How to Complete a Novel
I am 34 years, 7 months and 7 days old. In my lifetime, the moon has passed through her phases approximately 451 times. As a child, the moon followed me everywhere. It didn’t matter if I was in the United States or somewhere in Germany, the moon was always chasing along behind me. As an adolescent, I appreciated the light of a full moon, but came to understand the regenerative power of the solitary darkness represented by the new moon. As a woman, I learned to correlate my body’s moods and cravings with the moon. As a dog owner, I learned that it is true what they say: dogs do howl at a full moon. They howl, they bark, and they mistakenly think it is breakfast time at 3AM. As a dreamer, I imagine going to the moon. I imagine that I can breathe there, that there is the perfect still like that experienced during the early morning hours after a tremendous snow storm. As a writer, I track the moon’s passage across the bit of sky I can see from my writing desk. I say hello to the moon whenever I see her, even if there are other people around and especially if she is making her crossing during the daylight hours.
The moon and I, we go way back.
Back even to that once upon a time when I was a distance runner. When you run more than six or seven miles, especially if you are a slow runner like I was, you learn that there are certain things you must take into account. First, you need to refuel: liquids, simple sugars. Second, you need a way to keep yourself going when it gets boring or tough. I found that by combining the two needs, I could break a long run into smaller segments that gave me something close enough to attain and far enough to keep me putting one foot in front of the other. When I completed a segment, there was the reward of fuel. On days when I felt strong and light, that was enough. On bad days when it felt like an impossible effort to go a mile, let alone ten, the segments were too far apart to keep desperation from setting in; I had to come up with another tactic. That is when I learned to lie to myself.
Surprised? I was, too. Both that I could be so convincing and that it would work. Before I describe my technique, I want to note that none of this applies if you are sick or injured! Unless you are being chased by some terribly trite horror movie villain, push through discomfort but stop if you feel pain. Otherwise, go ahead and lie to yourself. Tell yourself that you only have to run to the next stop sign and that once you get there, you can walk the rest of the way. If you have to, promise yourself that when you get to the stop sign, you never have to run again, period. Then, when you get to the sign, check in with your body. Is it complaining, or is it just your will that’s flagging? If your body still feels strong, lie again. Tell yourself you only have to make it to your next refueling station, and then you can quit for the day. Lie, run, repeat until you cross the finish line. I logged hundreds of miles using this technique. It’s useful for other tedious tasks, too, like reformatting the chapters in your book in preparation for print or making it through reading a novel you don’t love, but want to finish because you appreciate what the author is trying to do.
In the first post of this series, we began by visualizing the final phase of the writing project. Then we shared our dream with others and negotiated the time and space in which to complete our work. Now it is time to define intermediate phases that give you something to work towards and that you can use as a lifeline. You can base project phases, or milestones, on word count, pages, chapters, scenes or whatever works best to motivate you. Once you decide on the ‘phases,’ choose a way to reward yourself. Although you can, you don’t have to pick the actual form of the reward at the outset; just commit to doing something to celebrate the completion of each phase. I like to choose my reward when I reach the milestone, mostly because my desires and moods are mercurial! White wine sounds good now, but I might want beer by the time I finish the next three chapters! If writing to the end of the first phase seems daunting, employ a variant of the runner’s lie and tell yourself you only have to write one chapter. If that is overwhelming, tell yourself you only have to write one paragraph. If it seems like the pressure to write a perfect first sentence is overwhelming, tell yourself you’re just penning a practice sentence, and don’t have to consider it the one, true First Sentence. Tell yourself whatever you have to in order to get yourself writing. You’ll reach your milestones and get pretty good at coming up with delectable rewards, too!
As you may have guessed, the fourth suggestion of How to Complete a Novel is:
Define Milestone Events
No matter how monolithic a project appears, it can always be broken into phases. In writing a novel, you can define initial phases by draft. Later phases might include getting a copy edit, working with a cover designer, or sending agent queries. Decide in advance what you want to consider a milestone event. It relieves a lot of psychological pressure if you can focus on a smaller goal with a shorter in timeframe that won’t overwhelm or discourage you.
Check back soon for another post in my ‘How to Complete A Novel’ series!