Strangely enough, it took me years before these two things occurred to me. Although they’re very simple and very basic indeed, they are my most indispensable weapons in my whole writerly armoury.
How to finish a story no.1:
Start at the beginning and go on until the end. Do not, at any point, ever go back to revise or change anything that you have already written. Do not stop until the story is finished. Keep moving forward. If new ideas occur to you which would mean the first chapter needs rewriting, note those new ideas down in a separate ‘notes’ file, but keep writing from the point that you have already reached until you get to the end.
Only when the first draft is finished are you allowed to go back to the beginning and alter anything.
Before this rule, I would usually get five chapters in to something, and then I would think of something to change or polish in those first five chapters. I would go back and re-write them. Then I would go back and re-write them again. And again. And then I would be bored of the whole project and frustrated with my inability to pin it down. So I would start something new, and the whole process would begin again. I have so many abandoned starts of novels you could leaf a forest with them.
Nowadays, however, I only have finished stories. Many are very rough and need a lot of editing, but all of them have a beginning, middle and end, and are therefore capable of becoming a complete, polished novel in a way that five perfect chapters and nothing more are not.
How to finish a story no.2:
This is less of a technique and more of a psychological pointer. The ‘start at the beginning and go on to the end. Then stop.’ Tip at no.1 is all you need to finish a story. However, no.2 will help you to manage it.
You see, your brain, like mine, is probably highly conflicted about the act of writing. If it’s anything like mine, it loves starting stories. It loves the discovery, the sense of adventure, the freshness and glee of starting something new.
But that wears off once the novelty is past and you begin to realize that there are months of solid writing before you. Suddenly your brain is making you want to do housework, or read Tolstoy’s complete works, or take up quilting, or go back to the beginning to put this cool new idea in. Your brain, if it is anything like mine, does not want to do the long slog of writing day after day that is necessary to get through the middle of the novel.
This is where it helps to know that it is normal and expected to hate the story and to believe that the concept is boring and your talent has left you. It isn’t and it hasn’t. It’s just your brain trying to sabotage you and get you to skive off.
Ignore it. It’s lying to you. Carry on writing anyway, even though it’s a slog and you hate everything you’re writing. Just keep going.
Eventually, as if you have pushed a stone up to the top of the hill and over the top, the story will begin to flow again, your writing will look good to you again, and you will once more be enjoying the process of writing. Hurray!
But beware, your brain doesn’t like finishing a story either. That means tackling the difficult bit of making everything resolve neatly, and when you have done so there will be the pain of parting with these characters you love. Woes! To avoid this, your brain will try to trick you into not finishing. Once more, writing will be like swimming in treacle, your words will look lame and facile, and you will be convinced this is the worst story ever.
Don’t believe it this time either. It’s still lying. Push on and finish the story. And when you have, a miracle will happen. You’ll give it a couple of days to rest, come back to it, and it will turn out to be really not that bad at all! You will have a finished first draft and it will be good.
If you can learn your own pattern – the ups and downs of when you hate your work and when you love it – you will be prepared, and you won’t abandon a promising novel in the middle because you were secretly sabotaging yourself. Learn when to tell yourself to take a running jump, carry on writing anyway, and I guarantee you will have no more half finished novels abandoned in disgust.
How long it will take before you can bear to edit your finished first drafts is a separate question, of course 😉