How can I finish a novel

How to finish writing a text



If I could use the time machine to send myself one piece of advice back to my early years, it would be this: Don't break off manuscripts in the middle to start another. No matter how bad it seems to you right now -finish writing it!



In the last few years I've always been busy. I have two children who started building a house two years ago. We have been living there since August, but everything is far from finished. That means I didn't have that much time to devote myself to writing on the side.

Please, please don't think that writing has anything to do with that timehas to do that is available to you. There are many things that prevent you from writing, but it is No waymissing time.

John Grisham was a lawyer before he became the best-selling author he is today. American lawyers are known to work more or less around the clock, it's not just a myth. Grisham once mentioned that he found that if he got to the office half an hour earlier - at 5 a.m. instead of 5:30 a.m. - he could pick up bits of time here and there during the day. His goal was to write at least one page a day. That way, it took him three years to finish his first novel, A Time To Kill.

But you see the arithmetic. Write only 1 page a day and you will have 365 pages by the end of the year. Leave half of it so bad you have to throw it away and you will have a fat novel in 2 years. You are now 35 - if you carry on like this until you retire, you will be able to write 15 (in words: fifteen !!) novels by then. And with that you would not be a Konsalik or a hollow leg, but still an above-average (!!) productive author!

And anyone can spare the time to write 1 page per day (we're talking 30 lines of text !!). Stop reading the newspaper (the most useless reading there is). Watch TV less. Get up half an hour earlier. Make a stop at the city library on the way home. Write on the subway. Something always works.

It's not a matter of time, that's what I'm saying. Writing is always just a question of motivation. Hence the question of what you would do if you had 6 months to live. That clarifies the motivation wonderfully. I saw a film about a woman suffering from cancer who, before she died, fulfilled her wish to cross the Atlantic in a single-handed sailor. I wouldn't think of that, but people are different.

The important thing is to recognize what really matters in life and to do it. Because at some point the day comes for everyone from which they only have six months to live - but not everyone finds out about it!

Unfortunately, I switch too quickly between the individual ongoing projects because the ideas come too quickly. My 'Stories' folder is filled with unfinished beginnings.

I used to feel the same way. And you really only move forward with the things that you finish, no matter how they turn out. I also had to first learn to greet and welcome the ideas that were coming up - you have to - but then to make them understand clearly that they have to be patient because someone else is on their side and should sit in your notebook for as long (what are a few years?).
I hope for a tip from you on how to "get a grip" on my creative squid arms.

In psychological terms, hopping from one thing to another is an avoidance strategy. You notice subliminally that what you achieve is not going to be as good as you would like it to be, and when a new, different idea comes along, fresh and promising and not yet tainted with the blemish of insufficient implementation, then you are all too easily ready to abandon the unsuccessful and try the new idea. Maybe they'll do it.

But of course it doesn't do it, rather it fails again. It is precisely the art of the writer that he is able to implement an idea appropriately. And you have to learn that. And you don't learn by starting over and over again. The only way to learn is by completing something and then seriously looking at it in an effort to see what could have been done better. I want to construct an example. Let us assume that someone is relatively untrained but has made it into their head to hike. It occurs to him to hike to A-Dorf. He goes happily on his way, but soon gets tired. Now it is not clear to him that he is simply inexperienced, rather he gets the idea of ​​saying to himself: "Ah, that with A-Dorf was not a good idea, I should perhaps go to B-Stadt." He goes back by bus and sets off for B-Stadt the next day - but of course he will be exhausted again just as quickly because he never gives himself the chance to go a little over his limits, so that a training effect would arise!

There is no way around facing all the horrible demons - the "I-think-I-can't-write-at-all" demon, the "I-write-a-shit-together" demon, and Then there are the demons of history itself: can you write a story about a tragic love without exposing yourself to the painful memory of your own tragic loved ones? No. You always have to go through it again.

