Four Things I Had To Learn To Finish A Novel

Hint: It wasn’t grammar. (It’s still not grammar. Sorry, editors.)

This post was requested by a friend planning to do Nanowrimo (a yearly challenge to write a 50K novel–or your own “rebel” goal–in a month). My confession is that despite three attempts, I’ve never “completed” Nanowrimo. But after some false starts, I did manage to finish a novel, and my friend asked how I finally pushed past the roadblocks. And when I told them some of what worked for me, they asked me to put it in a blog post and share with everyone. So here goes. 🙂

Creators gonna create

The artist Bob Ross painting on a canvas with the text "Find freedom on this canvas."
On this blog we stan Bob Ross.

Sometimes, you might know exactly what you want to say. You might outline a book because you have a specific story inside you that needs to be told.

But sometimes, you just want to create. My first book began life as a 9,000-word short story. It’s a hot mess that’s not actually readable by another human being–my writer equivalent of grabbing a canvas and painting some blotches I insist are “happy little trees.” But in writing that unapologetically bad short story, I found a story I wanted to tell, and grew that story into a novel that eventually got offers of representation from agents.

You might know you want to write–but you don’t know what you want to write about. And that’s valid too! We might know we want to make music, so we sing whatever comes to mind or pick up an instrument and improvise. We might know we want to paint, or draw, or knit something, or other kinds of creation. With writing, like all art, sometimes it’s the end product driving us–but sometimes, we just have a desire to create.

Discover What You Love

Alistair from Dragon Age with the caption "Yes, swooping is bad."

If you’re looking for inspiration for your own writing, you might consider listing some of some books, shows, or movies you love and figuring out what it is that speaks to you. Is it the intricate world-building? Is it the relationship between the leads? Is it one particular character?

Now ask yourself WHY you love that thing–and get deep. Go beyond “I love this character” to “I love the contrast of a big, burly tank who’s also an awkward virgin.” Figuring out what you’ve fallen in love with can help you find the passion to create your own characters and story and fuel a novel of your own making.

For example, I love the Dragon Age video games. I love a lot of things about them, but one highlight in particular is the funny companion banter amidst a high-stakes magical quest, that infusion of levity and fun into fantasy. It’s probably no surprise that my paranormal 1920s romance, SPELLBOUND, has its own bantering found family that my editor has called the “Prohibition Scooby Gang.”

Write what you want, not what you think you should. Even if it’s weird. (Especially if it’s weird.)

Arnold Rimmer from Red Dwarf with the caption "Have you quite finished being strange?"

My first (failed) attempt at a novel was Young Adult Science Fiction with no romantic elements. A fantastic genre! Maybe I’ll still write it one day, but it wasn’t what I personally truly wanted to write at the time. When I finally stepped back and thought, what am I reading right now?, it was all adult romance and SFF, and I realized I should give that a try.

If you’re having trouble finishing a novel, one question you can ask yourself is, am I writing what I really want to? For me, this meant I had to be braver and more vulnerable: I can be a private person, and writing what I wanted removed a layer of protective armor I’d put between the page and myself.

Relatedly, you’ve probably heard embrace what makes you weird. That advice also helped me, because when I stopped worrying if something was too “out there” — like a link between magic and an aura — my words came a lot more easily.

Learning can be messy–and that’s great!

Muppets from Sesame Street cooking and making a mess.

Watching my infant son feed himself for the first time was one of the best life lessons I’ve had as an adult. It was a MESS. There was applesauce EVERYWHERE–the floor, his arms, his hair. And I was standing next to his highchair, cheering him on, so proud I thought I’d burst. Of course he was making a mess–it was new! It was hard! He was doing great!

And later that night, I realized that I never gave myself that kind of encouragement. If I wanted to learn new things, I needed to let myself make mistakes, and not be ashamed that I’d gotten it wrong but be proud that I kept on trying. If I wanted him to learn to be encouraging and kind to himself, I needed to show him how. That meant acknowledging that learning to write a book was new, and hard, and I was going to make a mess of it–and that was great.

Two characters from the cartoon She-Ra raising their fists in the air in triumph.
We got this!

Wishing you (and the friend who asked for this!) the very best in your writing journeys!

Allie Therin is the author of SPELLBOUND (out now!), an LGBTQ+ paranormal romance set in Prohibition-era Manhattan and Book One in the Magic in Manhattan series. Look for Book Two coming in 2020 from Harlequin’s Carina Press! Connect with Allie here or find her on Facebook, Goodreads, or being strange on Twitter.