I often joke that writing a novel is like running a marathon---only no one bothers to tell you what the route is. When the gun goes off, you’re just supposed to head off in whatever direction you think is right and run with no one to stop traffic for you, reassure you that you’re on the right path—or that you will ever even arrive at the finish line.
And if you magically manage to not get hit by a car, or lost, or hit by a car while lost and you make it to the finish line of that first draft? Well, rather than being greeted with cheers and a laurel wreath, you’re told that what you’ve arrived at isn’t actually a finish line per se, but rather the start of an entirely new marathon. Draft two! No rest for you!
At some point (usually around draft 6 or 7), writing a book-length project starts to feel like a Kafkaesque joke. An ouroboros of exhaustion. A mise-en-abyme of futility. Working on it seems about as purposeful as shuffling around deck chairs on the Titanic. Yes, it’s great that you just varied your word choice in that paragraph—but does that really matter if your book still has several plot holes, two unbelievable main characters, and will probably never be polished enough for you to even consider letting others read it?
It doesn’t help that the world isn’t set up to support writers the same way that it supports marathon runners. Where are the refueling stations to hand us Gatorade after an exhausting writing session where we (finally) fixed a problem chapter? And why don’t our friends stop by the coffee shop we write at with homemade signs to cheer us on? I want answers!
Instead, many writers encounter these people:
The Generic Unsupportive Family Member
Most writers have at least one of these. They’ve worked hard and sacrificed so that you can have opportunities and now they want to make it VERY clear that you’re throwing those opportunities away with your pesky literary ambitions.
Catchphrase: Give up on your dreams!!! Get an MBA!
The Co-Worker You Kind of Hate
Okay, maybe you really hate them. This person pretended to be interested in your book, but then realized it would be more fun to ask you pointed questions about it with a skeptical look on their face. Every day.
Catchphrase: How long have you been working on your book? It sure seems like forever. Why aren’t you done it yet?
That Stranger You Met at a Party
You weren’t even talking to them, but they overheard from across the room that someone was writing a book and were attracted like a moth to a literary flame. They have opinions about books and book writing! And now you’re going to hear them. Lucky you!
Catchphrase: I’ve always thought I would write a novel someday, but my life is just so full and great and busy that I don’t have time. Also, I don’t read books. Also, I hate writing. But everyone has a book in them, you know?
Finishing a book is hard. It’s so hard that I’m tempted to provide you with just one more metaphor about how very, very hard it is. Indulge me—I’m procrastinating from finishing my novel by writing this piece. Please don’t make me go back to facing down the flaws in my manuscript just yet!
Okay, here it is: finishing a book is like giving birth—except seven times in a row. And you’re alone. In the woods. Without a copy of Backwoods Multiple Birth Self-Midwifery for Dummies (Sorry! The person writing that book – unfortunately – also hasn’t finished it yet).
I wrote in another much more serious Open Book column about how life gets in the way of finishing books. Right now, I want desperately to finish a clean draft of my novel (what draft am I on, you ask? I’m not that big of a masochist--I stopped counting more than ten drafts ago for the sake of my sanity!) and life is still getting in the way.
Mostly, it’s that I struggle with screens after a brain injury last year. I can’t edit on a computer so I have to print my manuscript out and edit it by hand but then I also can’t input the changes from the printout. It’s a really fun writerly Catch-22. I finally decided to hire people to help me.
Great, I thought. There are people coming to decode my terrible handwriting and transcribe my changes every week. I can finally finish this book!
But then Life was like, “Oh, that’s cute! She thinks she can finish her novel. Here are some fun things for her to deal with that will take up a significant portion of her time and energy. Good luck!”
Honesty, Life can be a total jerk sometimes. Despite this, I am still working on finishing my novel every day (okay, fine some days). And it will happen. I think. Most likely.
