It’s a commonly held statistic that 97% of people who set out to write a novel never finish it. 97%! I don’t know where the statistic comes from, but as someone who has finished novels (11 of them) and has struggled with every single one, I don’t doubt this statistic at all. Writing a novel isn’t for the faint of heart. Novels, even middle-grade novels, are big unwieldy things that can feel like putty running through your fingers. It’s very easy to get lost.
Take it from Lisa Simpson:
Recently I taught a new class specifically to help with this problem. The class proved so popular, I ended up teaching it twice: once at the Austin SCBWI annual conference and once for the Writers League of Texas. The class was called “How To Write a Novel Without Getting Intimidated” and it got great reviews, with attendees saying they felt more like they could tackle their project. I was excited it helped. When I first started writing middle-grade, I felt VERY intimidated and got lost often. Here are some of the tips I passed on:
I used to read books and think, “How can I do this? This whole thing?” Well, the truth is, you don’t have to do create the whole thing, not immediately. All you need to start is an idea, even the smallest idea of an idea. When I wrote THE BOY, THE BOAT, AND THE BEAST, all I started with was a question: What if a boy woke on a deserted beach with no memory of who he was or how he had gotten there? Big trees are grown from a tiny seed, and your book will start with a small idea. You don’t have to know everything when you begin. Discovery is a big part of the fun of writing.
A LITTLE PLANNING GOES A LONG WAY
Many writers start writing as soon as they have their idea. They get excited and want to jump right in. And that’s wonderful! It’s good to be excited. But not knowing much about your story can make you get lost quickly and feel like giving up. I mean, imagine if you got the idea to make pancakes because you read about them in a book. You don’t have a picture or a recipe or anything, you just know they’re going to be great. So you go into your kitchen and… Just like in cooking, a little planning for your novel goes a long way. You don’t have to know everything about your character, your world, or your plot, but the more you do know, the less likely you’re going to get lost.
Some good things to figure out up front are:
- basic info about your character (age, name, home)
- basic info about your setting (rural, city, another planet)
- your main character’s problem/goal (what they’ll solve over the course of the story)
- and the main obstacle (another person, aliens, nature, or the character themself)
There are plenty of other things you can brainstorm before you begin, but if you have at least these ingredients, you’ll be much less likely to get lost and give up.
OUTLINE A LITTLE OR A LOT
I started out as a pantser (writing solely by the seat of my pants and following the story wherever it went), but I quickly learned there are more efficient ways. Now, I can hear some of you saying, “I don’t want to outline. It stifles my creative freedom.” But done right, outlining can help to build your creative freedom! (I wrote about my outlining journey on my blog.)
To keep me from getting lost when I’m writing, I find it useful to have a map, even if I venture away from it. An outline for a novel can be as simple as just a few story highlights or as in-depth as a plan for every scene of the book. I like to think of mine as a GPS. I know where I’m heading, and if I veer off course, I can take a different route. Outlines don’t have to stay the same as you write. Mine change constantly. But having one, even a really basic one, helps me stay the course.
KEEP YOUR FOCUS
Even if you’re not into outlining, there are still tools you can use to keep you focused as you write your whole novel. Your story is about your character trying to achieve their goal, so as you write, keep that goal handy. One way is to write a one-sentence pitch. A one-sentence pitch has your character, their problem, and what they need to do about it. So for my novel ARROW, the one-sentence pitch would be: A boy who grew up in a magically hidden rainforest must figure out how to fix the magic before outsiders from the dry, arid world exploit his home.
Write a one-sentence for your book, then keep it available as you pants through your story. When you get stuck, pull it out and see what you can do to get your character back on track. If a one-sentence pitch is too hard to write right now, this also works with jacket copy. Write the copy that will be on the back or inside flap of your book when it’s published (because it will be if you finish and revise) and use that to keep yourself motivated.
REVISION IS INEVITABLE
I used to compare my first drafts with the already published books I was reading, and I’d get frustrated because I knew mine wasn’t as good. But I was forgetting that all the books on my shelves were revised over and over and over again. First drafts are just that: Firsts. Knowing that I’m allowed as many other drafts as I need freed me up from thinking my first draft had to be perfect.
I get it. You’ve got dreams of walking into your local bookstore and seeing your book on their shelves. You want that day to be tomorrow, even today! But publishing journeys are loooooooooooong, and the best way to get an agent or editor interested in your work is to create great work. So don’t stress. Take your time. Even if you spend five minutes on your novel every day, you will one day end up with a full novel. Then you’ll be like Kermit and beat 97% of other writers.