About a month ago, one of my college writer friends and I were FaceTiming each other, and in between trying to catch up while handing out sippy cups and building Lego with our toddlers, he shared with me a bit of advice he gleaned from a podcast: you need to know when to be finished with your novel. I’ve been ruminating on it for the last month and really wanted to share my thoughts with you.
As writers, sometimes we have a terrible habit of tinkering with our story before we are even done with it. We love words, and sometimes that love can devolve into loving the right words. We can easily get stuck in this cycle of perfecting our unfinished manuscript instead of letting ourselves finish it.
I’ll be real with you for a second. Currently, I have written over 85,000 words total on ten different novel projects (I calculated it one day when I was bored). The one I am farthest on has almost half of those words sitting at 37K words total. The second project I am working on holds another 20K of those words. Another has only 8K. Those seven other novels only have about 1-4K words on them. This word count of 85K doesn’t even include all the short stories, creative nonfiction, and picture books I’ve written.
So, why is it that I have so many novels and none of them are finished? I realized why as I was talking with my friend: I tinker too much and won’t let myself be finished.
In my editing work, I get a lot of clients who struggle with this same challenge. They get stuck editing their work as they write. Even as I type this, I am backspacing here and there trying to find better words for this article. Trying to communicate everything on the first draft. But that’s not how writing works, and it certainly isn’t how good writing works. So, how do you finish that piece you’ve been working on? How do you push back against the inner editor that is constantly dragging your finger toward the backspace button? How do you decide to be finished with your novel?
Here are just a few things I’ve learned about knowing when to be finished with your novel:
Kick out the “inner editor”
You know that little voice inside your head that says, “If you can just write this scene perfectly or plot better, you will have no trouble finishing your book!” Or that your problem lies not in the fact that the first draft isn’t finished but that you just haven’t figured out the right way to tell the story. Yeah, that’s your inner editor talking.
There’s a common saying that if you are going to finish your book, you need to “kill your inner editor.” Okay, I’ve never been fond of that strong analogy. One of my college English professors had a better way of putting it. You need to lock your inner editor out of your writing space until it’s time to bring them back. Editing is not something that will help you finish your book. Editing is the thing that will make the finished draft polished.
So, how do you lock your inner editor out of your writing space? Try this little visualization exercise with me. Imagine your inner editor standing over you and interrupting you every time you write a sentence on your manuscript. It’s annoying, right?
Now imagine yourself standing up and gently escorting them from the room and out the front door of your mind. They may try to protest, but just hold up your hand and say, “Not now. You can come back when I’m done.”
Now, shut that door and lock it for good measure.
Congratulations! You just shut out your inner editor. But, the real trick is not letting them back in.
When you write, even if it makes no sense, resist the urge to stop and fix it or brainstorm a better way for a scene to unfold. Remind yourself that your goal is to finish, not to finish perfectly. Imagine if you just kept writing on your story instead of stopping and starting over each time you felt like you were veering off course. You’d probably already be finished with your novel, and even better, you’d probably already have edited all those parts into something better!
Yesterday, I was working on a scene for my middle grade novel when I realized I didn’t like how everything was playing out. I remembered how I wanted the scene to go, but instead of deleting it, I ran with what I had already written (after all, any scene is better than no scene), and you know what happened? I still don’t like the scene, but writing it that way gave me ideas of how to edit it later. I made some notes in the comments on Microsoft Word and kept writing sans inner editor.
Consistency over quality
At the end of the year when the nights are long and dark and there are many hours for drinking a warm drink and reflecting on things, there is one thing I want to ask you—what holds you back from a “writing routine”?
You know that thing where you light your candle, channel vibes for your novel, and then write every day at the same time?
For me, that idea sounds amazing, but it just isn’t possible for me with two little children, and the more I trick myself into thinking that to be a good writer I need to have a magical routine I never change or abandon, the less I write.
How in the world are you supposed to finish anything when there’s so much chaos and inconsistency around you? The short answer: create consistency that works for you and ditch the fancy writing routines or anything that you feel is holding you back.
For me, consistency looks like taking advantage of nap times to write. Typing a few lines on my laptop even if the vibes aren’t there. Writing plot notes and scenes on my phone when I’m in the car between errands and an idea strikes.
A lot of times, those words are messy and flat. My characters aren’t as fleshed out as I’d like, and the world, well…let’s just say that world building is my weak point right now. But the point is that I am writing something at some point during my day.
Think of times you could fit in a little writing, and then prioritize that writing time, even if you don’t have a fancy routine.
A reasonable deadline
My last point is probably one that I struggle with the most: setting a reasonable deadline to finish my manuscript.
I love National Novel Writing Month. For those of you who haven’t heard of it, it takes place during the month of November. The goal: write 50K words in a month. I have done it almost every year for the last few years, and I’ve never won. I got much closer this year with 20K words, but it was thanks to the other two points above that I managed that.
However, when it’s not NaNoWriMo, I still find myself setting unrealistic goals to finish the novel I’ve been working on for almost two years. Over the last six months, I’ve only managed to add around 7K words to my novel, and when I realized that, I was shocked.
Each month, I told myself, “This month I will finish my novel.” I had been setting bad deadlines for myself with unrealistic progress expectations.
Now, I have much better goals and a more reasonable deadline. I will finish my first draft in 2022 because I will write at least 1,000 words a week.
When you set your mind on finishing your manuscript, remember to set goals that match your current writing progress, or an achievable level of progress you’d like to work on.
With the new year coming and that delicious idea of goals and accomplishments looming before you, remember your writing goals don’t need to be perfect, and neither does that first draft.
Set your goals for consistency (in whatever form) and work to finish your manuscript. Let that be your goal for yourself this year. Be finished with your novel.
Tell us in the comments: Have you ever finished a novel? What tips and tricks helped you finish?
Olivia Fisher is a writer and editor who loves to read and write middle grade fiction. When she isn’t imagining living in a treehouse or chasing down her two young boys, she enjoys curling up with a book, writing her next epic adventure, or fighting off the ghosts of the Bermuda Triangle while hauling up the untold treasures and hidden histories of the civilizations deep within its secretive waters. While only some of that is true, she does love animals, babies, and trying to live in the state of child-like wonder that we all secretly, or not so secretly, miss. Follow along with her adventures on Twitter or hire her for your next writing escapade on Fiverr.