Skip to content

On Writing in Drafts: How to Finish Writing a Novel

This week I’ve been talking about pounding the pavement, and the psychology of storytelling, and recognizing the potential in a story even when it looks totally and helplessly broken.

I’ve said since the very start that writing is a mental game, and it’s amazing how much of good writing really is psychological. So let’s employ a little bit of my uneducated, grossly-misrepresented understanding of cognitive behavioral therapy, and put our neuroses to work for us.

Behavioral Patterns

People are creatures of habit, and whenever we’re not paying close attention (which is to say, most of the time), we tend to run on a relatively elegant kind of autopilot. Things happen in our environment, and we respond automatically. It’s how we process the overwhelming amount of information around us, and how we handle the complex situations life puts us in.

Since these habits and patterns run so much of our lives, it’s easy to for them to begin changing the way we think, the way we approach our world. One of the first steps to fixing a broken worldview is often fixing a destructive pattern — and the easiest way to do that is identifying the trigger and consciously substituting a healthier pattern in its place.

And what does that have to do with writing? It should be obvious. The biggest obstacle to good writing and the biggest contributor to good writing are both pretty straightforward behavioral patterns.

  • Distraction is a habit.
  • Daily writing is a habit.

When you sit down to start writing, which pattern is triggered? And which one would serve you best?

Daily Writing

You already know you should be writing every day. I don’t have to tell you that. But, then, I already knew I needed to be exercising every day, but it took a crisis, and a new understanding, to get me to actually follow through.

So today I want you to think through the biochemistry of distraction. Think through the process you go through, mentally, every time you sit down to write and don’t end up writing. Or, on a larger timeframe, when you start a story and don’t end up finishing it. Think about what that does to your self-image as a writer.

And don’t start beating yourself up over it. That doesn’t do you any good. Just think through the psychological poisons a single, discrete instance of distraction introduces into your writing process.

Have you got that? Is it clear and ugly in your mind? Good.

Now think about what one good writing session can do to that feeling. Maybe it’s exhausting. Maybe you’ve got to sweat and struggle just to put words down on paper, but when you sit down to write and you get something written, it obliterates (if only for a day) all the drudgery and doubt you suffer when you give in to distraction.

Achieving Long-term Progress with Short-term Goals (Creative Writing Exercise)

The lovely Kelley, writing at a coffee shopThat’s the biggest lesson I’ve learned in the last four months:

It doesn’t matter how important the goal is, or how much you want it — it’s almost impossible to find the dedication to really work hard for a payoff that’s months or years away. So don’t!

Write for today. Not just because you’ve given yourself a quota, but for a concrete, real reward. Take time every now and then to go back through that process above, reminding yourself just how much you gain, right now, from sitting down for one hour and actually writing.

If you can live in that immediate reward, you’ll be amazed at the changes you see, in yourself, and in your writing.

And, y’know, that’s actually the secret to finishing a novel. That’s the secret to fixing a bad rough draft, and to overcoming writer’s block, and to improving dialog, and to cleaning up your plot arcs. When it comes right down to it, the secret to becoming a better writer is writing every day for years.

And the only way to do that is to write every day today.

So that’s your writing exercise for this week. Start the habit of daily writing, by writing today. Let me know how it goes.

Photo credit Julie V. Photography.

2 Responses to “On Writing in Drafts: How to Finish Writing a Novel”

  1. Love this post.

    I just had an amazingly productive editing session last night due to getting OUT of the house and AWAY from all kids for the first time in two weeks.

    It wasn’t amazing because I made huge progress or solved some major problem. It was great because I got the opportunity for a jump-start. Ever since baby came, I’ve had difficulty getting into gear, mentally. I sat down to write numerous times this week but either got interrupted by someone under 4 ft. tall or just stared at the page, my mind mush.

    The real value of getting away last night was that I got back into gear, and when I woke up this morning, the first thing I wanted to do was return. So I opened the laptop and started chugging away again. And now I’m only 14 pages away from finishing this story!

    There’s one key word for this: momentum.

    • Aaron Pogue says:

      Thanks, Becca! Love this comment!

      I’m glad you’re back in it. None of us can keep momentum up all the time, it’s incredibly powerful to have experiences like that from time to time to keep us from giving up when we do happen to hit the doldrums.

      Hang on to that feeling! I still need to know all of Josh’s secrets, so I’m determined to see you stick with it.