In my experience the process of writing a novel is something akin to wading through treacle, especially first time round, but I’m a firm believer that your passion should never be permitted to become a chore. Yes, there will be instances as you progress through your seemingly never-ending manuscript in which you either become blinded by writer’s block, lose all motivation, or get frustrated and lost (or all four) – no matter how eager you are to meet your goal there will undoubtedly be times it just doesn’t feel achievable and the temptation can be to simply give up. Don’t! Below are some of the common barriers that might be holding you back from completing your first manuscript, and some suggestions as to how you might overcome them:
In the developed world we actually have more ‘free’ time on our hands than ever before, yet we are so busy trying to be all things to all people and balancing competing demands, priorities, responsibilities, hobbies and interests, passions and people that it can understandably be rather difficult to see how finding the time to write a full-length novel will ever fit in. For me, writing my first novel was achievable because I didn’t place too high a priority on time. I knew it would be far from unusual if it took me a couple of years or more to write it, and I was determined from the outset that I wanted the process to remain enjoyable. So I set aside an hour or two at least once/week to sit in a favourite café, indulge in some treats, and write; and was surprised at how productive those short chunks of time could be. 2.5 years later, no-one was more surprised than me when my efforts finally paid off. I thoroughly enjoyed the process, and it only felt like a chore when I inevitably got stuck in the sticky middle (as I always do).
Despite the competing demands of modern life, most of us can afford to allot at least one hour/week to focus solely on our writing, even if it means missing an episode of our favourite TV show. If you’re serious about your writing then make it a priority and dedicate time to it, even if little and often is all you can afford, and you might be surprised at what you manage to achieve with a bit of focus. Once you’ve written your first manuscript you’ll likely find it quicker and easier to progress through the next one, as some of the intimidation-factor goes out of the process when you discover firsthand that reaching a marketable word-count is possible after all.
Unless you’ve been commissioned to write a novel and provided with a set deadline to work towards, which would be pretty unusual in the case of the first-time novelist, then you are essentially your own boss when it comes to setting the time-frame in which to complete your manuscript – and the level of freedom and lack of accountability associated with relying entirely on our own motivation is unfortunately where a lot of us come stuck, myself included. We might start a story and never finish it, or we might finely-tune the art of novel writing into something that is literally a permanent work-in-progress. Try not to let yourself fall into that trap!
Make a commitment that this time, nothing will stop you from achieving your dream. This doesn’t mean you have to stare blindly at a computer screen day-in day-out waiting for inspiration to strike, only that you should make a regular commitment to setting aside time to write and hold yourself as accountable on each occasion as you would if you were your own boss. Even if you only write a paragraph, any progress made is far more motivating than none at all – progress=motivation=more progress! I worked towards achievable milestones of roughly a quarter way through, a halfway through etc…, and it’s amazing how incentivising the meeting each of those smaller milestones were in pushing me to keep going to The End for the first time. Also, the more of your novel you have written, the higher the stakes become and the harder it gets to abandon that piece of work without completing it.
The word-count required to create a marketable full-length manuscript can be pretty intimidating in and of itself, not to mention finding a creative way to make your story’s premise actually span to that length without losing your capacity to keep your reader engaged throughout! Before writing my first novel, the longest piece of writing I’d ever done was my 8,000-word dissertation for uni – pretty short by most dissertation standards – and that was a headache in and of itself (though admittedly nowhere near as fun and inspiring as writing creatively for pure enjoyment)! But as above, I found that breaking down my target word-count of 80,000 words into smaller chunks of 20,000 words and working towards those smaller milestones took away a lot of the intimidation factor, and before I knew it I was making steady progress through my novel. I suggest you give that a try – set your own smaller, more achievable goals and if it makes the deal any sweeter – reward yourself as you meet them.
My years at university taught me to turn procrastination into an art-form. I remember panic-researching and writing my dissertation over the course of a 5-day holiday about a week before it was due, accidentally locking myself out of the house for one of those full days and suffering from nasty migraines on several others (most likely triggered by the pressure I’d put myself under in the first place)! Though this is not a strategy I’d recommend, there is something incredibly motivating about a deadline and holding yourself accountable as you work towards it (or getting someone else to if you are as lax as I am when it comes to being your own boss). Deadlines are definitely the enemy of procrastination, and procrastination is the enemy of achieving your dreams – don’t let it be. Procrastination=stagnation=more procrastination!