But even when I finish this edit of my novel--that’s not even the end! After that, I have to show it to other people. Get their feedback telling me all the places where it’s terrible. Pick my self-esteem up off the floor. Hope the three second rule applies to self-esteem too. Figure out whether the feedback I got is useful or will completely wreck everything that actually works in my novel leading to a house of cards situation where the entire novel dramatically implodes. Make changes. Research agents. Send those agents e-mails that I’ve workshopped so thoroughly with all my friends that they refuse to speak to me any longer. Not sleep as I wait to hear back from the agents. Get rejections from those agents. Make an appointment with my therapist to process the rejections. Cry in my therapist’s office as I revisit childhood traumas. Decide that I’m not going to care about rejections any longer. Start covering my wall with printed copies of the rejections like it’s a cool new wall decor trend I saw on Pinterest. Smile emphatically all the time to convince everyone I’m totally fine. Maybe find an agent who likes my work. Get very unspecific notes from that agent around changes they want me to make to my manuscript. Have no idea how to make the requested vague changes to my manuscript. Convince my friends to finally talk to me again so that they can help me parse what the notes I’ve been given mean. Make the changes--then maybe see my book go out to editors. Get more notes. More rejections. More unspecific suggestions. Have my friends and my therapist eventually block my calls. Feel extremely proud of my friends for setting healthy boundaries for once but have no way to tell them that. Then maybe, someday get a publisher and go through several more drafts before the book finally sees the light of day!
Phew! I’m exhausted just writing that. Being a writer takes far more stamina than putting on running shoes and jogging for a mere 42 kilometers. Don’t listen to what Janet from Marketing says—you have just as much determination and willpower as she does without having to do three-hour training runs every night.
That stark prediction of my future aside, I know that finishing a novel isn’t impossible. People do it every day. I can finish my damn novel. You can finish your damn novel or your damn poetry collection or your damn essay collection, too.
We just need Coles Notes on the process--reports back from the field by people who have done it and can show us the way! Luckily, I have seen some amazing writers finish and publish their work recently and I asked them for their advice. This is the point where this column turns into a listicle:
1. It’s Normal for it to Feel Terrible!
Think you’re the only one for whom finishing a book feels like a passing a kidney stone? My friend Lindsay Wong whose memoir ‘The Woo Woo: How I Survived Ice Hockey, Drug Raids, Demons, and My Crazy Chinese Family’ comes out in October from Arsenal Pulp Press said that the process of writing her book--which included at least 24 rewrites--nearly killed her.
“The whole process of writing and editing and then revising was literal kill-me-now, pull-off-my fingernails- smash-in my front-teeth torture. I felt like the universe was testing me,” she said. “Finishing was the hardest thing that I’ve ever done.”
How does she feel now that her book is finally coming out? “Honestly, it feels exhilarating,” she said. Proving that all the pain was worth it! I think.
2. Outline the Crap Out of Your Book
Want advice from someone who has helped hundreds of writers finish their books? Look no further than Keith Maillard, a professor in UBC’s Creative Writing program whose next book ‘Twin Studies’ is coming out from Broadview Press in September.
“I work with a detailed outline that resembles a screenwriter’s beat sheet,” he said. “Initially I spend most of my time working on the outline, imagining scenes and making notes for them.”
Think you have to write chronologically? You don’t! Be a maverick like Maillard.
“I work on all parts of the book at once,” he said. “I need to write or imagine my climactic scenes first because otherwise I won’t know what I’m writing toward.”
3. Turn Off Netflix and Read Others’ Work
Want to hone your craft without checking out what others who are at the top of their game are doing? Writing isn’t an act of osmosis with the universe!
Poet Adele Barclay, who won the 2017 Dorothy Livesay Poetry Prize for her book ‘If I Were in a Cage I’d Reach Out for You,’ said that reading fuels her as an artist.
“I read a lot of poetry to get excited about all the voices and ideas swirling around beyond my perspective,” she said. “That energy motivates me to keep writing and developing my voice.”
4. Write at Your Own Unique Pace (That Takes Your Mental Health into Consideration)
When it comes to pounding out the drafts of your book, know that everyone has their own pace.
“Some people are the write-every-day sort,” said Andrew Wilmot whose first novel The Death Scene Artist is coming out from Wolsak and Wynn in October. “Others like me are the write-in-large-chunks-at-an-absurd-pace-and-then-nothing-for-weeks sort. Both are valid.”
Wilmot also emphasized that it’s okay to have days when you don’t write.
“Don’t layer on the guilt if you feel like having a mental health day and binge-watching Bojack Horseman instead of picking up the pen,” he said.
5. Get Eyeballs on Your Work
A common belief is that writing is a solitary endeavor. But that’s not how Maillard sees it.
