How often have you come up with a story that cried out to be written, only to lose heart and quit before reaching the end? Quitting is easy because writing is so hard. Even bestselling author Thomas Harris (Silence of the Lambs) says, “Writing novels is the hardest thing I’ve ever done, including digging irrigation ditches.” As Harris reveals, success doesn’t make writing easierwhich explains why so many writers find it helpful to develop arsenals of techniques to help them reach The End. You, too, can benefit by stocking your own armory with end-all strategies.
1. TAKE SMALL BITES. Remain “in the moment” by visualizing only a small segment of a story at a timeone scene, for instanceto keep from feeling daunted by the whole enchilada.
When other pressing deadlines keep me from working full time on my current novel-in-progress, I break out a deck of index cards. On each card, I note what will happen in an upcoming scene or chapter. Then, when I sit down to write, I can focus on simply getting Jonas through a strained phone conversation, or Rhonie through firing her drunken short-order cook.
This method enables me to easily pick up where I left off even after an extended interruption. (And few obstacles are more discouraging than trying to pick up a story that’s gone cold.) The important thing is to keep the work momentum going, steadily, even if it’s just inching along.
With her current book project, writer Veda Boyd Jones spent about five minutes of writing time per day on the first draft. But by nickeling it to death, she produced a 348-page manuscript in less than three years. “Some days, I’d read the last page I’d written and add a line of dialogue. Sometimes I’d write four or five paragraphs. I kept at it because it was at the top of my list every day.”
2. KNOW WHERE YOU’RE HEADED. Without a clear idea of plot direction, character development and other crucial elements, it’s easy to find yourself hip-deep in a morass. But you don’t have to outline the entire story meticulously.
Early in the process of writing a novel, Claire Tristram forces herself to come up with a three- sentence synopsis for the entire story. “Those three sentences make me decide where I intend to go with the story and make it easy to stay on track.”
From the three-sentence synopsis for her first novel, After, “I knew I was writing an intense, sexually explicit tragedynot a healing love story, or a story of social justice, or a suspense novel, or whatever else may have come from the same basic situation I’d set up in the beginning.”
But while a sense of direction is important, Charlene Ann Baumbich, author of the Welcome to Partonville series, warns that etching story elements in concrete can dry up your creative juices. “Allow the story to lead you. The process of surprise discoveries [about a story and its characters] keeps me jazzed to the end.”
3. HAVE ENOUGH TO SAY. Having a well-defined premise, adequate research and a strong message to convey can create a compelling story that will drag you along to the very end.
In her Phantom Valley young-adult horror series, Kathryn Lance (writing as Lynn Beach) found that, “What had seemed like a splendid idea for a spooky junior-high-age book simply didn’t work to carry an entire novel.” To rectify that shortcoming in The Dark, her first book of the series, she turned up the tension, first by making a blind boy’s seeing-eye dog the first character who becomes aware of an evil spirit. Then, “I introduced a new conflict with the boy’s parents, which culminated in their taking the dog away just when the boy most needed him for protection.”
For The Pipe Dreamers, Sandra Gurvis dug deep to build a strong foundation for her novel, which encompasses Vietnam-era unrest regarding the war, the sexual revolution, rejection of parental values and drugs. “I did a lot of first-level research at Ohio colleges and archives, and interviews with protesters, conservatives, National Guardsmen and administrators to provide the objectivity and timeline I needed to structure the story.”
4. DEVELOP A QUOTA SYSTEM. Many writers use some form of quantifiable quota system to keep their work moving forward at a steady clip all the way to the end.
“Human beings are creatures of habit,” says Christine Rimmer, an author for Silhouette Books. “I create habits that help me achieve my writing goals.”
For Rimmer, that means daily page quotas. “The first week on a book, while I’m getting to know the characters and the arc of the story, I work toward five pages a day. Weeks two and three, 10 pages a day. Week four, 11 pages. The idea is to work toward getting to the very bottom of the final page each day. That way, by the time you reach the next level, you’re only a line away from having the right number of pages for the new level. Then you simply begin adding a few lines each day. This can work starting from any quota number, from one page on up.”
Quotas can also involve time. “You can sit at your computer for 15 minutes and say that nothing is coming and walk away,” says Susan Crosby, author of more than a dozen Silhouette novels. “But if you sit for two hours, something comes. Maybe you throw it out later, but words come, and that’s a start. Without words there’s nothing to edit, which is part of the process. I’ve learned not to give up too soon.”
5. DON’T LOOK BACK. Being a first-draft perfectionist can condemn you to forever reworking the beginning pages.
By accepting upfront that your first draft will be redolent with flaws, you free your creative energies to carry you on toward the end of the story. Reaching the end of a first draft provides an important and necessary psychological boostproof positive that you have it in you to get there.
This is crucial, since for most published writers, the heart and soul of their craft lies not in the first draft, but in the rewrite. And while forging on to the end of the final draft is just as important as completing the first, I’m not alone in finding that rewriting is often easier and more satisfying than the first trip through a story.
Kent Haruf, whose bestselling Plainsong was a National Book Award finalist, reminds us all that there are no shortcuts to the process. “Most people who fancy they want to write quit before they get good enough, because it’s too difficult. You have to think of it as your religion, as something you’re devoted to, something you attend to daily, bringing all you can to it. The only thing to do with a story is to finish it. And then go on and write the next one.”