And what do you do with all the good, fresh, tempting ideas that are floating around you while you're working on the current project? Well, you catch them and first put them in the big, colorful ideas notebook. In which later, when the current manuscript is finished, you leaf through again until you get an idea from it that you can use to make the next book. Because: Ideas have to mature first. Setting aside. Ferment. Prepare substance. If an idea comes to mind at 8 a.m., you can't sit down at 9 a.m. and make a great text out of it. You have to get pregnant with the idea for a while. My novel ideas are all at least 5 years old before I really start making a novel out of them. Even for short stories I need a couple of weeks to mature. In this period of maturity, many ideas turn out to be nonsense, please note. Time brings it to light. And it would be nonsense to have bothered with it too much, wouldn't it?

I enjoy writing and dealing with texts, thinking up stories and so on, I have already dared a few story experiments, rolled ideas, but then mostly left it with an outline, only a few are "correct" More bad than right text matured - but that's not the point, I still have to overcome myself and just write more.

I have to tell you something about this that may upset you: that doesn't sound so incredibly convincing. That doesn't sound like WORK yet. The life of a writer, however, consists for the most part of rather strenuous work that is done in solitary seclusion. It is, however, as I am happy to admit, an extremely satisfying job. Not always better than sex - but sometimes.

If I were in your situation, I would recommend the following:
  • What you need is a novel 300-400 pages long (that's 500,000 to 600,000 characters) with the word "END" under it. A complete work to be presented to someone. Without something like that, all ideas and talents are of no use. So: write it.
  • It is completely unnecessary and rather a hindrance to suspend a year for this. Take up a degree or other training that suits your other inclinations, lead a normal life, and write on the side. Keep a record of your writing (nowadays no problem with the word counting functions of word processors) and aim for an average of 1,800 characters per day. If you stop reading the newspaper and watch TV less, there will be enough time for this.
  • When you've written the novel, let it sit for a while; start a new one and pick up the first one again after three months. Make a judgment about how good he is and whether you would like to send him out into the world. If so, have friends etc. read it. If you (!) Still have the feeling that it is good enough, send it to publishers, agents, etc. - but write the next one during that time, it will help you cope with the inevitable rejection letters.
  • Do not be discouraged. Publishers are looking for good authors. Make an effort to become one. Even if everyone tells you the opposite, the chances of getting published have rarely been better than they are today.


You advised me to produce a 400-page work that I can present to someone. But I don't feel able to make it through. I've tried several times to write a novel; I wrote a step diagram until it satisfied my requirements, worked out the figures, and when I then started to write, after two or three days I lost the desire and the motivation. It wasn't even bad what I had written, but I figured it would be better to have a published short story, or two or three or four, for self-affirmation. Then I can say: "Yes, I did it - now I can do a novel too." Also because my environment then (hopefully) accepts what I'm doing. Can you understand that?

Yes, I can understand. Indeed, that is correct: the most important thing you need to finish a novel is the confidence that you will make it, that it is only a matter of time. Whatever helps, bring it on!

Another trick you can try is this: just go dig into the bad books. Try to find a novel that you can honestly say, "I can write something better than THAT". Put this novel in a prominent place next to the computer, look at it every day and tell yourself: this work has been published. So one day what I'm writing is going to be published all the more.

(The question, "Am I a good writer?" Is difficult to answer, actually not at all. But the question, "Is this a good book?" is a good writer - the only thing that matters is whether you write good books. Okay?)

But still try to do it the other way around. You plan a lot to get ready to write. Instead, try to write until you're ready to plan. - What I mean by that is: if you just start writing without really thinking about where you want to go, you will eventually come to a standstill. You realize that you don't know how to proceed, or that you've got yourself tangled up in contradictions, etc. Then there's still time to sit down and disregard all of this: after all, you're already on your way. It's like hiking: instead of planning and planning in advance until the good weather is over and never starting to walk, rather go out and study the map on the way.

Sure, that might not be very economical. But if you stick with it, you won't do it like that in 10 years. But at the moment the main thing is that you put the words -ENDE- under a work of several hundred pages. If that's the first time you've done this, believe me, everything will be different from then on.

