My point of view, Tips, Writer's life, Writing

Level Thinking – Getting Finished with Getting Started

Writing a first novel is like being pregnant, or getting a university degree, or becoming a good enough athlete to qualify for the Olympics. It’s long, hard work.  A first novel should take about three years to write, and (maybe) another two to be published. That’s if we’re on the fast track. Ah-ha, we say, we are going to churn out a draft in six months, and publish on the Internet.

If I can give you one word of advice, that word is don’t.

I’m not saying don’t publish on the Internet, I’m saying don’t do it in six months, after writing only one draft. Whether we have degrees in writing, or have read a zillion books, or our high school teacher told us we’re the best writing student she ever had, we are all going to be shocked and dismayed by what we not only don’t know, but don’t know we don’t know as we write our first novel. If you don’t believe me, ask any successful writer for one or two of his/her “If only I’d known . . . stories.”

This is not because they or we are bad writers. It’s because when we write our first novel we’re beginning writers. Even if we’ve had careers in journalism, or turned our flawless technical manuals for work, or written scads of poetry, a novel is a different kind of critter.

A few weeks before I graduated from nursing school, the Dean of the school came to speak to the senior class. She said, “You are not good nurses. What you’ve learned in the past few years is enough to pass your state boards and be safe nurses. In about three years, if you keep your eyes and ears open; if you ask other good nurses for advice; if you keep learning; you will be good nurses. In five years, you’ll be great nurses. Turned out she was right.

New writers run into a chicken and egg problem. We need to finish our first draft. We need to have other writers read and critique our work. Which comes first, finishing the draft or getting critiques? Waiting to join a critique group is like a pregnant woman delaying getting pre-natal care. Some women do okay without it, but a lot of women don’t. Even those who do okay would likely have done better than okay with a little help from others. Get into a critique group as soon as you can. If there isn’t one where you live, or maybe even if there is, find an on-line group.

If you’ve been at your novel longer than three years, I’ll bet you’ve encountered one or more of these ten situations. I’ve listed them in alphabetical order because there’s no way to rate which is the most destructive. They are all writing stoppers.

  • A family or personal crisis happened.
  • Feeling overwhelmed with having to deal with others’ needs and having no energy left for writing.
  • Knowing there are problems with the story, but not how to fix them.
  • Knowing there are problems with the writing, but not how to fix them.
  • Losing interest in the process of writing.
  • Losing interest in the story.
  • Losing track of the story.
  • Realizing more research is needed.
  • Talking the story to death.
  • Wondering if we’re real writers.

Critique groups, classes, and other writers can help us make it through a lot of things on that list, but what about those real life issues, whether it’s a crisis, or just fighting for enough time and energy to keep going?

These barriers divide into two groups: problems we can’t fix and problems we don’t fix. Where that can’t/don’t line happens is different for each of us. We need to get help — whether it’s professional, medical, or legal help — for the crises we can’t fix. We owe it to ourselves not to try to go it alone. Our writing is important, but even more important is ourselves and our own health and safety.

For the “don’t fix” situations, the first step through them is, almost always, ditch the guilt. We don’t have to earn the right to be writers. We don’t have to meet all of our childrens’ needs, and our significant others, and our parents and other relatives, and our boss, before we can be writers. When we find ourselves in a fixable situation, but one that isn’t being resolved for whatever reasons, the most important thing is to keep writing.

Even if it only for fifteen minutes a day.

Writers who temporarily abandon their novels until the kids are older, our parents’ don’t require so much of our time, our jobs settle down, we sell our house, we decorated the new house, etc. have one thing in common. They rarely get back to that novel.

Get out there. Start that novel. Finish that first draft. The world needs more great novels. The world needs more great writers. The world need us.


Nothing you write, if you hope to be any good, will ever come out as you first hoped.

~Lillian Hellman (1905-1984), American playwright and the inspiration for Nora Charles in the Thin Man stories