How to finish the novel you've been putting off

We've all, at one point, had the best idea for a novel. We might have even started writing one, but there often comes a point where you simply stopped and never continued again. Maybe the inspiration left or you found something better to do with your time.

Andreas Schroeder is one of the most renowned writers to come out of UBC with 23 published books of fiction, nonfiction and poetry. He teaches at our graduate creative writing program and took the time to talk to us about creating, developing and writing a story.

There are two possible ways to come up with ideas and create drafts for a book: write what you know or what you want to know. Schroeder suggests taking the opportunity to do some research — don’t be afraid to get your hands dirty and experience something new.

Define your objective and genre. If your objective is to get published, you have to find a suitable agency that will be interested in your work. 

“In fiction, you just do it," said Schroeder. "You come up with the idea that you want, you spend the time to form a manuscript and then you sell the actual manuscript."

Nonfiction, he says, is "completely different," as you will be selling your idea and working with a publishing company to write the actual book.

Figure out what kind of writer you are. Some writers need to understand every detail of the story before they even sit down to start writing it. Some just think of a plot and characters. Some need the base story arc. Others do not plan the story at all and let the story shape itself as they write it.

“There is no good way, no bad way, it just depends on how you are built. I know writers who know nothing about the book until they sit down to write it. For them, writing is exploring. I know people who need to work it out in excruciating detail — for example, John Irving. John Irving says that he does not start the book until he knows the last line of the book," said Schroeder.

Don’t rush it. The average time it takes to write a book, says Schroeder, is about five years — three years to write it and another two to put in the finishing touches, polish and publish your work. Obviously, this varies wildly depending on the length and subject matter of the book, and how much time one can devote to writing in the first place.

Stay focused. It is easy to get distracted while writing as you constantly have new ideas about other books or you don’t want to write that day. Schroeder suggests writers set an amount of words that will be their minimum for one day. Even if what you end up producing is garbage, you will keep your writing machinery working and not let it rust. 

Create your ritual. Many writers have their own superstitions — set a fresh bouquet of flowers each time you sit down to write, sharpen your pencils, have a special pen and notepad next to you to write down ideas as you write or go for a run before you start writing. This sets you in the right mindset, even if it’s a complete placebo effect.

“Every writer has a little medicine bag," said Schroeder. "Nobody knew what was in it. If you opened it up and showed it to people, they would understand the significance of it. But it was for you, it was magic."

Schroeder ends with some encouragement for writers of our generation: “It is not harder to write and get published now than it was when I started 50 years ago. So there is no reason for anyone who wants to write not to.”