how to finish a novel

Ironman finish line

A friend who’s writing a book – a ‘publish or perish’ tenure track type of book – asked me if I have any tips on finishing. Well… not really. I mostly need help in the great chaotic middle when it looks like the entire book is going to fall apart and I’ve just wasted months of my life. Otherwise known as Act 2. Once I get past that hump (the literary version of mile 22), it’s fun – or a relief – to race to the finish line. Of course, then we all face the problem artist Paul Gardner articulated (and the rest of us creative folk adopted), “A painting is never finished – it simply stops in interesting places.”

In his lecture on “How to Make a Scene,” my mentor, Rob Roberge, illustrated the point that dialog is people saying no to each other in interesting ways. Take a look at ABOUT A BOY (both the novel and the film, and here I’m quoting the film for concision) when the couple wants Will to be the godfather to their daughter:

Will: I couldn’t possibly think of a worse godfather for Imogene. You know me. I’ll drop her at her christening. I’ll forget her birthdays until her 18th, when I’ll take her out and get her drunk and possibly, let’s face it, you know, try and shag her. I mean, seriously, it’s a very, very bad choice.
Couple: We know, I just thought you had hidden depths.
Will: No. No. You’ve always had that wrong. I really am this shallow.

That’s the final ‘no.’ If scenes are built this way, then if you consider the larger narrative arc, this same element exists and the book has a natural conclusion and the protagonist has either fulfilled the desire driving them through the book or is finally, and perhaps irrevocably, thwarted.

This is likely not of much help to my non-fiction friend. For both fiction and non-fiction there’s only one piece of advice to finish a book: perseverance. For the novelist, it’s that, plus crafting a great conclusion that satisfies the reader yet does not tie up everything in a bow. The reader is satiated and the action has come to a place that feels both inevitable and unexpected (in the best of all possible worlds) and is at a point that could open up in a new way. I think of it as a journey through woods where the end is the arrival at a meadow.

A SciFi/Fantasy writer has some thoughts on the writing marathon and community of writers. Perhaps that’s the real secret – to have a group of writers around you whether in person or online who understand the journey and encourage you (no bitter people allowed). I know it works for me and I right now I want thank the group I check in with regularly. They definitely keep me going and help me solve problems. Thank you!

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One thought on “how to finish a novel

  1. Great post, Diane. I felt this same way with my latest novel, except my Act 2 started about 50 pages in, and didn’t finish until 50 pages from the end. It came early, and it stayed late. Maybe we should call Act 2 the “Mother-in-Law” act? Fair disclosure, I actually love my MIL quite a bit. I lucked out: Great wife, great Mom-in-law. Okay, enough tangents. Great job.

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