97% of Writers Don’t Finish Their Novels: 5 Steps to Be Part of the 3% and Write a Book in 10 Months
Updated: Feb 15, 2019
You have a brilliant novel idea, and the thought of fully immersing yourself in it excites you.
Excellent start. You start typing up the first page, then the first chapter or two. You’re hooked, and you know readers will be hooked, too. You keep going until you’ve reached a point where you need to actually make stuff happen in order for people to want to keep reading.
And then slowly, you lose momentum. You find yourself lost, with no inkling as to where this story is actually headed.
So, you put off writing until next week….then next month…until it’s been a few years that you haven’t paid the old thing a visit.
But you’ll get to it eventually.
Let’s backtrack to how this went wrong: One—you began with a novel idea you loved. Now, the very next steps would decide whether you’d fall under the successful 3% or the dreaded 97%...
Two—you started writing the first chapter.
BAM. Right there.
If you’re not sure how starting to write could’ve possibly steered you wrong, these five simple steps will tell you why.
Step #1: Outline Your Plot and Characters
Timeframe: 1 month
Starting the writing process right off the bat is like going night diving without a torchlight; you might be able to swim around for a while, but without seeing far enough ahead, you’ll be floating aimlessly, until eventually, your oxygen runs out (you can see where all the metaphors are placed here).
Writing a book is a long-term commitment. That’s why having a written outline is your holy grail, your one ring. Here’s how to get started:
Write a logline (a one-sentence description of your book); e.g. A boy discovers he is a famous wizard after a visit from a friendly giant. You’d be surprised, but most writers dive in not knowing what their story’s premise is. What happens as a result of this is a book that feels as though it’s struggling with an identity crisis.
Write a one-page summary of your novel. This is a lot more difficult than it sounds. You’re essentially telling your beginning, middle, and end in a single page. It’s okay if it isn’t concrete—elements of your plot will change tons of times throughout both the outlining and writing stages.
Write your main character descriptions. The previous exercise will have you thinking more deeply about your characters. Use this time to write about your protagonist, antagonist, and supporting characters’ appearance, background, desires, fears, needs, and wants.
Break your story into acts, then into chapters. Think about your novel’s structure. Will it be broken down into three, four, or five acts? How will you tell your story: backwards, moving forward with flashbacks, parallel storylines? What will happen in each of these acts? This stage certainly takes the longest, but once you have your chapter breakdowns down, the worst of the writing process is over.
Step #2: Create a Vigorous Writing Schedule (and Stick to It)
Your blueprint is done. Finito. You don’t have to undergo any guess work—you can get to the fun part, but not without creating a writing schedule that works for you. My advice to you is:
Implement a deadline for every act. Make sure to schedule it in your calendar.
Give yourself enough time—and be realistic. Every writer’s circumstances are different, but if you’re writing a three-act structure, allow two months for each act, to start. You’ll know within the first few chapters whether this timeline will work for you.
Even if you’re self-disciplined by nature, have someone check in to ensure you’re reaching your deadlines. Find the best family member, friend, mentor, or professional editor that will keep you on track and give you feedback after each submission.
Step #3: Write a Bad First Draft
Timeframe: 6 months
Don’t worry about making it sound eloquent, pretty, funny… because it won’t. More oft than not, beautiful prose doesn’t happen as you’re hammering out your first draft. It’s hard to resist stopping to rewrite those horrid sentences. What’s helpful is to remind yourself that no one but you will set eyes on this draft.
Here are some tricks to keep the first draft flowin’ without getting hung up on the details:
Polish up the language later.
Write dialogue tags on your second draft. Leaving the he-said she-saids out on the first go do wonders in making your dialogue sound realistic.
Need more information on a subject matter or event? Leave yourself comments throughout your document to remind yourself to look into these later.
Step #4: Write a Better Second Draft
Timeframe: 1 month
Take all of your notes into account. Fill in the gaps, refine the language, add dialogue tags, humour. This is where you get to mould your story into the masterpiece you envision—because it will be a masterpiece.
Step #5: Invest in an Editor
Timeframe: 2 months
If you’ve reached this stage, you’ve gone where most writers have never gone before. Congrats! You deserve praise, a party, and a terribly long vacation.
But before you take off, it’s important you accept that at this stage, your book is nowhere close to ready to submit to an agent, publisher, or—if you’re self-publishing—a printer. Whether you realize it or not, you are biased towards each and every one of your darling words; your typos have likely gone over your head; and only in your mind is the meaning of each scene, each character’s action clear as day. And while your partner, best friend, or parent might read it and think “it’s perfect”, they are also not quite the unbiased, third-party that your manuscript needs to be the best possible version of itself.
Investing in a professional editor is the same as investing in your book. Nowadays, publishers don’t want a manuscript with "potential" that requires heavy editing. They want to get their hands on a near-ready novel devoid of plot holes, inconsistencies, and avoidable copyediting errors. I strongly advise you take your time to find an editor who respects your genre, you connect with, and falls within your budget.
Everyone can spot quality—the more polished your book, the higher the chances readers will appreciate the hard work you poured into it.
Are you ready to finish that novel? I'm here to help!