization, tension, tone, dialog, etc.

Grade and dissect your execution of the story. You’ve already given up on it, there’s no tricking yourself into thinking it was all golden. Gain a sober view of what you did well and what you did poorly. Write them down and do some research reading stories renowned for those specific attributes. When you soon return to writing your new story, you’ll have a fuller view of your strengths and what you can greatly improve on.

This advice is especially important for younger writers who attempt to write “above their age” in their first novel. Creating a dynamic economy for your struggling merchant protagonist to maneuver in is very difficult if you’ve never paid an electric bill. Writing about the physical and emotional pains of aging is hard to do if you still ignorantly laugh at the concept of male pattern baldness. Nuance comes with age and experience and failure.

If you’re a young writer, fail now, fail continuously when it doesn’t matter. No one expects a fifteen, sixteen, seventeen, whatever-year-old to write well. Take your passion for writing and write as much as you can and as poorly as you will in your early years. Don’t get hung up on perfecting a story because you love the concept or are afraid of failure. If you’re afraid of failure you won’t become a good writer. If you keep plugging away at a single story because you’re so enamored with the concept then you’re just ignoring all the other great concepts in your young mind.

So take the fledgling, half finished novel you’re working on right now, admit defeat, look it over, learn your lessons and use them to write a better story.

I’ve missed more than 9,000 shots in my career. I’ve lost almost 300 games. 26 times, I’ve been trusted to take the game winning shot and missed. I’ve failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed. —— Michael Jordan

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