Dear Story Nurse,
I’m currently living at my parents’ house and working part-time. I’ve been trying to work on my fantasy novel more since I have more free time, but I keep hitting a wall. The first time I tried to write it, it was a disaster. I had no plan, nothing about it was pleasurable. I started again, it went better this time, but eventually it stopped working. Instead of pressing on, I started over again. I started at the point I was most excited about, instead of trying to do back story or following a formula.
I wonder if this stop and restart habit came from my Creative Writing degree. I revised many short stories, so starting over might have become habit.
Now, you’ve probably guessed what I’m going to ask next. How do I stop myself from stopping and starting over again? My novel is never going to get finished if I keep doing this! I want to have this first draft finished by the end of the year.
Thank you for your help,
Third Time’s Hopefully the Charm (she/her)
Dear Third Time,
Novels are definitely a different animal from short stories, and it’s hard to make the jump. It sounds like you’re accustomed to writing short fiction off the top of your head and then revising as needed, but that approach isn’t working for your longer project. And when you’re doing something different from what you’ve done before, nothing gets in your way more than a creative writing degree and a lot of practice doing other kinds of writing, both of which fill your head with all sorts of ideas about what writing should be like—how you should experience the act of writing, what sort of work you should be producing, how long it should take you, and so on.
Here are a few approaches that might be more fruitful for you:
1. Be a freshman again. You may have spent several years workshopping short fiction, but when it comes to novels, you’re brand new. Let yourself be new. Start a dozen projects and don’t worry about finishing any of them. (It might be best to save any project that’s dear to your heart to work on when you’ve got more of a handle on this novel-writing thing. That can be a lot of emotional pressure) Experiment with different kinds of outlines, with writing the beginning and the end and then filling in the plot gap, with ways to inspire yourself. Learn what writing feels like in your body now that you’re doing a slow build instead of a quick fix. Read some novels to remind yourself of how that pacing goes. Play around.
You’re not literally starting all over again—everything you learned about prose and relatable characters and so on is still in your head, and you’ll be very glad to have it—but you’re developing a distinct skill set. It’s like you just spent years building up your legs as a sprinter, and now you need to do the same for your arms before you can become a distance swimmer; no matter how much you know about how your metabolism works and what types of exercises your muscles respond to, you still have to put in the practice time and effort to build those muscles up. Give yourself time and space to learn, and be patient with yourself while you go through this clumsy stage. I promise it won’t last forever.
If you just wailed, “I have a degree! What do you mean, I have to do more learning?”—well, I’m afraid that’s what you signed up for. Making art is an endless process of learning how to make better art. On the bright side, your time at university has ideally taught you a lot about how you learn best. Do you do your best work with mentors or peers or by yourself? take lots of risks or approach tasks methodically? learn well from reading textbooks or from practicing? feel most alert and creative in the morning, afternoon, or evening? Apply all of that to novel-writing too.
2. Ease your transition. Instead of leaping directly from short fiction to long fiction, write a series of short stories that are all related in some way: the episodic adventures of some perennial (anti-)hero, multiple people’s experiences stemming from a single shared event, that sort of thing. Some of them may later become chapters, but don’t worry about that now. As above, keep this separate from your fantasy novel; it’s practice, a way to play around in that space and get comfortable with the idea of fitting multiple narratives together to make a larger whole.
3. Learn from the wall. When you get that “this isn’t working” feeling of unease, check in with it instead of fleeing from it. It’s telling you something important about a flaw in your book or your writing process. Maybe your main character isn’t interesting enough to sustain a long story. Maybe your plot lacks dramatic tension. Maybe the next part of the story requires you to dig deeper into your psyche than you’ve done so far, and you’re feeling hesitant and anxious. Maybe you’re really tired and frustrated about other things and you just can’t get into the writing zone today. There’s a message there and it almost certainly isn’t “Start your book over again.”
As I’ve written in the past (and I definitely recommend reading that post, which gets into more detail about figuring out what’s broken and how to fix it), when you get the feeling that something doesn’t work, it’s useful to ask “How doesn’t this work?” That will help you figure out where the feeling is coming from and what approach to take next, whether it’s trimming the last scene and going in a different direction or gritting your teeth to write the hard parts. Just don’t get too sucked into doing revision-type things while you’re still finishing your draft. Once you know what the problem is, patch it together with duct tape and keep moving forward.
4. Create a positive psychological scaffold for your writing process. When you feel uncertain or hesitant, you need to have some kind of structure in place to lean on for a bit and then use to propel yourself forward again. You mentioned wanting to finish your book by the end of the year; if setting that deadline invigorates you, go for it. You could also promise yourself or someone else that you will finish your novel by hook or by crook, or make a mutual beta arrangement with a friend or writing group, or set daily or weekly wordcount goals. The key is to do a thing that feels good to you. Set up goals that you can reach and be satisfied about reaching—not too challenging, not too easy. Set up structures that support and encourage you. If you know that when you make promises to yourself you inevitably break them and then feel bad, don’t make promises to yourself about writing; that creates pernicious negative associations. You want writing to be a thing that you generally feel pretty good about, even when it’s sometimes hard. Help those positive associations happen by creating fruitful conditions for them to happen.
I’m confident that you’ll get that novel finished, one way or another. Just keep looking for ways to make it fun, and go easy on yourself. Happy writing!