The most common question I get asked when people find out I’m a writer is, “How do you get it finished?” I sympathize with this question, because until I found out how my brain works when putting together stories, I’d never finished anything either. I would get 3-5,000 words into a novel and then run out of steam every time, and I couldn’t figure out why, except that I must not be very creative.
Well, it turned out that the explanation was (thankfully) much more easily overcome. It wasn’t that I wasn’t creative, it was that the way most books and classes on creative writing suggest you go about cogitating a story didn’t work for me. What a relief!
I actually found this out by accident when I was beginning to plan my first NaNoWriMo effort in October of 2011. I had read Chris Baty’s book No Plot No Problem in May, and decided I’d try out National Novel Writing Month. I fully expected my novel to be terrible, but at least I could check it off my lifetime to-do list.
In the book, Baty says that you can’t start planning your NaNo book until a week before the November 1 start date. I didn’t realize the book was several years old, and now people plan a year in advance, so I waited until mid-October to really even think about it. I had decided I wanted to do a treasure hunt, but I had no idea what that would involve.
I began by reading World History for Dummies. True story. But I didn’t so much read the text as read the gray boxes and other ancillary information, and then reading the text if I wanted more information. Using this method, I came across ancient Persian ruins at Ctesiphon, in what is now in Iraq, and that is what started the whole story.
With IXEOS, the first book of my sci-fi trilogy, the story started similarly, when I read about the almost-200 miles of tunnels under Paris in a National Geographic magazine. I knew that would be in a story one day, and when my daughter and I had a strange encounter with a flock of ducks while kayaking, the two melded and became the basis for the novel.
As you can see, these two novels started with a location. Undaunted Love started with the idea of a romance in the Civil War South. The Hoard of the Doges, the sequel to Solomon’s Throne, already had established main characters, but the story itself started when I came across some interesting information on Venice in the Middle Ages.
This isn’t how most people who teach about writing suggest you go about the whole process, but once I discovered that unique and interesting locations really got my creative juices flowing, I’ve had no trouble creating full stories that flow relatively effortlessly from start to finish. I use the locations to put together a plot, and from there, I add characters. (Yes, this is backwards from most “how to write” suggestions!)
I write a lot of notes on various locations while I’m in this stage, in a notebook I use just for this “noodling” part of the process. After I’ve found the basic structure, I start working on the plot that will connect the locations. For IXEOS, it was the tunnels, which have portals that lead to other manmade tunnels around the world. Once I have a basic plot, I start working on the main characters.
I don’t really outline. I’m what you might call a “plotting pantser.” I know the basic plot points, the beginning and the end. If it’s a treasure hunt, I know where the Quinns are going and something about each location. I do big Stickie Notes on the main characters with basic information. And that’s pretty much it.
Having the whole story loosely defined lets me be flexible and to develop secondary characters and other locations that fit the story as I’m writing. That works for me, as I like to know my ultimate destination but perhaps take a few back roads while getting there. But (so far, at least), I don’t change the ultimate destination, which gives me a target to aim for and keeps me from going off on tangents (which usually end up getting edited out anyway).
The way to finish a novel is to figure out how your own brain works in putting together a story. Some people need a lot more structure before they start than I do. A few need less. Many start with a plot idea or a great character. That just doesn’t work for me. If you’ve felt stuck after the first several thousand words, analyze your plotting process and see if what you’re doing is what best suits you, or if you’re doing it that way because someone told you that was the best/only way.
When you free yourself from other people’s methods and start to develop your own, whether that’s a wall full of index cards, a thousand Stickies, a formal outline, or just a list of locations, you’ll be able to finish the story. And finishing is a necessary first step to getting your work out there into the world. Or at least what will allow you to check “write a novel” off your bucket list.