The Crime Writers’ Association

How to Complete Your Novel by Gary Donnelly

Looking for the fabled path to publication? Well, completing your novel is a good starting point. And when the wall of your writing room starts to look a bit Beautiful Mind, you might be getting close. Or, perhaps, it’s time to call the Doctor…

Writing a novel is a bit like embarking on a regime to avoid chocolate or mid-week wine in the run up to Christmas. Both are easy enough to start, harder to remain on board with and a true challenge to see through to the end. So rather than ask how to begin a novel (ignorance plus inspiration worked for me) or how to write a novel (big question, small article), I want to talk about how to complete a novel.

To be specific, I’ll try to explain how I completed my debut novel Blood Will Be Born. But whether you’re a many times published household name, or if your novel’s still a glint in your eye while commuting, there is one thing I doubt I’ll be able to do. And that is to tell you how you have, or will, complete your novel.

According to Stephen King, novels are completed one word at a time, and let the story be boss. Plot at your peril and fear not; as you dig, it will be revealed. And who dares disagree with him? Go and figure out what he’d published by the time he was your age, then sit quietly in the corner of shame with a donkey hat on your head. No, don’t do that. We can’t all be the Dickens of our age, and that’s OK (my therapist and Mummy both tell me).

Era-defining writers, no, but I really do think most of us can, if not write a completed novel, at least tell a story. You were a child once upon a time; you used to do it every day, automatically. Our stories, I suspect, are as unique as our finger prints, and therefore the novels we may come to write and the process that brings them into existence will be unique too. But like fingerprints, I also suspect points of similarity can be found.

I remember listening to CJ Carver speak at Crimefest 2016. She explained that for her, the seeds of completion were sown in the first draft of a book. Caroline used a great phrase. She said that a book will find a “natural tipping” point, an apex from which the rest of the write is a downhill journey…

Not exactly a free wheel but a lot less effort than the uphill climb just completed. The legwork of developing character motivations, bisecting storylines and hanging questions has been done. There’s enough ballast to roll that baby all the way home and over the finish line. I took notes that day, being a (would be) first time novelist, and I liked the sound of that very much. An open ended, explorative approach had got me far, but like my deranged and dangerous character Christopher Moore, the book now threatened total chaos if left to its own devices.

What I needed was a nice clear overview. What I ended up with, was the wall of my writing room at home plastered with sheets of paper and post it notes, annotated in felt tip pen detailing main events and character story arcs and lots of question marks circled several times. My wife, who had already started making allusions to Jack Nicholson in The Shining when talking about my writing, gave me one of her looks. She said the wall looked like Nash’s garage in A Beautiful Mind, just before his imaginary friend demanded he kill his spouse.

I told her not to worry.

Some of the road mapping proved useful, much of it did not. For one thing, I could not see an obvious tipping point. But one good thing to come from it was the final scene, a place where all the strands came to an end. When I closed my eyes, I could see it, albeit hazy, and lacking specifics, but the situation was suddenly clear. As clear, in fact, as the image that spawned the book to begin with, something I have blogged about recently on my website. In fairness, the divining of the final scene was as much intuition as it was sterile plotting. The storyboarding helped me see it, and in turn having an end point presented the clear challenge I needed to thread the various strands of the story to a natural end, and one that felt right.

Not exactly what CJ Carver said, though looking for that tipping point was helpful. And not quite the same as Stephen King’s methodology (I’d still be writing the book now, and it would be as large as some of his own if I had kept going that way). I think what worked for me contains some elements, some points of similarity with both. I went to see The Ferryman recently in the West End, and I had the distinct feeling that Jez Butterworth’s fantastic final scene was something he knew he was aiming for from a fair bit off. Not necessarily plotting to achieve, there was no sense of artificiality about how the final act descended into the denouncement. But I think he saw it play out just so and then turned his hand to shaping the story to meet it. Or maybe that’s just me imposing my understanding on it. Probably, that’s more likely to be true. But I’m fascinated to know how it works for other writers.

There’s a lot of noise out there about story strategies, formulaic plans for fast track completion a novel in record time. If they work for you I wish you luck, but I cannot believe that something as personal and self-generated as a novel can ever be flat packed. Yes, the points of similarity of what make a good or successful completed novel can probably be reduced to discernible patterns, even pathways. But our stories, like our prints, are unique and to tell them, I think we need to find our own way, from beginning to end.

Let’s return to that regime to abstain from wine or chocolate. It’s OK to fall off the wagon, to have a mouthful of red or brick of chocolate on a Wednesday while watching Stranger Things. We’re only human. But you have to stick at it. One glass becomes two, Thursday becomes the new Friday. The same is true for writing. No matter if you excavate, seek out a tipping point, or use a story stencil to write by numbers, you must turn up for work. Fundamentally, that’s the missing link between novels that are completed and those which are not, assuming you are telling a story that is both honest and right for you at that time. As someone more eloquent than me put it, “Write when you want and write when you don’t.” If we don’t, then catching glimpse of your story’s final scene and even finding a path to take you there are as useful for completing a novel as red wine and chocolate are for losing weight.

Links to the book and more info here.

Twitter: @donnellywriter

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