“Writing is a social act, so getting feedback is vitally important,” he said. “If you have sympathetic intelligent readers, the proper response to criticism is not to say, ‘Read it more carefully, you idiot,’ but to pay attention to what they’re telling you. If they say that something isn’t working, it really isn’t.”
That doesn’t mean that hearing criticism will be easy.
“I wanted to literally gouge out my eyeballs,” said Wong, unaware of the future title of this listicle point and referring to a very different (and not advised) way to get eyeballs ‘on’ your work. “There was lots of screaming. I think my neighbours thought someone was being murdered. I’m only half-joking. But ultimately, I do trust my writer friends, agent, and editor. If they think something isn’t working, they always have a valid point.”
But before you start adding sex scenes involving cumin because your cousin’s hairdresser said your book lacked spice, figure out how to distinguish between the problems identified by readers and the solutions.
“Their suggestions on how to fix things may not be the best suggestions,” Maillard said. “You will probably have to find your own way.”
6. Make Writing a ‘Regular’ Priority
“Make writing a priority, like eating breakfast or shitting,” said Wong, in an epic quote that will likely someday end up on her tombstone. Wong’s had to say no to a lot of things to get work done— such as extremely fun and well-organized themed parties that other writers host (I’m talking about myself here. I’m a big fan of throwing themed parties. Lindsay never comes. It makes me very sad.), lunch meetings, and in person meetings that are better handled via a phone call.
Wilmot (who has attended one of my themed parties) also emphasizes trying to find a set time every day when you can work on your book.
“I wrote ‘The Death Scene Artist’ in the only time I had: in the hours before starting work each day. Which, if you know how much I hate mornings, is an accomplishment in and of itself,” he said.
7. Know That You Will Hate Your Work at Some Point… or at All Points
If there’s one thing that all writers share, it’s a tendency toward self-hatred when reading their own work! We’re all great like that.
Barclay said that one of the most important things is to find a way to connect to and not hate the parts of the book you wrote earlier on and now feel some distance from.
“Work to distinguish between the voice of instinct and the voice of self-loathing,” she said.
Maillard agrees and cautions that you aren’t out of the woods just because your book is almost at the printers.
“I should warn young writers about the “OMG this is all shit!” epiphany that you’re almost certain to have at the last possible minute,” he said. “Even though I knew better, I grabbed a scene and began cutting madly away, sure that it was all just too something. When I told my editor what I was doing, he said, ‘Stop it!’ and that was exactly the right thing to say.”
8. Celebrate, But Get Back on the Horse
Publishing a book is a big accomplishment—whether you go with a traditional publisher or opt to self-publish. Now is the time to feel all the feels, as the kids say.
“When a printed book arrives and you hold it in your hands, it’s a remarkable bittersweet experience that I’m not going to try to describe for you,” said Maillard.
But that feeling doesn’t last.
“Shortly after that, if you’re like me, you will feel deeply sad,” he said. “It’s the kind of sadness you feel at the end of a long deep relationship. Life feels oddly still and empty, and you could easily sink into that old sticky pool of nostalgia.”
How do you keep from falling into that bottomless sinkhole of melancholy?
“In my experience the only way to combat this sadness is to start writing another book,” said Maillard.
The Bottom Line
Sometime life keeps you from finishing your book, but often you can find small ways to work on it and push it a little bit closer to being finished. Writing your book will feel great some days and on those days you’ll think you’re the most brilliant person who has ever walked the earth. Then it will probably feel really terrible the very next day. That’s just how life works.
Despite the fact that finishing a book project is exhausting and most of us are doing it with no guarantee that it will ever get published, we persist as writers because it’s the only thing that we can do. Why? Probably because we’re all huge masochists! But interesting ones with cool ideas and complex imaginations. So, the best kind.
 Not all people who struggle with health issues can afford to do that and that means fewer disabled people finish their books which contributes to the lack of disabled writers.
The views expressed by Open Book columnists are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book.
A.H. Reaume is a Vancouver-based fiction writer who reads too much and is currently in too many book clubs (four in total). Reaume has a background in feminist activism and an M.A. in Canadian Literature from UBC. She's been published in the Vancouver Sun, The Globe and Mail, USAToday.com, and Time.com and is currently trying to finish her first novel.