The fact is that no-one else can write your novel for you – only you can decide when you’re done procrastinating and just do it. Sure you’ll get stuck along the way – but think of other times you’ve been stuck and had no option but to problem-solve and push on through – like when you got stuck partway through a college or uni assignment but persisted and plodded onwards regardless to ensure you didn’t miss the deadline.
As mother to a toddler I no longer have time to procrastinate because my opportunities to write have to be snatched wherever they can – and strangely, for the first time in my life, this has actually created the opposite problem where I now feel as though I’m slacking off whenever I choose to do anything with my free time that isn’t writing – if only I’d had that attitude at uni! I wouldn’t suggest going down the baby route just to achieve this effect however – it’s a pretty big commitment ;o)
- Lack of ideas/writer’s block
Thankfully I’ve always found it relatively easy to come up with story ideas and to start a novel off, and my level of enthusiasm for a new project has been known to carry me quite some way through, but I can pretty much guarantee that I’ll get stuck around the middle third of a novel EVERY DARN TIME. This is when the old me, even with the best of intentions of ‘coming back to it later’ when I had finally thought myself out of my plot’s black hole, would inevitably abandon said work to my laptop’s already crowded graveyard. With my first novel I made a commitment from the outset that I wasn’t going to permit myself to do this, and when I did inevitably get stuck there are several things I found helpful in assisting me to work through it.
One was to power on ahead to the next part of the novel that I did know, and to keep writing from there until I was ready to return to join the dots. Another was to read back from the very beginning of my story in the hope that in doing so, some fresh ideas would be generated (which indeed they were – I ended up with characters and subplots I’d never imagined at the outset). I also asked close family members for their input and ideas, discarded the ones that didn’t gel with my story premise and hanging on to those that did – allowing those suggestions to trigger new ideas of their own. I have also found writing a short blurb (around 200-300 words) from the very outset of each novel has crystallised the overall premise of the story for me and enabled me to stay on track without derailing from it. I personally find the blurb/synopsis much easier to write and work from than coming up with a detailed chapter-by-chapter outline of the novel from beginning to end, but it’s important that you choose to do whatever works best for you.
As discussed, completing your first full-length manuscript can be like wading through treacle – and that’s ok. Like anything, once you have done it once the intimidation-factor will go out of it and a once insurmountable-sounding wordcount will suddenly feel like water off a duck’s back (80,000 words – is that all? *yawn*). Well – almost! You’ve got to start somewhere – and making a start is the only way to gain the experience that can only benefit your craft as you develop, refine and hone your creative voice and skills. It might be your third novel and not your first that sees the light of day in publication, but you can bet your boots your first novel will have played a starring role as a stepping stone on that journey.
- Lack of skill
If English isn’t your first language or you didn’t quite ace your GCSE’s/A Levels, then you might benefit from some additional study to assist you on your journey towards becoming an accomplished novelist. You’re never too old and it’s never too late to return to study and the process can actually be quite an enjoyable, constructive way to spend some of your time as you get introduced to new people, concepts, ideas and skills. Your local high school and/or college is likely to have a variety of English Language courses of various levels and lengths tailored toward mature students that can fit around your commitments – I highly recommend you seek a prospectus. I personally found study as a mature student far more enjoyable than I did when I was in high school because increased maturity brought with it increased focus, and I was less preoccupied with what others were thinking of me and more motivated to learn and achieve good results.
Other ways you can improve your writing can include undertaking creative writing courses; attending writer’s groups, retreats and workshops; and submitting samples of your work for feedback in online writer’s forums or in person within the context of a group of like-minded people or by forwarding to a trusted selection of family and friends for reflection and feedback.
- Goals that aren’t based in reality
If your primary goal in writing a novel goes something like this: agent=publication=international best-seller=movie and TV deal=millions of dollars, you’re highly likely to be in for some major disappointment. There’s a huge amount of competition out there, and only a very limited number of top spots to be filled so chances are your novel is not going to be one of them. And that’s ok. You should write because you have a story you long to tell, because it is a burning desire that can’t be sated, and because you love it! Sure, most of us long for the validation of publication and some glowing reader reviews at the very least, but that and anything else that comes from your writing is just a bonus! And gone are the days of high advances – so even if you become published don’t expect to give up your day job just yet. Focus on writing a bloomin’ good story, and enjoy the process and sense of achievement that comes from that – writing a novel is something so many people aspire to one day but so few actually knuckle down and do it – if you’re one of those who do that’s a huge accomplishment.
