Why You Won’t Finish That Novel

Writing Advice

Writers are real assholes when it comes to finishing the things we start.

If novels were children, the world would be home to an ever-growing tribe of abandoned orphans. These incomplete and uncertain children would wander the alleys and deserts, all of them feral — but not so feral that they fail to overcome the resentment at being left alone, at being casually tossed into the world as if no one had ever cared one sticky little whit about them.

If I were to print out all the novels I never finished, I could make a chair. Hell, I could make a whole damn throne. There I could sit, King Jerk Of Don’t-Do-Shit-Town. Thumping my scepter formed of a rolled-up (and long-forgotten) manuscript while characters I’d discarded could gambol about before me, spectral jesters angry at what I’d done to them. Jingly-jangle go the shameful bells on their forgotten hats.

Why am I bringing this up, exactly? My guess is, a lot of you are probably hip-deep in a novel right now. After all, this is the National A Whole Lot Of People Realize That Being A Novelist Is Often Like Hitting Yourself In The Crotch With A Rabid Lemur Duct-Taped To A Comical Wooden Mallet Month, is it not? (NaWhoLoOfPeReThaBeNoIsOfLiHiYoInTheCroWiRaLeDuTaToCoWoMaMo, for those “in-the-know.” This is, coincidentally, also a small town in the Welsh countryside. They manufacture sadness there. And garden gnomes. True story!) I suspect that a good number of you are beginning to wonder:

“What’s that smell? Am I hip-deep in a novel, or hip-deep in burning feces? Is it my brain that’s on fire? I smell scorched hair. And crispy synapses. Where are my pants? Is that a rabid lemur?”

The lack-of-pants thing is totally normal.

The rest of it — well, the rest of it shouldn’t be totally normal, but feel free to revisit the opening of this blog post: Writers, assholes, abandoned novels, blah blah blah. It is, in fact, far too normal.

You’re thinking of quitting that novel. Aren’t you? Tsk, tsk, tsk.

At this point you can either say, “Well, fuck it. Game over,” and then put your pants back on, or you can instead say to yourself, “No, fuck that. I’m not giving up on this quite so easily. Time to figure out just what’s molesting my mojo. Why the heck am I so ready to bail?”

Writing Is Not A Parade Of Peppermint Puppies

Ahh, the myth of constant enjoyment. Writing is neither consistently fun nor easy. Problem is, people think that it is. You will experience this when you speak to some people about writing a novel. Their eyes will gloss over. Their jaws will slacken. They will mumble something about, “Oh, jeez, I’m totally going to write a novel someday, it sounds so great,” and then they might mutter something about a “muse” or, I dunno, fairy circles. Thing is, writing is not the fucking circus. It is not a constant parade of delights until you make your way to the great egress. Writing can be hard. Writing can even be unpleasant. I’ve had folks balk when I say that, as if I’m perhaps some kind of self-hating wordmonkey. No. No! I didn’t say writing is miserable. I didn’t say I hate writing. I love it. I am infinitely and eminently satisfied by it. But that doesn’t mean every day is a party with apple pie and blowjobs. I compare it to marriage: marriage is not easy. It is nothing like the wide-eyed wonder of the earliest days of dating. Hell, some days of marriage you just want to cry and yell and eat pizza and eject from the plane. It doesn’t mean you will. Or should. It also doesn’t mean you don’t love the other person or want to remain with them. Writing a novel? It works the same way. I love writing even on those days when it makes me want to punch a baby seal.

Point being, you may find yourself slowing down or stopping outright because — uh-oh, the romance is gone. Good. Honeymoon period is over. Now it’s time to really buckle down because you want to know a secret? Some of your best writing will be born from the challenge of dissatisfaction.

I Loves The Shiny: I Do The Shiny Dance, I Put Shiny In My Pants

Video games, housework, reading, onanism, television, lunch, Twitter, Facebook, duck hunting, whatever. You can be distracted by a hundred thousand things (or, as I noted in an earlier post, you will be plagued by the Malicious Distractor Monkey), and too much distraction will lead you so far astray you don’t know how to get back to the thing you were supposed to be doing: writing a novel.

Fuck all that noise. Put that shit down. Walk away from the shiny-happy-fun-time. Attend to your words.

Wait, This Other Novel Idea Is Going To Make This Novel Idea Shit Its Diaper

I know. Trust me, I know. Novelists are idea factories, and when we start to hunker down over one idea and start writing a single novel, it starts to feel like that goddamn I Love Lucy episode where the conveyor belt starts backing up and we can’t keep track of the bazillionty ideas that are rocketing past our brain’s hands. You start working on this novel and suddenly the grass looks a lot greener over on that other novel idea.

