What I Learned From Failing To Finish A Book Three Times

Or: I hold forth on a topic I know almost nothing about (but then isn’t that what I do here every day)

So I’ve talked before about how I had to rewrite my NaNoWriMo project twice due to making hilarious blunders on previous drafts. I recently came right up to the end of a third draft and…. decided I had bungled it again. At this point I was faced with two choices: go back and fix all the problems I should have fixed the previous three times but didn’t, or shelve the thing for now and write something shorter and less complicated.

Since option one would probably involve me getting completely burned out on the story, I went with option two.

Quite a few people graciously volunteered to beta read the book and have expressed excitement at the idea of reading it, so I feel bad for not actually delivering anything. However, as a consolation prize, I will now present an article in list form (a listicle, if you will) of the interesting lessons I learned during this whirlwind adventure. Keep in mind that I was writing a very specific kind of book (middle grade fantasy) so they’re not exactly universal.

1) Plan ahead

When I was on the NaNo forums I saw a lot of debate about “plotting” vs “pantsing” (everything on the NaNo forums has a twee nickname). At first I was a big proponent of the latter approach- just jump right in! The story will, like, grow organically! Don’t limit your creativity, man!

I now realize this is a profoundly stupid idea. I don’t think you have to meticulously outline every single thing that’s going to happen in every single chapter- although you certainly could do that- but for any story with even a bit of complexity to it, you want to know well in advance what each of the major story beats are going to be. They can change as you write- they probably will, in fact- but know where it is you’re going.

2) Pick an appropriate level of complexity

One of the biggest mistakes I made with this book was in allowing the complexity of the story to spiral out of control. The idea that the story can go in any direction is intoxicating early on, but don’t get carried away with it. Decide if your story is going to be a sprawling epic or a smaller, personal story at the beginning, and try to stick to that. There are stories that start off small and get exponentially more complicated in an organic manner, but it’s hard to pull off. I don’t recommend trying it for your first-time NaNoWriMo project.

3) Don’t worry about the start

One of the reasons my previous novel-writing attempts exploded on the launch pad is that I’d always get hung up on the beginning of the story. This is something NaNo actually broke me out of quite effectively.

Simply put, don’t sweat the beginning. At all. The most important thing early on is to get the creative juices flowing and get into the act of writing, and getting bogged down in your opening chapter will kill that stone dead. If you feel like you can’t just skip straight past it and you have to write something, then spit out whatever gets you into the meat of the story, no matter how sloppy or rushed it is. If you don’t know what the names of characters or locations are going to be, use placeholders (I use [square brackets] for easy find and replace later). If you need to introduce a lot of world-building and setup at the beginning and you don’t know how to do it organically, just write it all into a separate document and work out how to fit it in some other time. You can always come back and write a proper beginning later, and chances are good that once you’ve got a bit of the way into the story, whatever was giving you difficulty will be resolved much easier.

A multi-POV novel will have multiple beginnings for each viewpoint character, in which case you could justifiably do this several times, for the beginning of each plot thread, or just with whatever character is giving you trouble.

Note that this rough beginning should at most constitute a few pages. If you find that you need to skip past multiple chapters of setup before you get to something that could be considered the proper plot, then you’ve got much bigger issues.

4) It’s way easier than you think to write yourself into a corner

Starting a new story is kind of intoxicating. It’s an open, blank canvas! You can do anything you want! The story is yours to explore in any direction!

Actually, that’s not true. Writing a novel is more like constructing a tower out of Jenga blocks, and if you’re not careful you’re going to get halfway to your goal only to discover that the bottom part of the tower can’t support the rest, or you decide you need to take something from the bottom and put it nearer the top but you can’t do it without the whole thing collapsing, or half the blocks are actually sugar cubes and now your story is covered in a swarm of hungry wasps.

What was I talking about?

Right, Jenga blocks. The point is, it’s very easy to completely mess up your story, but it’s often much harder to fix the problems. It’s best to try and either avoid making them in the first place (hence why I said you should plan) or catch them early, while they can be fixed more easily. Speaking of which:

5) Trust your instincts

During my earlier drafts I repeatedly embarked on story decisions or plot directions that I felt somewhat unsure about. Because I’m a doofus, I blithely plowed ahead every time assuming I could fix any problems that came up later, and almost inevitably I came to regret it later.

Go with your gut. If something doesn’t feel right, stop and consider why.

