Guest Post from J.T. Nicholas
The Writing Process and How to Finish a Book
By J.T. Nicholas
I’ve been asked a time or two what my writing process is like or, more often, how in the world do you finish writing a book?
If you’ve ever thought about writing a novel-length work, odds are you’ve started and stopped more times than you care to think about. The good news is, you’re in good company. So has every author, writer, and aspiring writer I’ve ever spoken to. It’s normal. Expected. Part of the long and painful (but rewarding – mustn’t forget rewarding) process of writing a novel.
That doesn’t answer the question, of course, but I wanted to remind everyone that we’ve all got unfinished manuscripts out there, hiding in dark corners, whispering at us to come back and take another look at them. Don’t let the fact that you’ve started a work in the past that stalled stop you from forging forward.
So, what’s my writing process like?
Well, I think of it as 3 parts. Part 1 is the idea. Part 2 is the actual writing. And Part 3 is fixing what’s broken.
Part 1: The Big Idea
Ah, the idea phase. This is, in some ways, my favorite part of the writing process. This is when you sit around and think about the story you want to tell. What cool twists and turns you might interject. The amazing action and jaw-dropping drama you hope to infuse into your story. The emotional impact that you want your words to have. I’ve got files full of ideas, but at some point, you have to take things a little further.
In general, you can do this 1 of 2 ways: outline or seat of the pants. Some people like to outline all the major elements of their story, so that every plot point and the path to it is known before the writing takes place. I admire the hell out of those people. I’m not one of them, though. Don’t get me wrong… I spend a lot of time thinking about those things, but I’ve never been one for putting them down on paper. Even in school, when an outline was required for papers, I’d write the paper first and then go back and do the outline. So, my process here is seat-of-the-pants, or, if you’d prefer something a little less pejorative, organic. Also, gluten-free. When I sit down to start a new novel, I know what the story is, how it’s going to start, and how it’s going to end. But I like to let the characters take their own path as to how they get there. That sounds cheesy, I know, but it’s the only way I can explain it. For me, the idea phase is lots of thinking and very little doing. That all comes in the next step…
Part 2: The Actual Writing
For me, the key to putting ink to paper (or bits to file as the case may be) can be summed up in one word: consistency.
Look, everyone does things differently. The first thing you have to realize is that what works for one person when it comes to a creative pursuit may not work for another. We all have different demands on our time, different pressures stemming from everyday life, and different things pulling us in a hundred different directions. But, one thing I learned early on, if you want to finish a book, you must keep writing. Like Dory, in Finding Nemo. Just keep writing, writing, writing. What do we do? We write!
That mantra pretty much sums up the doing part of my writing process. Every day I sit down at the computer and I write. I keep going (to the best of my ability to avoid the gaping vortex of productivity suck that is the internet) until I’ve written a thousand words. Then I stop and do whatever I want. Some days, I can pound out that thousand words in an hour or two. Other days, it takes all day. Every now and then, I’m still trying to finish as one day gives way to the next.
Now, I’m in the fortunate position of not having a day job to worry about – I can focus on writing. That’s not the normal state of existence for most authors out there. And it’s definitely not the normal state of things for aspiring authors. So, the key to my process isn’t really 1,000 words a day. It’s having a goal. And sticking to it. That 1,000 words is so that I can finish a novel in (roughly) 4 to 5 months. I needed to do that to meet the deadlines I had for The New Lyons Sequence, and it’s a habit that stuck. But if you can’t do 1,000 words a day, then set a different goal. Maybe for you, 500 words a day is better. Or maybe you’re lucky to get 1,000 words a week. Whatever the case, find a goal that works for you, then stick to it.
The only way to finish a novel, to paraphrase Lewis Carroll, is to begin at the beginning, go on until the end, and then stop. The beginning part is easy. And stopping when you’re done? Piece of cake. It’s that “go on” bit in the middle that gets sticky. For me, having a measurable goal is the key to getting past that sticking point. Sometimes those thousand words are, frankly, crap. But that’s what the re-writing process is for. Set a goal, stick to it, and you’ll be amazed at the stately march of progress towards the end of your story.
Part 3: Re-Writing
It’s a truism in writing that you can fix a bad page, but you can’t fix a blank one. No writing process is complete without rewriting. For me, this is a three-step process that starts with going back over the whole manuscript and trying to catch all the little things that I can’t believe I missed the first time around. Inevitably, I won’t catch them all, which is why round 2 of rewriting goes to my wife. She does a pass for things that I missed, but also for story and character. And the last part is the back and forth with the great people at Kensington and Rebel Base (shout out to my editor Elizabeth May for being awesome). At each of these, the story is changing, evolving, and (hopefully) getting better.
And that’s pretty much it. No big secrets. No mysterious late night sessions with a typewriter and bottle of whiskey. Just the steady, stately march of progress one keystroke at a time.
Just keep writing, writing, writing.
What do we do?