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What It Really Takes to Complete a Novel
I'm in the midst of working on a novel that I've been working on (actually trudging through this time) for going on two years. When I was 19, it took me seven months to complete my first novel. My second took just over one, as it was really practice for National Novel Writing November. My third took all of three (The last two were each half the length of the first, of course). I have yet to be published outside of self-publishing my second via unsuccessful e-book and am searching for agents. Yet, I still refuse to stop writing novels, as it's my passion over nonfiction and short stories. A lot of people seem to wonder how I have the energy to complete these novels at my age, when I'm still learning a LOT about writing every day. The answer is simple: I can't. I've lost a lot of spirit within the last two years, feeling milked of writer's bliss in school since I switched from film to writing as my major, but the fact is, I refuse to cease production on this novel when I know there's something to it.
Giving up on a novel to me means two things: giving up on myself when I know a story has a purpose, and giving up on the main character, who becomes closer to me than most friends and family. If you think your novel isn't perfect, you're absolutely right. I disagree when Truman Capote said that he published at least one masterpiece in his lifetime; I don't think one writer should believe that at any point they've published their "great work". Where can you develop from there? No, your novel will never be a masterpiece outside of those who read it and will hopefully adore it. But just because your work isn't perfect in your eyes doesn't mean it has to sop production. If you really care about a project it should be followed through from start to finish. Otherwise, why'd you start it? A novel doesn't just pop up in your head one day and you go, "This is brilliant! I better start now." A novel should take some time to brew in your head like a finely crafted beer. The idea of it should intoxicate you, and yet have some rich flavor to it begging you to go beyond the sample. You should want to finish a keg's worth. If it doesn't settle well, don't jump in until either it's ready or you stumble on another idea.
Second, a character shouldn't be a character in a novelist's head. Considering I'm a psychological writer, that I haven't written a novel outside of first person, I truly need to get inside the head of my character. And once I'm glued and begin to find a voice inside, I can't get out. There are so many writers and teachers who tell you not to give up on the story, but who's carrying the story? The characters. For me, it's one vision carrying the whole thing and to lose faith in that is a sad thing. It's the same thing as saying, "You're not worth my time" and since I latch onto a character, I'd be a sociopath for letting them go. Even if my character's a sociopath, I still know they have something to say. This goes for any novelist. If you're not feeling your characters, try new ones. You might find you've got a different story brewing altogether, one more interesting, more well-founded.
Sure, it's the character-driven that drives me. But if a plot comes together in your head that needs to be told, don't veer off into an abyss of invisible words. Keep it up and you might find you go into a different direction that's better than the one you've had in mind. It might even enhance characters you may have at one point not felt. Unlike a short story, a novel is a true journey, taking you from a lucid start to a once-vague end. Don't treat a novel like it's the means to an end. Instead, it's really the means that controls the flow. It manipulates the characters, if the characters don't drive the story, and can ultimately influence the outcome.
My narrators possess me when I write. Sometimes their control lingers with me for hours on end. Other times, they only manage to sway me for minutes. But I never silence their voices, which keeps me going. That is the way a novel should be completed, via an almost supernatural urge to continue on. A novel needs to be purpose driven, more importantly over character and plot. If it's not, you don't have one. Never give up as a writer, but until you find that story, or that character or characters that make you lose control of yourself and fill up an empty page with everything to say, then to give up on that is to lose yourself.
A novelist is not a martyr. A novelist is someone who doesn't give a shit whether or not he or she becomes a hero in the end. But the characters are always martyrs, whether good or bad. That is what keeps the dream alive, and the novel headed for completion. In the end, it all comes down to the characters being people to their creators, or at the very least, a story that begs to be told, not requests.