A recent post in The Writer’s Digest got me laughing. Titled 7 Things That Will Doom Your Novel (& How to Avoid Them), the article highlights, in a tongue-in-cheek style, some of the many reasons would-be writers fail to complete their masterpiece. Waiting for inspiration, self-doubt, resentment and giving up are some of the reasons stated and there are others. If you’re stuck in the novel-writing doldrums, here are some ideas to help.
Waiting for inspiration to strike is a big obstacle for some. The problem is centred around the myth that good writing in only produced when the muse magically appears, or we’re ‘in the mood’ or something moves us to write. The fact is, successful writers treat writing like a job. They turn up on time and do their work, regardless of whether they are bursting with ideas or not. If you wait until a brilliant idea pops into your head, you may find you never manage to do very much writing at all. Often, ideas come after you start writing, not before.
Worrying that your writing is bad is natural. We all have moments of self-doubt about our abilities, especially when it comes to something as subjective and unquantifiable as ‘good’ writing. If you manage to write a novel or other longer work, the self-doubt demon often raises its head about midway, after you’ve committed so much time and effort that it would be a serious setback to give up and start something new. You can sometimes temporarily overcome self-doubt through the support of family, friends and other writers, but the only effective long-term solution I’ve found is to accept that your writing may be bad, but to write anyway. Usually, when you look back you find it isn’t as terrible as you thought.
Taking offence at rejection or adverse comments on your writing is going to slow you down, if not put you off writing altogether. When you spend hours crafting a piece only for its ideal market to return it within days, or even hours, it hurts of course. And it can be hard to accept feedback that seems to point mostly to the faults of your writing while failing to see its merits. But the negative emotion of resentment is a drag on your energy and productivity. The best way to prevent resentment from interfering with your writing I’ve found is to put on your big girl knickers and move on, seriously.
Publishing is full of stories of classics that were rejected 50+ times, and in recent history there have been many instances of traditional publishers rejecting novels that went on to sell hundreds of thousands when self-published. What do all these stories have in common? The writers never gave up. The same is true of every book that appears for sale. Understand the pros and cons of giving up before you make that decision. Giving up isn’t the easy option, especially if you’re contemplating giving up writing entirely. It means living with regret and wondering what might have been. It’s easier to live with hope than without it.
So much for what you shouldn’t do if you want to write a novel. What about the things you should do? One of the most important aspects of novel writing is to have a plan. Not necessarily a plan of the novel, but at the very least a plan of how you’re going to get the work done. If you do prefer to plan your writing – and many have found that outlining is the fastest route to completing a novel – I recommend Take Off Your Pants as a valuable guide to structuring your writing. If you prefer to pants it, planning how you’re going to write your novel helps you get it done. Whether it’s 1000 words a day, four hours a weekend or ten chapters a month, setting goals helps you achieve progress. Having no goals is a sure-fire way of allowing life to intrude on your ambitions.
When you have a sizeable piece of work, solicit feedback. This could be from online writers’ forums, writing groups or friends or family who are experienced readers. (Beware – the danger of approaching friends and family is that they’ll only tell you positive things about your work. Kind though this is, it isn’t helpful. Only honest feedback helps you improve as a writer.) As well as helping you improve, feedback can spur you to continue writing, providing you can avoid feeling resentment.
Submitting your novel may seem like the obvious end point of the novel-writing process, but writing and sending off that query letter or sample chapter is a high hurdle for some. Suddenly the novel becomes a real thing in the real world and the fear of rejection becomes insurmountable. One method for overcoming that fear is to view publishers’ responses not as the ultimate arbiters of your worth as a human being, but as a sign of their estimation of your novel’s likelihood of commercial success (because that’s what they actually are). Alternatively, when you’re sure your novel is the best it can be, and you have professional editing and a gorgeous cover, you can self-publish and find out for yourself your novel’s appeal to the masses.
Writing a novel is an ambition many have but few execute, and the reasons are often less to do with practical constraints than the inability to overcome the many obstacles our minds place in the way. If you’re really struggling to write, I recommend Steven Pressfield’s The War of Art. Though the book strays uncomfortably far into spiritual territory for my tastes, it’s spot on when discussing the writer’s (and other artists’) struggle. Understanding why it’s so hard to complete your novel is the first step to defeating your writing demons. You CAN succeed.