Whilst much has been said about picking the right idea to begin your first novel, what about how to get through the soggy middle and to the very end? As part of our Pocket Guide series, Sharlene Teo has written this great blog on how YOU can get to the end of your manuscript…
Whilst I was finishing my debut Ponti, I was still in that phase of my life where I was into long-distance running. I ran slowly, with music in my ears, more for the steadiness and salutary accomplishment of getting outdoors and doing something good for my health than becoming faster or training to be an elite runner. I entered into a few half-marathons, completing them with such a leisurely slowness that charity runners dressed as Darth Vader and a giant armadillo far outpaced me. The first pointer I have, therefore, is that finishing a novel is not a race, it’s a marathon. It is about persistence, not speed. Discipline, rather than the flashy glory of being first through the line.
If you feel your excitement for your ideas flagging, or you’re getting bored/annoyed by your characters, or you’re simply in a writing rut the first port of call is to dip into what Julia Cameron calls the “well” of ideas and inspiration that you access via “artist dates”, a carving out of time with yourself to reconnect with what invigorated you in the first place. Get away from your laptop or notebook and visit a gallery (if such things are still possible, in these times), or watch a film, or close your eyes and listen to a piece of music. Or go for a walk. Cook something. You’d be surprised at how much creative blocks gets unclogged and how many disparate ideas emerge and connect through mindful distraction and acts of self-care.
Sometimes we feel stuck because we’re squinting too hard at the screen, willing answers to arrive, a flash of perfection. Kick perfectionism to the curb and replace it with playfulness instead. It’s just a first draft. You’re telling the story to yourself. Try and think about when you were a kid, that kind of curiosity, absorption, lack of cynicism or judgment that came with telling or listening to stories being told. Reconnect with that childlike sense of wonder, the sensation of play and the flow state which is the antithesis of the paranoia, watchfulness and mundane competitiveness of social media. Remember that you’re writing first and foremost to communicate ideas and feelings that can only be worked through in the telling. Remember that it’s fiction, it’s make believe. I feel a tremendous freedom trying to reconnect to the emotional impulse, the constellation of impressions and traits that ignited each character’s creation.
If you’re stuck or you don’t know how to proceed further, reconnect to the feeling behind the story. Every plot, however improvised or premeditated, is governed by one or more of those emotional impulses. Is it sadness? Anger? Outrage? Delight? Figure out what a rough thesis statement behind your novel is and work backward from there. Make sure each chapter resonates with that statement. And the form and length of the statement is entirely up to you. With Ponti, I was interested in ideas of the monstrous feminine, the ways women look at each other, how beauty is both a blessing and a curse, the way superstitions and fantasies of fame are all ways in which we try to navigate an oftentimes mysterious and relentlessly alienating world. Every time I felt lost or sick of my material, I returned to the ideas behind it, and found my way back into the story through there.
To return to the analogy of marathons, each step takes you closer to the finish line but it’s as much about preparation and early starts as well. Focusing on the material in front of you, even if it feels disjointed, unfinished and imperect- is usually a good clue as to how to continue and most importantly finish it off. The great Gabriel Garcia Marquez once said: “I have spent many months on a first paragraph, and once I get it, the rest just comes out very easily. In the first paragraph you solve most of the problems with your book. The theme is defined, the style, the tone. At least in my case, the first paragraph is a kind of sample of what the rest of the book is going to be.” Your beginning is usually the key to your ending. One thing I love about the novel is how each novel has its own internal structure and logic, and one way of decoding how you’ll end the thing is by looking at the cues and meanings you’ve seeded right in the beginning. Linking the opening and ending scenes creates a sense of reader satisfaction and completion. Even better if the ending illuminates the beginning in a new way. For further reading on this topic, I really recommend: A Sense of an Ending by Frank Kermode and Alexander Chee’s excellent instruction on writing and life, How to Write an Autobiographical Novel.
I hope these tips help, and I can’t wait to read your finished stories.
Sharlene Teo’s debut novel Ponti won the inaugural Deborah Rogers Writer’s Award, was shortlisted for the Hearst Big Book Award and Edward Stanford Fiction Award, longlisted for the Jhalak Prize and selected by Ali Smith as one of the best debut works of fiction of 2018. She holds fellowships from the David TK Wong and Elizabeth Kostova Foundations and the University of Iowa International Writing Program. Her short fiction has been shortlisted for the Berlin Writing Prize and her non-fiction has appeared in publications such as the TLS, LitHub, Tate Etc, Wasafiri, The London Magazine and the upcoming Sceptre Books Anthology East Side Voices.
Published 9 November 2020