Hey, screw that. You’re not a fickle butterfly flitting from flower to flower with your pollination stick. That conveyor belt starts to back up, either hit the switch to turn it off or walk away. You can jot your ideas down, but then put them in a drawer somewhere. You may not be able to control the minds of those around you, but you can most certainly control your own runaway thoughts.

Finish this novel. Then move onto the next one that tickles your pink parts.

Once again the marriage metaphor holds water: yes, your grotesque reptilian instinct screams for you to bang anything that walks by. You are not a reptile. You are a human. Use your human willpower to stick with the one you love. And — and! — here’s where the metaphor bucket springs a truly delicious leak: with your novel, when you’re done with it, you actually do get to go, erm, pollinating other flowers. You dig?

You Are The Wasteland Wanderer (And You’re Totally Lost)

You didn’t do any planning and now you’re just wandering aimlessly amongst the burned-out cars and shattered highways of your manuscript. You’re lost in your own work and you can’t find the way forward.

Easier then to give up, is it not?

Bzzt! Shut that shit down, soldier.

What’s the solution? Take a breath. Pull back from the frontlines of the daily writing battleground, it’s time to regroup and refocus. It is time for some sweet-ass strategery.

If you’re doing NaNoWriMo, now may be a good time to say goodbye to your 50k word count for the month. But that does not mean you need to say goodbye to the novel itself. Do not associate the one with the other: just because you’re off-target doesn’t mean you can’t still rescue a rollicking good draft from the slavering jaws of uncertainty.

The reason you might wander astray from your deadline is that you’re going to take some days off of the actual writing and do a little planning. Re-read what you’ve written. Find the threads that frayed and faded. Start doing an outline after the fact. Arrange your elements. Start cutting out the dead tissue if you find that some of the manuscript is just plain rotten and, frankly, in your way.

Do what you have to do to move forward.

Get a plan. Draw a map. Slow and steady wins the race.

Yawn, Snort, ZZZZZzzzZZzzz

You’re bored. With your own work, no less. That’s bad news. This either means you bought into the myth of constant enjoyment or you’ve found that the story you’re writing is more of a slog than you thought.

In short: you’re in the weeds.

What’s the solution? Kick it up a notch. Fast-forward. Get to the action. Find a way to sex up the manuscript a little bit. You know why the best stories don’t start at the beginning? Because the beginning is boring. Exposition is not exciting. Whatever it is that excites you about the potential of your story: write that right now. Doesn’t even have to be in order. Write the parts that tweak your tee-tas (or your “mantennae”).

Boom! Eeee! Explosions! Cut to the chase.

By Golly, I’ve Got Shit To Do And No Time To Do It!

As it turns out, you started this process and — oopsie-daisy, you don’t really have the time to do it.

Newsflash: nobody has the time to write a novel except established novelists. And even then you’d be surprised how easily life intrudes. Answer e-mails! Feed children! Vacuum carpet! Walk dogs! Get mail! Defeat evil on distanct ice planet! Bury itinerant hobo in shallow grave beneath treehouse! OH MY GOD LIFE NEVER STOPS COMING FOR ME.

And, really, you wouldn’t want it to. Would you?

We all have the same 24 hours in our day. I don’t have 30 hours. You don’t have 22 hours. We must all juggle time and become chronomancers. You will have to carve time out of your existing schedule to write this novel. You do not get a free pass that lets you take every Tuesday off so you can take a magical boatride to Novel-Writing Land.

Suck it up and join the rest of us writing our novels on Standard Earth Time.

You Don’t Know Why You’re Writing The Damn Thing

You might not be lost in the plot, you might not be bored, but you might still be asking yourself, “Why am I doing this? Why am I taking the time out of my day? Frankly, why do I give a shit?”

It’s a good question, and it’s one you didn’t answer before writing and now you’re left feeling a bit bewildered — or, worse, hollow. Makes you want to quit and walk away out of a feeling of grumbling discontent, yes?

Stop. Ask yourself a question: “What is this story about?” You had a reason you wanted to write it in the first place, even if you didn’t identify that reason. Well, hell with it. Identify it now. Sit down and ponder this. The answer you get may not be the answer you expect, and sure, it might take that story in a whole other direction — but that’s okay. Again, ditch NaNoWriMo if it feels constricting. Write the novel you came to write. Once you know what it’s really about and why you connect with the idea, you might find renewed vigor to kick this thing right in the snacks.

