Karen Rivers

ugly beautiful: how to finish your novel.

Karen Rivers

I have had a draft of a blog post up on the screen for several days about writing and how it is hard and sometimes ugly, about how it is not the Pinterest version of itself that perhaps you might be led to believe by the Facebook status updates of writers who are carefully editing out the part where, yesterday, instead of writing 2500 words of perfectly concise prose, they deleted the entire last 80% of their work-in-progress, cried, and watched House Hunters until it stopped feeling like someone had died somewhere inside them, perhaps in their spleen.   

I'm sure this blog post was as much to remind me of these things as it was to provide an answer to a question.


Then I deleted the post both because it was boring and because I can.  When you are blogging (or really writing anything), you can just highlight it in blue, wipe it clean, and then you are back at the start.  There it is again:  The promise of a blank white box in which you can type anything you think of or care about or want to say.  

This is the beautiful part of writing.   The power and the possibilities.

Here is the question (or some variation on it) that I am asked most often:  

How do I finish my novel? 


Here is the answer:

One word at a time, you keep marching forwards until your characters have finished saying what they set out to tell you in the first place, the shadow of their acts making black marks on the whiteness in front of you.   These marks become the words that you pry out of yourself, one by one.  

If your characters had had nothing to do or feel or say, had no mark to make, they wouldn't be there in the first place, lurking around in your subconscious like kids who are left on a playground, waiting anxiously for their parents to come and claim them.

No one will claim them, because you are their parent.  Their only parent.  And until you figure out how to do it, they will be there, waiting.

Sometimes they will yell at you, other times you might forget they are there.

It is your job to tell their story and if you don't do it, they will remain where they are and you will remain what you are:  Someone who wants to be a writer but without the act of writing being involved.

We are HERE, they will whine, petulantly.  When is something going to HAPPEN?

You are the writer and nothing is going to happen without you.

No one else is going to tell their story.

Only you.

So claim them.

They are yours, after all.

There are no shortcuts to doing this.   There is no magic.   There is just YOU and your laptop and a thrice-reheated cup of coffee and everyone outside who is having a much better time than you because the sun is out and oh look, over there, you could be sitting in an adirondack chair, painted the perfect shade of blue, the feel of the sun on your skin, a cold drink beading its moisture coolly onto your eager hand.  Your head could be tipped back slightly and you could be laughing at something someone else said, then saying something yourself.  

You could BE a character instead of just making them.  

Maybe that would be better.

There could be a frisbee being thrown and a dog, sun-hot fur, pressed against your leg.

But that is not how you will get your novel finished.   It is not how you will be a writer.

So you are inside where it is cool and the fridge is making a thunking noise.  And there is your keyboard and your hands.   Your hands are urging you to click over to Facebook because someone may be saying something interesting somewhere in your friend kingdom, which extends now all over the world.   Surely if you just CHECK it, you can then come back to what you are working on, which at the moment is actually nothing.

And from outside, there is music and a kid cries.   Is it your kid?  You have to go see, you're practically obligated to socialize while you are out there and oh, how the days all start smudging together and all the while, there is your laptop, missing your hands and your book becoming ever-more unfinished.

Are you a writer or are you someone who has an idea that being a writer might be something you want to do?

It's OK, either way.  No one HAS to be a writer.  It is no more or less glamorous than any other job.  No more or less important.  I'm not saying you should or shouldn't do it.

Should you?

I assume that because you asked the question, you have an idea that it is what you want.


Writing is a decision.

If it is what you choose, it won't always be easy.  Sometimes when you are writing down the thoughts and feelings of your characters, some new louder kids will come to the playground and demand that it is their turn.   

This is the hard part.   There are sometimes louder voices.   So there you are, doing your job, claiming your first batch of characters, but what to do with the second batch?

It is not their turn.

They can wait in line.   And they will.   You just have to make the decision to tell them to wait.

This is all in you.  No one else will do it for you.

Commit.   Commit to the first group of characters.  The second, third, fourth group of voices are not going anywhere.  They will just hang about, waiting to be claimed.   

They can wait a long time.

And then you write it out, your characters' story, word by (sometimes laborious) word. 

Be prepared to delete it if it's terrible.

Be prepared to walk away.

Here is how you finish your book:

Sit down.   Type some words.   Read them.  Delete them as required.  

Delete with reckless abandon.

Never, ever, ever think of deleting something as a loss.  It isn't. Deleting ten words can add more to a sentence than just adding more and more.

Add and delete generously.

Do this a lot, but do not do this all the time.   Sometimes you need to go outside, see friends, go shoot some pool, watch a movie, walk, hold hands with someone, read a poem, listen to something.  You need to have a life.   There are blue adirondack chairs to sit in.   

If you begin to write at the expense of everything else, that won't work either.   

Find a balance. 

Here is some other advice:

Don't count your words.   Don't measure your success by other people's standards.  

Stop comparing.  

Tattoo that on your wrist if necessary.  If you have ever compared yourself to another writer, stop.  If you ever feel like you've failed when you count words, don't.  You have to simply make a conscious decision to STOP.

You are successful when your characters have finished saying what they want to say. 

You are a writer when -- each time you empty the playground -- it fills up again on its own accord.

You have done your job when you've heard them.   All of them.

No one will think you are crazy for referring to your characters this way and if they do, they just don't know what it is like to be the one inside, while chalk drawings unfold on sidewalks and summer starts to unfurl like a new leaf held just out of your reach at the end of a branch on the neighbour's back lawn.

People WILL think you are crazy.   (Probably.)  

Who cares?

The most important rule is this:

Stop worrying what other people think.

It really doesn't matter.

If you don't believe enough in your writing to stop worrying about those people, you are doomed.  You have to believe your characters when they say they have a story to tell.  If you can't because it sounds, well, crazy, then you probably should not be a writer.  

I'm just saying that because it is true:  If it isn't important to you, you aren't going to finish your novel.   Or your poem.   Or your song.  


Face it.

It's hard, prying these words out one by one, inch by inch, day by day.

So it has to matter.   

Now go write something.   Don't make the act of writing something so hard and so other.   It is not mystery and witchcraft.   It is the simplest and hardest thing in the world to just sit down and begin to type.   It is hard to stop and listen.   It is harder still to believe.


Do that, and you will be just fine.

I promise.

Sometimes when I give talks or lectures, I talk about how much I love my job.  And it's true that I do.  I think that making up stories and getting paid to do it is almost unbelievably lucky.  But I also feel like I'm lying when I say again and again, I love it.  

I don't always.   Sometimes it is just flat-out hard.  

Some days, it is ugly.   

But some days, it's beautiful.

So if you're thinking of writing as a job, remember:   It's ugly beautiful, beautifully ugly.   And if what you are writing gets too ugly, you can always delete it.  The white screen will always be beautiful with potential.   Trust me. 


Let me know how it goes.