So you’ve started your novel. Congratulations! That is a huge accomplishment and many people never take that first step. Now you just have to keep going.
Ha ha ha. “Just keep going.” It sounds so easy. But try it for a day, or a week, or a month. As the months turn into years and the years stretch on and on, writing starts to seem like this mountain you’re trying to climb, but the summit keeps stretching higher. It’s almost like it’s getting taller on purpose.
Writing is one of those things you travel alongside in the journey of life. Like any other great accomplishment, writing your novel requires dedication, perseverance, and fortitude. Here are some practical tips I’ve picked up along my own journey. You can keep going, and you can even make it to the end!
1 – Focus on one step at a time
When you’re writing a novel, it’s easy to get overwhelmed by how much you have to do. There are so many elements—characters, setting, tone, voice, style, scene, agency, plot—and they all interconnect and interweave in a myriad of ways. It’s easy to get lost in the forest. Anne Lamott wrote something in her book Bird by Bird that has stuck with me for many years. “…all I have to do is to write down as much as I can see through a one-inch picture frame. This is all I have to bite off for the time being.”
You don’t have to write your whole novel at once. Just write what you have in front of you, a little detail, a little scene. Persistently doing this will cause you to accumulate a whole basket of little scenes, and one day you’ll open the basket and realize you have a novel!
2 – Set goals
You may have seen this acronym before. SMART goals stands for Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, and Time-Bound. Writing a novel is a project, and like any project, you can employ tactics to help you stay on task. I’ve noticed that when I give myself deadlines and set a reward for myself, it helps to keep me going, even on days when I don’t want to write.
What your goals look like is up to you. Some people find it helpful to set a specific time frame to write in or a word count to accomplish each day (NaNoWriMo is an example). Other people, like me, prefer more flexibility to allow my inner voice to guide and direct me with the flow of my intuition. Experiment with various things. If a piece of writing advice doesn’t work for you, I hereby give you permission not to use it. There are so many writing styles and personalities, but across the board, setting goals is something everyone can agree on. And it’ll help you to get in the practice for when you land that book contract!
3 – Surround yourself with positive people who support your writing
My mom has arthritis in her knees. She’s no longer able to walk up a steep hill, but when my dad gets behind her and pushes her back, she can make it up the hill.
We all need people in our lives to pick us up when we’re discouraged, and when you’re climbing the mountain of your novel, it’s especially important to find other people who love writing and love you. Even if it’s just one person. I hereby also grant you permission to (graciously!) avoid people who bring you down and be with people you build you up. Never underestimate the power of a hug.
4 – Take care of yourself
Many of us have this black and white image in our head of the Earnest Hemingway author, sweat-stained, surrounded by piles of crumpled paper, smoking a cigarette while staring abstractly at a typewriter. This is art, we say. The great writer in his element! But to me, he doesn’t look very happy. His novels weren’t very happy, either.
Your best writing will come out when you are healthy. Eat wholesome food. Get exercise—it clears your mind. Take naps, set regular bedtimes. And set up your writing desk so it supports good posture. I could have saved so much money on chiropractors if I had started out this way.
5 – Don’t show your novel to anyone else until it’s done
This tip came from Stephen King. In his book On Writing, he says you should lock yourself in a room without windows and write until it is done. While I would recommend going out for fresh air once in a while, I believe the principle of the advice is focus. Your book is your vision. When you start showing it to other people, they often give you their opinion of what they think it should be. While usually well-meaning, this can steer you away from the golden image you have in your heart, the picture of your truest story.
Again, though, this piece of advice can be flexible. When I was in high school, I wrote a lot of fanfiction and posted the chapters online as I created them. The positive feedback I received encouraged me to keep going. But later in life, I see the wisdom in sequestering yourself within your own world until the book—as you want it to be—is finished.
When it’s all said and done, writing your novel is a work of persistence motivated by love. Start the story, then keep going. Set the summit in your vision. Add blinders if you need to. Then keep climbing the mountain one step at a time until you reach the skies.
How do you know when you’ve reached the summit? My next article will offer some clues. Stay tuned!