The Insurmountable Mountain Of False Expectations

Do not be a slave to your own impossible win conditions. This is your first draft — or, hell, maybe it’s your zero draft. Stop putting so much pressure on yourself and just write. You have permission to suck on this go-around. You’re not shitting gold. You might just be shitting, well, shit. Nobody has a gun to your head. Nobody is demanding you write a bestseller today.

Turns Out, You’re Not A Writer After All

Ahh, the hardest one of all.

When I was a wee tot, I thought I was going to be an artist. Then, later, a cartoonist. I held onto this illusion for a long time even when there existed damning evidence (like, seriously, evidence that kept horse-kicking me right in the chops) to the contrary. The evidence was, I just didn’t have the passion for it. Desire, yes, passion, no. (I do believe a difference exists.) Moreover, I didn’t have the patience for it.

A lot of people have their thing, and for many people, writing is that thing. But not everybody is a writer. Not everybody who wants to be a writer can be — whether that means right now or, sadly, ever. That sounds like a real dream-killer, but I don’t think it is — sometimes, dreams aren’t all that helpful, okay? They aren’t useful to you if they serve as illusions blocking you from finding the thing you really want to do, the thing you’re genuinely good at doing. I don’t mean to suggest it’s bad to have dreams and hopes, but hey, guess what? We live in a funny little place called reality. I once entertained the notion that maybe I could be be a ninja. (But then I turned six and decided “cowboy” was much more realistic.)

The myth of constant enjoyment is paired up, then, with the myth of absolutely zero enjoyment. If you find no pleasure, no satisfaction, no moments of bliss when writing…

…then maybe it’s time to move on. Find your bliss elsewhere.

By the way, there exists a lesser (and less harsh) variant of this: you might be a writer, but maybe you’re not a novelist. NaNoWriMo is a very specific, highly-focused event that looks at only one type of writing.

Did you think about screenwriting? Or short stories? Or comic books? Or non-fiction books? Or video games?

Or placemats, business cards, hateful manifestos, bumper stickers or coffee table books graphically illustrating the highly volatile sex habits of the common bedbug?

I’m just saying — explore your options, cats and kittens. “Novelist” ain’t the only job here in the meadows of Wordmonkey Farms.

27 comments

  • > (NaWhoLoOfPeReThaBeNoIsOfLiHiYoInTheCroWiRaLeDuTaToCoWoMaMo, for those
    > “in-the-know.” This is, coincidentally, also a small town in the Welsh countryside.

    My wife came back to the office to see what I was laughing about. She read this and cracked up, too.

    “Satisfied” sums up my feelings about writing, too. I won’t say tech writing and editing leave me feeling that way, but it allows me to work from home for the time and that frees up time for the writing I really enjoy.

  • I love your blog! You always give great useful information in such a hilarious way!

    I often ask myself if I’m a writer. But I feel like I’m not really good at anything else. I also once thought I was going to be an artist (I still hold this dream…in the background, behind novelist and filmmaker), but I also don’t think I have the patience for it. But I sometimes think I don’t have the patience to be a writer either! I still do it, I still love my stories (especially those not born yet) and so I wonder if maybe novelist isn’t the type of writing for me.

    But I suck worse at shorts. Perhaps it’s screenwriting or comic book writing. I haven’t seriously tried those out yet. But I’m still going to keep writing that novel.

    I don’t know, maybe I’m a masochist that enjoy hitting herself with a lemur in the crotch?

  • ” . . . or coffee table books graphically illustrating the highly volatile sex habits of the common bedbug”

    Oh, god – who told you?

    Every Monday morning, you help kick my ass into gear. I’ve wanted to stop and regroup for a while now, but have been worried that doing so iwould kill the story. Thanks for setting me straight.

  • I’ve been to the sadness factory. It’s like forty miles away. I can go up and get you some if you like. They do presentation tins with little countryside scenes printed on the lids.

    Anyway. As you know, I am not doing NaNoWriMo. I just happen to be writing a novel about now.

    I stalled ends of last week. I thought I had written myself into a corner. I realised this morning that I had in fact done no such thing and that the solution to my narrative impasse was already in my text, and that I could even more insane than I was before. My novel has been writing itself. It is not THE NOVEL I walways wanted to write. Not remotely. That one collapsed under the weight of my expectations and stuff.

    Just an update, really.

  • Time to figure out just what’s molesting my mojo

    See that little hidden gem there? That’s what I needed to see this morning. Most sage advice I think you’ve given thus far.

