How to Complete a Novel (when you are incapable of finishing anything)

Published by Sam Ruddock on

by JM Burgoyne

When it was first suggested that I might be incapable of finishing anything, I felt unfairly stigmatised. After all, had I not completed a novel? Writer is published in May 2022.

Okay, it took thirteen years. And, other than a few short stories, another novel which is currently in a major mess, and a novella to which I’ve decided to add lots of extra short stories, I’ve not finished anything else.

So perhaps there is a point. And I clearly haven’t yet solved this challenge. But these are the things I’ve tried and that helped me complete Writer.

Completing a novel can feel like the most unbelievably enormous thing. Like walking around the world.

1. Realise that you are allowed to write, and your writing is important

For many years I suppressed my writing instinct/desire and focussed on working, volunteering, and (if I had time) cleaning the house. I had been brought up with the view that I needed a proper job, and that fun was way down in the list of acceptable uses of my time. I would keep my creative brain locked up until, usually as I went to bed, the floodgates would open and I would be up every two minutes noting down another idea. Giving myself permission to spend my time writing was important. But more, it was important for me to prioritise writing.

I’ve still got some way to go. Trying to earn enough money to feel comfortable spending time writing is a game of chicken for me, especially in this economic climate. But I’ve got a lot better carving out time to write.

2. Write every day

After many years of listening to me whining about how I wanted to be an author but wasn’t one yet, my friend Em finally cracked. She said she believed in me, she thought I could do it, but that I’d never do it if I never actually wrote anything. I then responded that I didn’t have time to write (at the time I think I had seven part time jobs). We totted up my hours, and I think it came to 37 hours. Em divided this by seven, and we worked out that around other things I had time to write for 18 minutes a day. So I did this for a month. I wrote for 18 minutes a day and finished my first novella. Writing every day helped me keep the plot in my head, and once I started on this small number of minutes of writing, I usually then ended up writing for longer.

3. Just Keep Swimming

Completing a novel can feel like the most unbelievably enormous thing. Like walking around the world. Even when you have a publisher, it can feel as though you will never finish. Throughout the process I was helped by quoting Dory (yes, the fish from Finding Nemo). Just keep swimming. When the panic would start to rise in me at the enormity of the task ahead, I’d say that to myself, silently, and just keep putting one word after another.

JM Burgoyne

Photo of JM Burgoyne
JM Burgoyne; credit Adam Barnes

JM Burgoyne is originally from Hertfordshire. She has a BA and MA from the University of East Anglia. She has had many jobs including administration, teaching, tutoring, community filmmaking, and journalism. She has also volunteered for charities from Ethiopia to The Jungle in Calais. Her key traits, she says, are an inability to work full-time without feeling trapped, and generally feeling bored of something after having done it twice. She lives in Norwich.

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