I would say that the number one thing I hear all the time as a writer is this: "Oh! I've always wanted to write a novel. In fact, I have a great idea for a mystery/thriller/tearjerker/YA paranormal"... Etc.
I have no doubt that all of the people who say this to me (in recent weeks: my dentist, a B and B owner in Martha's Vineyard, a woman at a cocktail party) do, in fact, have a great idea for a novel. I also have no doubt that they could write a great book. But the fact remains that most of them don't. And the question is why?
Let's be honest, people. The fun part of writing a book IS the idea, and possibly a few great scenes you imagine in your head, maybe a few lines of whip-smart dialogue you can already envision on the printed page. What's not so fun?
Well, um, just about everything else...i.e., the actual writing. The vast majority of the choices you make when writing are mechanical, not artistic--you need to make sure the damn thing holds together. In that way writing has more in common with automechanics than it does with inspiration or The Muse. People need to stand up, sit down, walk into rooms, have flashbacks that don't interfere with the current action, want what they don't need and need what they don't want and not be able to see what the reader can plainly perceive. It's a 350+ page puzzle, without the accompanying image that illustrates whether you are on the right track.
I think that's why people don't end up finishing books: it's too easy to get lost amidst a pile of bolts and pipes and valves and rubble. It's easier at that point to walk away than it is to slog through the mess and try to build something drive-able (er, readable).
So HOW can you avoid this? How can you stay motivated through the mid-section slog, when you have no idea what is supposed to come next and your characters are misbehaving and the gorgeous scene you'd imagined in your head has morphed into a nonsensical mess on the page?
There are several different factors when it comes to staying motivated, because there are several dimensions of snag/difficulty/resistance you will encounter as a writer. In this post I will focus on the kind of resistance that comes from confusion, and not knowing what comes next for your characters or your book. It is hard to sit down and write; but it is infinitely easier once you know what you are supposed to be writing about.
When I start a book, I always take a 2-3 week period of what I like to think of as "play-time"; I explore the world and the characters, write down some great lines, get a sense of the world of the book. And then I sit down and I outline. Outlining isn't fun--it's the novelistic equivalent of writing a car service manual--but trust and believe, you will be SERIOUSLY grateful for the big-picture info it will provide when you're at page 132 and your character has just wedged herself behind a refrigerator and you have NO idea how to get her out.
Outlines, like manuals, are only useful in so far as they are detailed and specific, so I highly recommend you don't scrimp on this part of the process, especially if you are relatively new to writing. Go ahead and dive in chapter by chapter; really think about everything that can and must occur in Acts One, Two, and Three (for more on the three-act structure, see my blog post here.) It might help to flesh out seminal, or "turning point" scenes first, and then think about what should precede and immediately follow those. Get down and dirty in there; some of my outlines are twenty pages, single spaced. Remember, you are building a lifeline; later, when you're lost and discouraged, you can pull yourself ahead on this rope.
And yes, people, I know that outlining is difficult and soul-crushing work. But nobody ever said writing was all daisies and chocolate malts! (And if they did, they were lying...or they have never actually finished a book!)
More on staying motivated in future posts...