About two months ago I finished my first book, which I had been writing for two years. To my own surprise, this long-awaited moment did not trigger the complete feeling of happiness in me as I had actually expected - I felt more of an inner emptiness and a feeling of sadness. I'm so scared that I won't think of anything, that I am frozen and - of course - I can't think of a single creative thought. Do you know this feeling?

This is a generally little known but very common experience. Many female authors compare it to postpartum depression, the emotional changes after the end of a pregnancy, and I suspect that this comparison hits it pretty well.

Nathalie Goldberg dedicates a separate chapter to this phenomenon in her book "Writing Down The Bones" and says among other things - which I can confirm from my own experience - that as an author, when work on a book is nearing its end, you often do this Delaying the end is looking for it out of fear of the "hole". I know this feeling too. And while it is unsettling, its demeanor is nothing to worry about - it just shows that you were emotionally involved in the work on the book you finished and now need to break away from it. And that takes time. Just like grief takes time. You break away from a kind of spiritual child who is now moving out into the world and over whose fate you will no longer have any control. It's like the end of a relationship - the finished novel is no longer the same as the nascent one, it is now a finished work. You need time to get over it. Whatever you have done in the past to get over loss, do it now.

You mentioned the maximum length for novice novels. Is there also a minimum length? When is it too short? I can't get anywhere near your size, I only reach half of it.

So, Marcus Hammerschmitt also writes a lot of things that are less than 200 pages long and is published. Or take notebook novels: you have to fit everything into 100 pages. So it depends a lot on what you want to do.

300 pages for a novel, that is a length that has become common like the hour and a half for a feature film. In the cinema you can also do longer, on television with its rigid grids it would be more difficult to accommodate. There are also shorter films, but nobody goes to the cinema for a 50-minute film.

Basically, the story you want to tell has to be well told - not too extravagant, not too concise, just right. What is "just right" - you have to develop a feeling for it, that is part of writing. (In general, this is a feeling you get by READING.) There are stories that can stretch to 1,000 pages without getting boring - for others, even 150 pages are too many.

What you have to do is take other books for comparison. "My novel will be something like ..." - the comparison can be very far-fetched, it's all about the scope.

I sometimes think it's better to be too thin than too fat when in doubt. Sure, it is easier to cross out than to paste in, but nowadays a lot of people feel put off by long books.

How long does it take you from the idea to the finished draft to write a short story?

That is VERY variable. Sometimes I only need a day, sometimes a few years (I also don't follow short story projects with the same intensity as novel projects). I thought about "One Trillion Euro" for about a year and a half, and then wrote it down in October and November 2003, with a total writing time of about 20 hours.

I'm 15 and kind of a colleague. * smile * I've been writing for about four or five years. I finished two novels, but not a single book since then. I've already started hundreds of manuscripts, got halfway through and then worked on something else or just deleted the draft. Although I know that writing is in my blood and that I would do nothing better than text day in and day out, I have no stamina. I don't know how to manage to finally finish something. It's like looking for the perfect manuscript idea and moving further away from it with each attempt. Do you have any advice for me? How do you manage to finish a book without giving up in the middle?

I know exactly how you feel, because when I was your age it was very much the same for me. At first, I wrote my stories down as they came to mind. But at some point I got the ambition to write something REALLY GOOD, something that should be SO GOOD that a publisher would PUBLISH it.

And bang! Suddenly I couldn't finish a novel. First I gave up on page 67 to start a new one; I only brought it to page 32, and the next time I capitulated on page 6. It was desperate!

It happened to me that for many years I wrote nothing or not much. But that is not a solution; in fact, I've just wasted time that way. So what to do Basically you already give yourself the answer:

It's like looking for the perfect manuscript idea and moving further away from it with each attempt.

