In his 2000 craft book On Writing, Stephen King says,
The scariest moment is always just before you start. After that, things can only get better.
King is absolutely right when he says that the scariest moment is right before you start.
Staring at that first blank page, especially of a novel, is so daunting and intimidating and terrifying, it’s a wonder any of us are able to begin, continue writing, and actually complete any writing of value.
I’ve written twenty novels now. It doesn’t even feel real to me that I’ve been able to do that. For years and years I wondered if I’d even be able to write one novel, let alone nearly two dozen of them.
And I do think one thing people struggle with is just that: the doubt that they can write a novel, the doubt that they’ll ever be able to actually start it and push forward chapter by chapter.
The trick is finding a story and characters that you love and then finding a day to sit down and write it. The first task you have is just getting started. Don’t think about the immensity of the novel. Don’t think about how long it might necessarily take you to reach THE END.
In twenty novels, I have never focused on or obsessed over the day in the future I might finish the book. I rarely even think of my stories as novels while I’m writing. Because what I do is focus on the amount of words I want to reach that day, not the amount of words I want to reach over many, many weeks.
Once you learn to focus on the work of the current day, and not get intimidated by the novel as a whole, you will find your rhythm and success in novel writing.
Get started, yes, that’s the first part. But you need to keep going. Don’t stop and start a second project. Don’t take a year-long break because the story got too hard.
Here are three reasons why you should keep sticking with with your latest project…
1. A messy first draft is a lot more useful than a beautifully written draft that’s only halfway done.
If there’s one thing I want you to take away from this piece (and many of my other pieces, frankly), it’s exactly that. Keep writing. Finish the thing.
You can’t do anything with half a novel. You can’t revise pages that haven’t been written yet.
Get to THE END however you can. Maybe you like to write short first drafts and then build on what you already have. Maybe you want to go long (like I always do) and then cut back.
The best reason possible to stick with your latest writing project is that the more time you dedicate to finishing it and then revising it later is the best chance you have at success in your fiction writing career. Because you might be able to sell your novel one day, or at least get an agent for it.
You can’t query a novel until it’s all done, remember that, and you shouldn’t query it until it’s gone through extensive revisions. Finish your novel, stick with it for the long haul, and you have a better shot at something happening with that story you love.
2. Finishing your current project will give you the confidence to complete other projects.
I spent a decade wondering if I could actually write a novel. Since I was a boy I always saw myself as a published author, as someone who could write books one day, and as early as 1999 I entertained the idea of writing a novel. I was fourteen at the time, and boy, that book would have sucked hard.
But I thought about it for a long, long time. Every time I walked through a bookstore I thought about trying to write a novel. I just didn’t think I could ever do it. I could write screenplays, but not novels. I didn’t have the patience to write an entire novel. I didn’t feel I had the talent for it.
It wasn’t until I re-read Stephen King’s On Writing sometime in 2009, and had a story idea I loved that I thought would work better in novel form than screenplay form, that I decided to give it a shot. So one day in April 2010 I just started writing, and I didn’t stop until I reached THE END.
That moment I wrote the final sentence of my first novel Slate was electrifying. Because I had finished a novel, of course. But also because I realized I could do it again and again. Once you finish one novel, you get the confidence to start another project in the months to come and finish that one, too. And the next one. And the next one after that.
You don’t want to only write one book in your life, right? You want to write several I hope. And sticking with one project long enough to see it through to THE END will help you understand that writing novels is actually do-able if you go about them the right way and figure out sooner than later that they’re not as scary as you might have previously thought!
3. Writing the book really does get easier as you go along.
The scariest part is the beginning, when there are no words on the page. But I’m telling you, at least from my experience, that as soon as you finish chapter one, things slowly begin to get easier.
One, because you have found your way into the story and now you can start having fun developing your plot and characters. And two, because the deeper into your manuscript you get, the more you begin to learn and understand more about your characters and the world of your story.
On my latest novel Fear of Water, which I completed on July 3, I didn’t quite have a read yet on my antagonist for example, but as I kept exploring her in chapters five and nine and thirteen and so on, more ideas kept springing to me, more depth kept coming to her.
One reason why first drafts are messy is that you don’t always know everything about your story and characters when you begin writing (at least I don’t), and so often great ideas come while I’m writing, while I’m thinking about my story throughout the day.
So by the time I reach THE END I’m a lot more informed about things than I was in the beginning. And when I get going on my second draft and especially my third and fourth drafts, I’m able to add, cut, and revise things that give the illusion to whomever is reading my work later that I knew what I was doing all along.
You should always try to complete any writing project you begin, I truly believe that.
I’ve talked before about the rare circumstances when you should take a break from your novel or possibly abandon it completely.
Again, that is a rare circumstance. In twenty books it has never happened to me. I’ve certainly started projects that took me in directions I didn’t expect, and I’ve messed up chunks of a few of my books where I had to cut lots and lots of scenes and chapters in later drafts.
The truth of the matter is this: you will have success in your fiction writing career, at least eventually, if you finish things. If you begin projects, write your heart out, and complete them.
Feel free to take a break halfway through if you absolutely need to, but in as many cases as possible, go back to those projects and take them all the way to the end.
One more time, ready? A messy first draft that’s finished is way more useful than a supremely well-written draft that’s only halfway done.
Never forget it!