6) If you’re not having fun, the readers probably won’t either

Writing is hard. You find writing guides sometimes that are like “writing is easy it’s just words 😀 😀 😀 ” and you should track down the authors of these articles and slap them. It can be a chore. It can especially be a chore if you’re exhausted from a job or school work or you just don’t have the energy for whatever reason.

However, there’s hard work and then there’s hard work. Whenever I find myself really struggling to get through part of a story- when it feels like I’m trying to wade through mud just to get somewhere else- then I stop and consider if maybe the story I’m writing just isn’t compelling to me. And if that is the case, it means I need to rethink where the plot is heading because if it’s not compelling to me than it’s not going to be compelling to the readers either.

Let me be clear that I’m not saying it’s either desirable or realistic that you should fly through your novel propelled by high-pressure enthusiasm and the sublime joy of creation, but at the same time you should use your own reactions in writing as a barometer. Maybe you’re getting bogged down for reasons that have nothing to do with the story or because of personal circumstances or whatever, but it’s possible you’ve sailed into waters that just aren’t very interesting to either write or read. Consider turning back before you get too far.


14 thoughts on “What I Learned From Failing To Finish A Book Three Times

  1. Pingback: Let’s Read The Fifth Sorceress ch. 12.5 | Doing In The Wizard

  2. Pingback: Let’s Read The Fifth Sorceress ch. 7 | Doing In The Wizard

  3. TheUncreativeMe

    This was great. Writing is hard. Writing a good story is even harder.

    I also agree with your opinion on outlines. You need to plan, not only the plot, but also the characters, and the conflict, and the theme, and the setting. How the story will feel and what the levels of tension will be – it’s a bit like making a game, in that you need pacing and breaks. In any case, you win the internets with this post. 🙂

  4. Jamie

    Good stuff! I particularly appreciate the bit about choosing appropriate complexity. I get myself in all kinds of binds with that…

    The baffling thing to me about the endless “plotters vs. pantsers” argument is that I always see it treated as an either/or thing. I learned the hard way that, if I didn’t have an outline with a clear end in mind, I couldn’t write anything with a coherent end. On the other hand, I also learned that no outline survives contact with the characters, and there’s no reason to treat anything as cast in stone if something obviously superior presents itself (and, most of the time, it will).

    I have had less good luck gauging whether I was writing something terrible by evaluating a day or a week’s subjective writing experience. Sometimes it feels like each miserable sentence has to be dragged out of me, and other times it just flows–but when I go back, I usually can’t tell from the material itself which part was which. Having a plan helps, so that even when the subjective experience of writing is painful, you at least know where to go and you can put one sentence in front of another, so to speak, and get yourself out of the doldrums.

    Now, if it’s a miserable experience and that doesn’t let up for weeks, that’s a bad sign…

    1. ronanwills Post author

      “On the other hand, I also learned that no outline survives contact with the characters, and there’s no reason to treat anything as cast in stone if something obviously superior presents itself ”

      I find that the unplanned things that crop up in a first draft often lead to new plans in the second- eg, I’ll notice a theme or something developing organically (or sometimes even by accident) and go back and work it in more heavily on the next go-around.

  5. callmeIndigo

    Up until recently I had almost never outlined because I knew so many non-planners who talked about getting bored if they knew what was going to happen next. [I feel like there’s kind of…a line there, but anyway.] And entirely coincidentally never actually finished anything readable.

    And then I tried outlining something I was working on to sort out a plot snarl and discovered that it is way, way easier to work toward an ending if you know what it is in advance. It has taken me way too long to figure this out. [Still working on some of the other stuff.]

  6. Mr Elbows

    yeah, since I started actually outlining plotlines on paper instead of just winging it, I feel less stressed out and more like I’m actually gonna finish That Thing. I don’t know why I thought I was doing fine without it :/

  7. steamysalt

    When it comes to a new project, I always just ruminate normally about a week before starting and making sure I’m comfortable with my outline, though I know no huge amount of meticulous planning will set everything in concrete. I’ve come up with characters, situations, and concepts on the spot while writing, which even a control freak like me has found the unpredictability of writing to be really fun at times.

    Something that I’ve noticed about interviews with (mostly) fantasy authors is that George RR Martin’s Gardner vs Architect approach tends to be brought up, and many of them (Rothfuss included) laud themselves for being Gardners and letting the story grow organically or whatever. Lately, I’ve read both Stephen King and GRRM trying to get young writers to forego outlines completely, which I find kinda funny, since King isn’t exactly known for good endings and Martin is just a whole another story concerning his last few books.

