In the Books: On Finishing My Novel

I know I haven’t been blogging much lately. I think you’ll understand why, though.

I was sitting here thinking about how I have trouble finishing things, but then it occurred to me that it’s not really true. I can think of fewer than five books that I’ve never finished and don’t intend to. Even when they’re really bad or boring, I try to slog my way through them. I tried to quit softball after 6th grade when I should have been moving up from pigtail to ponytail league. I was afraid that it was going to be more difficult and I’d look stupid. About a quarter of the way into that first summer, I told myself to suck it up and go back to practice, so I did, and I played until I was getting ready to leave for college. I waited a whole year of being unhappy at my first real-world job before I quit that, and I agonized so long over my decision to quit calculus in college that I missed the drop/add deadline and took a voluntary F. And when I say I agonized over that decision, I mean that I found myself in the Dean of Students’ office nearly in tears.

So I guess I don’t quit well.

I’ve written several posts about how I’ve been working on writing a novel. Finding myself with very little to do in my seemingly endless unemployment, I decided back in November to participate in National Novel Writing Month. I knew that I had a distinct ability for getting half-way into a story (or, in most cases, less than half-way) and then abandoning it. If there’s one thing I quit with frequency, it’s writing. I spent two weeks at the end of October before NaNoWriMo started just planning my story and free-writing some of my ideas. I did character sketches and plot outlines. I had pages of hand-written descriptions (call me old school) to help me flesh out the people and places in my mind. This was a story that I’d been carrying around as a tiny seed in my head for the past three and a half years, and yet I was still worried that I wouldn’t have enough to say. To “win” NaNoWriMo, you need 50,000 words, even if your story isn’t “complete.”And that’s the rub. As soon as it became something I could win, I worked hard, writing every night, typically exceeding my daily quota.

And when I hit that 50k mark, I just quit cold turkey.

I kept saying I was going to go back to it, but I really wasn’t sure. Endings make me all kinds of anxious and I always have trouble writing them (or living them). Anyway, I knew that, even with 50,000 words, I was nowhere near the end of my novel. I left it untouched for two or three months and started focusing on other things, namely my misery. This misery had several contributing factors, but the primary one was my frustration over still being unemployed. A friend asked me if I was still writing, and I said no. He then proceeded to tell me that “a lot of shitty things are going to happen,” but that I couldn’t be expected to control all or even most of them. What I could control was my writing. So after a long hiatus, I opened the document back up and started slowly. I set really small goals for myself at first. I’m talking “I hope to write six sentences today” kind of small goals. The thing is, it worked. I started surpassing my goals, and then I didn’t need to make them anymore. I was back in it.

There was no longer that feeling of competition behind it. I didn’t feel like I was writing to win a race. I felt like I was writing because I wanted to and because my life depended on it. Whatever was going on with me, I decided to write through it. Most of the time, it worked. Then I got really serious about writing and my novel. I started reading writers’ blogs and getting writing advice sent to my Twitter feed. I bought books. I devoured books. I started discussing writing with anyone who would listen to me. Somewhere along the line, I realized that it had been ages since I’d actually written something out of the sheer joy of writing it. I may not be the best writer, but I at least want to have fun with it. I took quite a few writing classes in college – it was one of my minors – and it occurs to me now that I probably stopped having fun with it then. That was never about writing for enjoyment. It was writing to please a professor. It was writing to cross off a task in my planner.

Throughout all of those classes, I’d sit and listen to people talk about how their characters surprised them by doing things they hadn’t anticipated. I never experienced that. They talked about how unplanned events came out of nowhere and happened. I never experienced that. They talked about writing into wherever the story took them. I never experienced that, either. Everything I’d written had been totally planned out. Nothing ever surprised me in my writing. Apparently I wasn’t writing long enough pieces because as I wrote the novel, a lot of things surprised me. Characters I hadn’t planned for came in. Characters who were supposed to be more prominent were pushed back or cut out. Pretty soon I realized that I could never have planned every step of this novel. During the course of the last 40,000 words, I had only a few vague ideas of what I wanted to happen. Everything else just fell into place, maybe not well, but it fell into place all the same.

With three chapters left to write, I took a week or two off. All of a sudden I felt incredibly anxious. I had an idea of the ending, but surely I could never write my way to it. I can’t do endings! I told this to a friend. Her reply was to laugh at me and say “Stopping now? That makes total sense….”

The next day I started writing again.

I continued to be really anxious about it, but I just kept writing and the more I did, the less anxious I felt. And then I found myself writing the final sentence of the complete first draft at 3 a.m. on Sunday night/Monday morning.

I finished my novel. I keep saying this over and over in my head because it doesn’t seem like it’s something I expected of myself. I guess I sold myself short. I could have just let it go there, but why stop? I bought myself some good editing pens and a new flash drive. I saved the novel, took the flash drive to a copy store and had all 96,300 words – 252 manuscript pages – printed and bound. And now I’ve begun the fervent task of reading what I wrote – something I hadn’t done up until now – and marking it up. I’m moving things around, cutting parts, fact-checking and adding more detail. I’m working really hard, but it’s rewarding work, and it’s keeping my mind off of the fact that I have surpassed 365 days of unemployment. Okay, that’s a lie. It’s not keeping my mind off of it completely, but it’s allowing me to focus on something else for large chunks of time. In that respect, it really is quite therapeutic. Of course, none of this would have probably ever happened had it not been for a few people who kept pushing (in a good way) and encouraging me to keep at it.

So I hope this explains why I haven’t been blogging much lately. Hopefully I’ll be getting back into the swing of it once I figure out my editing rhythm.

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5 thoughts on “In the Books: On Finishing My Novel

  1. I’m impressed. With the end product, yes, but mostly with the process you went through to arrive at the product. That’s a serious accomplishment. Especially finding a process that has given you so much pleasure and a sense of satisfaction–which, I think, has a huge impact on how willing you are to go back and edit now.

  2. Congratulations on finishing your book. I’m very impressed and I love the idea of you getting it bound in order to read it properly and make notes, when I get to that point (need to get the book off the ground first!) I hope I remember that idea. Good luck

  3. Pingback: Someone’s Writing Again (Hint: It’s Me) « Frankasaurus.

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