Exactly. That's it. The "perfect manuscript". That's the hook in the brain. The big secret is that there is no such thing. No manuscript is ever perfect. You'd be amazed how my manuscripts come back from the editor! I could print out the pages over the sink, red ink would probably drip out. Of course, every time I send off a manuscript, I think "but this time it is practically perfect" - and every time I am wrong. The worst thing is: I notice it myself when I read the editor's comments - most of the time he is right! So I'll revise it all over again, and then maybe again. And when the book is in front of me in print, I would like to rewrite a lot of sentences ... But then that doesn't work anymore.

And I know from other authors that they are no different.

You don't have to produce a perfect manuscript - it's enough if it's as good as you can get it. If you take things lightly and just hack something into it, that's obviously not okay, but it's not fun that way anyway. No, you have to give everything, fine-tune and think, and let the sentences melt on your tongue until you are satisfied with every page. If you do that, every book will be a little bit better than the books before, and one day one will be good enough to find a publisher and reader.

BUT - you HAVE to finish writing the books! Unfinished novels don't count. Novels that you start but don't finish are a waste of time. Novels that you complete, but that are badly guessed, are successful training units and get you further.

Which brings us to the problem: HOW TO DO THIS - finish the book?

Well, you've already managed to finish a book twice, as I read. So you CAN. Right now you're just putting yourself under unnecessary pressure to do it PERFECT right away - something no one has ever done before. So you have the choice: Either continue to try something impossible - which will not get you any further - or come to terms with being as good as you are right now - and thereby gradually becoming BETTER in the long term. (Tip: I would choose the second option.)

How do I manage to finish a book? Today I can hardly believe it, but that was actually a huge problem for me. When I went back to a novel after a ten-year hiatus, my only major fear was: will I make it to the end?
I used a trick. If you should ever get your hands on my first published novel, "The Hair Carpet Makers", you can have a look at the trick: It consists of lots of individual short stories that can all be read as a novel. I said to myself, "I just write a short story, I can, I know that. And then I'll write another. And another. That way, the question of the end doesn't even arise. I just write a series of short stories that are all related to each other. "

That worked. And then I noticed that the trick wasn't even necessary. I could just as easily have viewed each chapter of a normal novel as a story in itself - yes, that's basically what I do today: I never have the whole novel in my head, I always concentrate on the chapter that I am right now.

In practice it looks like that, on the one hand, I have a list of the chapters, with key words of what should happen in them. And next to that I have a calendar in which every chapter has its place. Let's say I'm planning a thirty chapter novel and I want the first draft to be ready in four months. That's 120 days, so I have 4 days for each chapter. In some week, for example, I'll have Chapter 17 before me and I want it to be ready by Friday. Then I'll just focus on: Chapter 17 through Friday. Everything else is secondary. And when it's done, the next one comes. Chapter 18 through Tuesday - but I'm not thinking about that now. It says in the calendar: So I don't have to think about it. (Sometimes the entries shift, of course; when writing a chapter is faster or slower. In the end, the calendar looks terribly scribbled because of this.)

And, you notice: I say "first draft". Not a "perfect manuscript". The first goal is to have simply written everything. The side of me that criticizes around can take a long vacation and recharge, because then, when everything is there printed out, then it has to go and take a close look at every single sentence. But, as I said, later. Now there is only chapter 17, first version. That's how I do it. And I bet you can do it too!

I am in a desperate situation: there are moments when I suddenly think of something new, for example a basic topic for a longer story. So, now it's time to plan. But no sooner have I sketched anything than I notice that the story is going round in circles and has nothing to say to me or the reader. In short: it's just plain boring. Then I discard the topic again and it doesn't take long (if it hasn't even happened) and I have a new idea that I am planning. Too uninteresting again, so get rid of it ... It's been going on for a long time now, I've never even gotten to writing. I think it fails mainly because of my very predictable storylines, which lack the subplots. Maybe I'm not creative enough either.

No, you think something is wrong. It fails because you DO NOT WRITE. Planning is sometimes a delaying tactic in order not to have to act, and most definitely the way you describe it. If you stand in front of a swimming pool and insist on planning every single move you will make afterwards, you will never get to the other side. What you have to do is jump in. Somehow swimming through it and then looking back at what you did well and what you did not do well. And then swim through it again and again and again ... In short: Before you can write a good novel, you first have to write some not so well (let's just say: bad). And: Only FINISHED counts. A bad novel with the END under it will get you ahead. A novel that you're just planning, not.

