It's National Novel-Writing Month, which means you're starting a novel from scratch. And there's always one question that hangs over your head as you rush into the void — will you actually be able to finish this one? As hard as starting a novel is, finding your way to a proper ending is often harder still. But what if you knew you were going to complete your epic journey to novel-hood?
You can. Because you're going to use these 12 sure-fire strategies for making yourself finish the book.
Magazine covers via Toyranch, Lord Sukrat, HollywoodGorillamen and hauk sven on Flickr.
Why is finishing a book the hardest part? Sure, endings are hard — you have to tie up all the threads in a more-or-less satisfying fashion, and it's the time when you have to show all your cards, and reveal all your clever secrets. But also, it's just like the closing number at your big concert, the final brace of power chords, the time when you'll either make your readers hoist a cigarette lighter en masse or walk away in disgust.
So here are some ways that you can make sure you will finish that fershlugginer novel:
1. Write the ending first.
This strategy has never worked for me, but it works for some people. Even just writing the final line in advance might give you a sense that you're heading in a worthwhile direction. Warning: There is a high likelihood that you'll wind up with a completely different ending than anything you create up front, because a lot of stuff changes during the writing process, and you'll want an ending that makes sense for the novel you actually wrote.
2. Write a terrible ending.
And no, I'm not talking about writing a "vomit draft" or accepting that your first draft of your novel is going to be bad and you'll fix it in rewrites. You've probably already taken that advice on board, and you're probably already racing to create the best bad draft you possibly can in a month. But go one step further and create a really ludicrously bad ending for your novel, either in advance or when you're reaching the end. A terrible, melodramatic ending, in which people are throwing plates and shouting "I can't believe I almost married you even though we're telepathic cousins!" This accomplishes two things: First, you've already written an ending, albeit a terrible one. Second, you may find it liberating to imagine the worst way that your book could end, and you may even get some ideas from it. Make it as bad as you can possibly imagine.
3. Re-write the beginning of your novel as an ending.
This is another "have the ending written already" strategy — a lot of the best endings bring things around full circle, in at least a metaphorical fashion. The novel expands outwards from a narrow beginning, telescoping bigger and bigger until it gets huge — and then the pieces start coming back together towards the end. And you know, you already have a beginning — so take that beginning and list everything that happens. Then rewrite those same events backwards, except as resolution instead of an inciting incident. Okay, so this will probably result in something even worse than idea #2. But you never know, it might help you think about the ending in a new way, and let you feel as though you already wrote an ending.
4. Promise yourself a treat if you get to the end.
No, not a candy bar. Fuck candy. I'm talking about the kind of treat that actually gives you a lasting rush: writing a fucken great moment. Say there's a scene you've had in the back of your mind for a long time, where two characters finally talk to each other and say something you've been wanting them to say for hundreds of pages. Or someone finally finds out an important secret. Or something absolutely perfect and character-defining happens to one major character. You know what I mean — that scene you're dying to write. See if you can figure out how to put it off until the denouement, at least in your first draft. Make it the final scene of the book, at least for now. Then you don't get to write that scene unless you finish the goddamn thing.
5. Don't let yourself come up with an ending.
That's right — you're not allowed to finish this novel. If you even look like you might finish it, throw some more obstacles in your own path. If you have a neat trajectory figured out for how your characters get from T to U to V, all the way to Z — throw in some huge curves and unexpected twists. Kill off the one characer who absolutely must be alive for your ending to work. Make it almost impossible to get yourself to the end of this thing. Bascially, give yourself a bigger challenge than just trudging in a straight line to the pre-planned ending, and then watch yourself rise to it. And you'll probably wind up with something a lot more interesting. Plus, if you know you're absolutely not allowed to finish the book, you'll find yourself doing it just to be rebellious.
6. Take a long walk and act out bits of your novel in your head.
Warning: This may result in you muttering to yourself on the street like a crazy person. (That's what happens to me, anyway.) Buy one of those bluetooth thingies, like the future cop in Continuum. Sometimes you just need to get the frak out of the house and breathe some fresh air, and hash out where your story is going. And try to hear the conversations between your characters — both the conversations you've already written, and the ones you haven't gotten to yet. Sometimes, on a good day, you can "eavesdrop" on a whole discussion between your main characters, in which they discuss things that either haven't happened yet, or reveal stuff that you didn't consciously know. I know, it's nutty. But it works, more or less.
7. Try writing your whole novel down as a short story.
See more about this here. This technique can help with revision, but it can also definitely help if you get stuck, or if you are just getting bogged down a bit and having a hard time seeing how you get from here to an ending.
8. Write down the whole story from the POV of your villain.
Or someone else who's not one of your viewpoint characters — chances are, the antagonists in your book have a very different view of what's been going on than your heroes. They probably don't even think the same events are important. Things are happening that your viewpoint characters are totally unaware of, but which will nevertheless affect them — either directly or indirectly, via the actions of the people they do affect. If you're having a hard time getting to the next bit of your actual outline, try imagining what some other character thinks is going on. (This doesn't have to be the antagonist, it can be anybody.)
I saw this idea on someone else's writing blog a few weeks ago, and now I can't remember where — so I apologize to whoever I'm stealing this idea from. But yeah, placeholders are great. Write yourself an I.O.U.: "This here will be a fantastic scene where my main characters figure out that they've been using the heart probe all this time, when they meant to be using the mind probe, and that's why their readings have been so screwy." If you know what has to happen in a particular chapter or scene and you just can't quite get into it right now, just skip over it for now. Especially if you're doing NaNoWriMo, where your final draft only needs to be around 50,000 words. And quite possibly, you will later realize that that scene was either: a) unnecessary, or b) actually a mistake in the first place.
10. Turn the screws. Harder. Harder, damn you!
You know what makes things go faster, with the writing? If you feel like the story is picking up steam. You know what makes the story pick up steam? Everything going wrong. (For your characters, not for you.) The more mistakes your characters make, the more things go horribly wrong, the faster they'll have to keep moving to stay ahead of the shit landslide. (Or crapalanche, if you prefer.) And if you're bogged down, chances are you're making things too pleasant for these misbegotten people.
11. Stop and think about why you wanted to write this freaking book in the first place.
What was the idea that caught your fancy? What did you think you were writing a book about? What real stuff in your life were you trying to capture through the lens of fiction? What real-life outrages pissed you off so much that you had to write a novel to expose them? Reconnect with that stuff, because it's your fuel and it's also probably what makes your novel different from a million other novels about mind-probe mercenaries or whatnot. Even if you write a novel in a single month, you're spending hours and hours on it, and it's easy to lose sight of what originally spurred you to start writing the thing. Keep coming back to your source, whatever it was.
I retcon like crazy. It's my biggest vice. By that, I mean, I'm on chapter 12 of my novel, and I randomly decide, "Oh, that character died back in chapter five." Even though I didn't write that in chapter five. I don't actually go back and fix chapter five to insert the death of that unlucky character, who's been a walking ghost for the past seven chapters. I just make a note to do that as part of the revision process. Don't get stuck on trying to fix problems you've built up, when you can just pretend you wrote something different originally. Sure, this will make the revision process harder, but so will just about any strategy to get a complete first draft. And it's almost impossible to understate the value and power of having a complete first draft, including an ending that works. Without that, revision is pointless.
And most of all, don't forget to have fun with this! The first draft is just you playing a wacky game with yourself. It's the fifth or tenth draft that actually has to be all grown-up and dressed to go over to strangers' houses.
Further reading: The 10 Types of Writers' Block (and How to Overcome Them)