    Which reminds me, I need to leave myself a little parenthetical that goes something like “(Blah, blah, blah. Some stuff that doesn’t interest Kate right now happens.)” and get to that scene that’s been burning holes in my brain all weekend.

  • Seriously… hilarious. PERFECT reading for a Monday morning. I was laughing so hard when I read this… and it applies to more than just writing. While that was the focus, I feel anyone in various creative fields can relate this to their work. I did smell my brain burning… but I’m not as alarmed, thanks!

  • @Kate Haggard

    I need to leave myself a little parenthetical that goes something like “(Blah, blah, blah. Some stuff that doesn’t interest Kate right now happens.)” and get to that scene that’s been burning holes in my brain all weekend.

    That’s a brilliant idea. I’m stealing it.

  • Damn well am so gonna finish. Even when my bones are grinding under the weight of the hideous machinery. Force a grin and keep going. Never give up. Just like the protagonist, right? And that’s something I keep getting dosed up with every time I read stuff on here. It’s the Never Give Up Blog!

  • I think it’s best to work out with short stories before commit yourself to a novel.
    Besides, sometimes a given short story can grown up into a novel!

    Very cool advice. As always, the super-oomph-creative-humor sprinkled over The Great Wendigo’s texts activates our synapses and makes the idea factory scream GO!

  • This is great advice for anybody writing a novel even if they aren’t participating in NaNoWriMo.

    So, when is the Terribleminds Tome of Writerly Advice hitting shelves?

  • Finishing a novel isn’t hard. It’s just time consuming. It’s realizing that the story that you start out writing, even with a great outline, changes as new and better ideas pop in your head. As long as you keep writing and make notes about those super ideas, then you can finish up.

    The hard part is editing the beast. I once edited the voice completely out of my story. It was voiceless:) Academic papers had more attitude and vices than that overly edited pile of goo.

    Oh, and first books usually suck. I’m writing my second now, and I really want to burn my first, but that would require me to print out the monster first. This second one is a lot better than the first, but it will require a massive story edit before I even get to the line editing phase of doom.

    Now, maybe my third will be good enough to submit. I learn a little bit more about the craft as I churn each one out.

    Oh, and I’m participating in nanowrimo. I’ve already lost the mighty word count goal, but I don’t care. I was just using the fun community challenge to have me finish up, which is far less than 50k words since I had written 55k before nanowrimo even started up. I’ll be adding about 30k. I have about 16k more to go.

    Of course, writing is really about wanting to experience lots and lots of pain. After writing all those damn words and editing it as best as possible, someone will find something wrong with it. Then, if you’re one of those lucky new york times best selling writers, some under paid critic will rip it apart using a vocab that will require a reader to yank out their dictionary to comprehend what the hell they’re talking about.

    Yes, writing is pain! When asked what writing is like, I say it’s like the Griswold Family Christmas lights and the all the pain that dude went in turning them on.

  • Such long, brilliantly funny blog posts. I do the minute math in my head and wonder when the hell you have time for your novel. Probably just me projecting since I’m usually reading your blog when I’m fucking off instead of working :).

  • I second that. I reckon a book of writers’ advice might have mileage.

    Except that it’d be a bugger to write, just like every other book, obviously.

  • Brilliant post, Mr. Wendig. Thank you for this. I’m slogging my way through what I *hope* is a “final” (no really, I mean it this time, swear) read-through on my novel. This post was just what I needed to keep going today. Especially the part about the peppermint puppies. 🙂

  • I LOVE your blog. This is some of the most brilliant writing I have ever had the privilege of reading (and I have been an editor for going on ten years so that says something, LOL). I have left your site up on two computers and every spare moment been reading your blogs and even your short stories.

    I have had to be careful at procrastinating, though. I am in the final stages of the NaNoWriMo (only 3400 words to go). Been cooking along at 4000 a day, but I write for a living so guess I have an edge. You know us so well that it is scary. Thanks for such great insight and tremendous wit…and I wish this was more artfully written but my synapses are crispy, :D.

    I bow to the Master. LOVE the blog and keep them coming.

    • @Kristen:

      Thanks! I totally appreciate that. Your check is in the mail — in the check notes, I write, “Thanks for calling me brilliant.”

      Above and beyond the call of duty. 🙂

      And well done on the NaNo attempt — 4k a day is a bounty of wordsmithy.

      — c.

  • I completely agree with Kristen above…you say it all so much better than virtually everyone else. And, you swear like a motherfather which is even better.

    Thanks for this kick. And, the laughs. Especially the laughs.

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