Make sure you’ve got enough fuel for the journey

“So now I tell you how we fly to America. The first time we started we get-a half-way across when we run out of gasoline and we gotta go back. Then I take-a twice as much gasoline. This time we just about to land, maybe three feet, then what do you think? We run out of gasoline again. And back we go again to get more gas. This time I take-a plenty gas. Well we get-a half way over and what do you think happened? We forgot-a the airplane. So we gotta sit down and talk it over. Then I get-a the great idea. We no take-a the gasoline, we no take-a the airplane. We take-a the steamship. And that, friends, is how we fly across the ocean.”

(Chico Marx in A Night at the Opera)

Everybody, they say, has a novel in them. For the vast majority of people, though, that’s where it stays. As any aspiring writer will tell you, it’s not starting that’s the problem, but finishing it. Most people reading this will have an unfinished novel hidden away somewhere. These aborted efforts not only represent wasted time, and ideas that will never see the light of day, but they also profoundly demotivating. It”s hard to start again, unless you have a clear idea what went wrong before, and what you are going to do differently this time.

The last thing you want is to end up like the Marx Brothers: you’re halfway there, but you run out of gas and have to go all the way back to the beginning. So if you’re serious about finishing your novel, before you write a single word, make sure you have enough fuel to last you the whole journey.

What do I mean by fuel? Well, to start with, you will need considerable reserves of time. Writing eats up time like a jet engine burns petrol. If you don’t make space in your life for writing, then it will take you years to get to the end of your novel, and the chances are you won’t finish it at all.

Finding time isn”t easy though. Most of us spend half of our waking hours earning a living, and your writing time might have to be squeezed into evenings and weekends. How will you manage this, and still find space for friends and family? Do they understand what you are trying to do, and support you in it? If you have other commitments, or hobbies, you may need to cut back on them, or drop them altogether; is this something you are prepared to do?

Having answers to these questions, or at least thinking about them, is vital preparation for writing your novel. Even if you are lucky enough to be “time-rich”- retired, maybe, or financially independent, or living with a partner who can support you- it is unlikely you spend your days just staring into space. Whatever you were doing before, you will have considerably less time to do it now.

It is also important to remember that a novel is a long-term commitment. How long exactly varies from person to person, depending on how much time you allocate and your writing speed, but you probably need to think in terms of a year at least. Can you sustain your efforts over this length of time? A common mistake of first-time novelists is to throw themselves into their project, writing every spare minute, then find that they run out of steam a month or two in. A regular, steady pattern of work is far more effective in the long haul.

Another resource you will need is willpower. How much do you really want to finish your book? It doesn”t matter what drives you, whether it is the burning desire to tell your story, the hope of making the world a better place through your fiction, or simply the urge to prove a point to that teacher from school, the one who said you would never amount to anything. (Personally I find that a well-developed sense of guilt, nurtured during a Catholic childhood, helps keep me going when things get tough.) What is essential is that your drive is strong enough to last the journey.

Reflect on your motivation for writing. If you find that it”s not clear, or powerful, or that it begins to evaporate when you think about it, then it is unlikely to sustain you to the end of your book.

There are other resources you will need to call on. Support is crucial, from family and friends of course, but also from other writers. If you have a rich reading history, it will expand your ideas of what language and story can do, and help you when you get stuck. I will address both of these issues in more detail in future posts.

Don”t get so preoccupied with your fuel supplies, though, that you forget your airplane. It is the idea, the story, that carries you to your destination, and this too has to be strong enough to survive the journey. If you are not absolutely in love with your idea, head over heels, crazy in love with it, then you might be better going by steamship instead.