    Different things work for different writers. There is no One True Way to go about writing and crafting a story. For me, I need at least some amount of planning, otherwise I feel I’m going to end up with a pile of shit, and I prefer it to be in neatly packed rows.

    1. ronanwills Post author

      Yeeaah, I’m fully on board with the “no planning” approach if that’s what works for people, but Stephen King and George RR Martin are not the people to be cheerleading for that method.

  8. Reveen

    One thing that’s been a hurdle to me even starting writing is not being totally sure how to write the scenes I want to write, and then I hear another writey personal refer to storyboard. Now I know they don’t literally mean a film’s storyboard, but it made me wonder whether it would be a good idea to actually storyboard a scene for a book with illustrations and then convey that through writing rather than rely purely on a text outline. I don’t know, it sounds really stupid but it makes sense to me for some reason.

    1. devilsjunkshop

      I was writing a short story the other week and I couldn’t get a particular fight scene organised in my head until an artist friend suggested I just write it out in panels like a comic-strip script. Worked for me. Once I’d got the individual scenes down on paper i had a better handle on how it would all flow together in prose form. And yeah, if I’d been able to draw I probably would have just storyboarded it like you say.

      1. Reveen

        Even when it’s just two characters talking I have trouble unless I know how the scene is “shot”. It’s just the way my electronic media-addled brain works I guess.

  9. Signatus

    I agree with each and every point you’ve talked about. This was something I discovered long ago, when I was taking writing more seriously than just putting on paper a bunch of funny stories. Writing is hard. You do need to plan ahead. You do need to know your characters.

    I’ve stated before, in other posts, that planning ahead, as in having every detail written down, didn’t do it for me. I’ve always had the draft in my head, yet with enough space to let characters evolve while gliding from point A to point B. I tried planning ahead and the story was just… artificial. Yes, everything was sound but the characters didn’t feel natural. They were pretty much trains forced into their tracks, unable to move even if they wished to. It was a terrible experience for me, because I felt like I was doing some sort of job for someone else, and the results were terrible. In my opinion it is better to have several clear points of where the story is heading, then letting your imagination flow. That is how I’ve worked before, and that’s how my best works have come to happen. The story is sound enough that you don’t have to rewrite everything, yet you’ll still have to go back and polish details here and there to make it more solid.

    The point about how, if you’re bored writing your writers will also be bored, is a great point. It is true, aboslutely true. Not all parts of a book have to be compelling, or super exciting. A book with too much action (Furies of Calderon) can be as monotonous and boring as one where nothing is happening. But you do have to trust your instincts. I remember once I wrote three chapters into the middle of a book and realized it just wasn’t going to work. Went back, deleted these three chapters and tried again. It was a character evolution part and the results were terrific. I just saw what was wrong with that approach and tried a different one.
    This point kind of reminds me about George RR Martin and his ASOIAF series. The part where Daenerys ends up in Meereen, he has stated it was a bitch to work on. It shows, it really shows that not even the author was liking that part. In my opinion, that part should have been eliminated completely, the approach different, maybe just… I don’t know, move to Westeros. It couldn’t be worse than being stuck on Meereen. It is a brilliant example of why writers should listen to their instincts. This is your creation, if something isn’t working, you’re just going to feel it.

    It is very easy to write yourself into a corner. A bad writer will throw up a Deus Ex Machina. A decent one will go back and try to solve the problem before it becomes a ball too big to swallow. Pushing forward will probably mean ending up with that Deus Ex Machina or burned out. If you burn out, trying to continue will only enhance that sensatio and cause greater frustration. Better to take a rest from that type of stories, character, world, and go back (if you so desire) when you feel more confident and your ideas are more clear.

    Anyways, when a draft isn’t working, better to just leave them aside. I have been working, in the past few months in a draft which was only intended as a practice after burning out from a different work. While the book is not finished and not even sound enough to be anything serious, it was a good practice to allow me to relax from other works.

    Writing IS hard. It isn’t just putting down words in a coherent way. It’s planification, character creation, story, a dozen variables intertwined with a language that has to be sound, well written and coherent. Dialogues must be natural. The story has to flow at different paces depending on what you’re working on and, for that, you need to know the rules of writting and language.
    It is hard. That’s why everyone can write a story, not everyone can be a good writer.


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