Maybe you don't really enjoy writing either? I have already met many people who seemed to have been persuaded by someone that one had to supplement the traditional three-way battle ("building a house, planting trees, fathering a child") with the fourth discipline, "writing a book", to what I know, one day Finding a shot in heaven or something. Of course it's all nonsense; none of that really HAS to be. And certainly not "write a book". I have the feeling that first of all you should be clear about what you actually want to write for.

I enjoy writing in any form, but a very big problem is my self-doubts. In particular, there are doubts about the originality of my ideas ... I always proceed in a structured manner, work out an idea, and am also convinced of the concept. Then, on about page 40, I think: "Why are you writing that .... exactly ABOUT that XY has already written ..... an absolutely sucked-out topic .... horrible ......."

I know it well; I felt like that from around the age of 17 to 29.
I would have needed someone to tell me the following: "It is true that you get better and better with writing - BUT ONLY FINISHED TEXT COUNT! A good beginning is a waste of time. A good beginning and a good middle section is a great waste of time. A bad, but finished novel, on the other hand, is a step forward. The next CAN only get better; that cannot be prevented at all. "

And: "The first version is always shit. But nobody publishes the first version. What counts is the result of the revision."

Well, I have now told you all of this because you obviously needed it too. ;-)

So, finish writing things. How doesn't matter. Even if you feel like you've done the biggest crap in literary history, finish it off. Force yourself to do it. Bet with someone on an amount that really hurts. Commit to 1 year of voluntary washing up if you abandon the novel. Do you sweat while you write, bleed because of me - but write this thing to the end. The first time can be awful, admittedly, but you have to go through it. At some point you just laugh about it.

I'm 16 and I've already started to write so many books, I always have such good ideas and visions. Then I get to page 10 or something and can't find the time.

It may seem like that to you, but it is an illusion. A delusion to be precise. In fact, we all have exactly the same amount of time, each to the second: 24 hours a day. We just use them differently. And when someone says, "I have no time" - then they mean in REALITY: "Something else is more important to me."

So don't think about time - you never have as much time in your life as when you were a student, by the way - but think about what is IMPORTANT to you. If you really want something, you will find the time for it.

A few years ago I had a great idea. Or rather, it wasn't an idea at all, I wrote as if in a trance, the first 20 pages just flowed out of my fingers. It was like someone whispering in my ear and dictating the story to me. I don't remember thinking about what I'm actually writing. You will know what comes next: right! Now it's 2003 and I'm still stuck. In the meantime the story has grown from 20 to 30 pages, but it no longer "flows" properly and it would be a real effort to continue to write on it. The only problem is: the story is already finished in my head. The whole plot, the different scenes, dialogues ... everything is already there. I just can't manage to write it down. Because that would be work and no longer fun. What would you advise me to do in this situation?

What makes you think that writing a novel is not work, just a pleasure? It is not, and if you wait for it to happen then you will never write your novel. At best, you can get so far that the boundaries between work and pleasure in writing disappear, but until then it is a rocky road and a lot of work.

After all, you have had the experience that some passages seem to flow into the keys by themselves. Some don't even have that. For you it was the beginning; this is fatal because it leads you to believe that it must always be that way. But that was just the honeymoon, now comes everyday life, and it doesn't just have highs, but also lows.

And what would I advise you to do? You can be sure of that: finish writing it! If you have to make an effort, make an effort. If you have to force yourself to do it, force yourself. And if you have to torment yourself to do so, torment yourself. If necessary, make deals with family members ("if I don't write at least 5 pages a week, I will do the washing up the next week" or something), set yourself a feasible schedule (maximum 1 page a day), but write the damn thing until you can write "end" on it.

Besides, I don't think it's going to be such a drag when you've got it all in your head.


© Andreas Eschbach

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