- Fear of criticism and/or rejection
Being on the receiving end of criticism towards something that has been a true labour of love sure can sting, but try to keep in mind it is for the benefit of you and your work and you only need to take on board what resonates with you and discard the rest. Over time we can learn to get better at handling well-intentioned criticism; and sometimes it’s no genuine reflection of your ability but of other people’s individual tastes – you will never write something that pleases everybody no matter how skilled you are. For every ten people who enjoy your work there will always be someone who doesn’t even if they can’t fully articulate why, that’s just human nature! Don’t be the person who hangs onto the one negative in the face of 10 positives. And let me reassure you that when it comes to submissions, you can flip that – receiving even one positive, personalised rejection out of a sea of form (impersonal) rejections or lonely silences is an achievement! So try to stay objective, be appreciative of the time someone has taken to read your work and give their feedback to you, and try not to take it too personally. Online or community writer’s groups can be a good avenue in which to get more used to having people read or listen to and respond to your work – and online you can also choose to utilise the benefit of anonymity.
With regards to a fear of rejection, it is an unfortunate reality of the business we face and something nearly all of us must subject ourselves to at some stage if we are serious about pursuing publication. Sometimes the rejection isn’t even personal – we could have written a promising manuscript but it just might not suit that particular agent/publisher or the market at that particular time or it may not resonate with the individual on a personal level – taste is after all highly subjective. Even some of the greats have been rejected it is simply an expected part of the process, and hopefully something you can learn from to boost your likelihood of success in the future. For example, if you query ten agents and three make similar suggestions/criticisms – perhaps you should take those things on board and edit accordingly before you resubmit. But if you receive only radio silence or form rejections – maybe it’s your query, synopsis and/or sample chapters that need further work. If people request your part or full manuscript and the rejection comes after that – maybe your novel hits a wall/loses engagement at some point (ensure that at least the first 50 pages are up to scratch and compel the reader onwards). If you find yourself crushed by the fear or experience of rejection, it could be that your confidence or self-esteem has taken a hit – and working on those things deserves more immediate time and attention than your manuscript.
I’m a perfectionist by nature, but the impending arrival of another baby has been incredibly beneficial in forcing me to focus on the bigger picture – my story’s overall arc, rather than in homing in on and being distracted by the tiny details like I usually would. Powering on through to the end of my story has given me a first draft (for my second novel) in record time, and means that the time for perfectionism can come in any rare, peaceful moment I can snatch post-baby when the primary focus will be on the editing, fleshing out, and revision of my overall manuscript at which point the perfectionist in me is welcome to go to town.
If you too are a perfectionist, I understand how difficult it can be to permit yourself to progress onwards with your novel when you are forever going over it chapter by chapter with a fine-tooth comb, reworking this paragraph here and that piece of dialogue there, and agonising over how well every sentence reads. You honestly don’t need to. Your first draft is just that – a draft. It doesn’t need to be word-perfect, it only needs to contain the skeleton of your story – which is often the hardest part to get down. You can take all the time you need at the end to edit and polish and add and change things to your heart’s content – just be sure to stop when you begin losing all objectivity and genuinely don’t think there’s anything more you can do to make it any better yourself – that’s generally the time to engage the constructive feedback of your beta readers before you consider revising again then start submitting!
Like with giving up smoking or any other vice (not that I’m saying writing’s a vice!), I think we’re setting ourselves up to fail if we try forcing out a novel before we are truly ready to do so, and the compelling factor is likely different for everyone – mine was turning 30 and knowing with a certainty this is a lifelong dream of mine that has never wavered and I simply could not go to my grave without having written a full-length novel. After years of procrastination and abandoned projects this was all the impetus I needed – and I sincerely hope you will soon find your own unique compelling factors too.
As always, best of luck! Gemma.
What were your barriers to writing your first novel, and what personal factors finally compelled you to overcome them?