The Secrets to Finishing a Novel

I’m often asked how exactly I went about writing my novels.

Unlike a number of the new writers I’ve spoken to, I have never started writing a novel, only to give up on it part way through.

(With the exception of the sequel to Flicker, which is currently paused on Chapter Five until I find out if the series will be published!)

Of course, this could simply be down to the fact that I’m really rather stubborn!

I’m the type of reader, who even if a book is atrocious, will have to read it to the end, because I have started it. If I start a story, I need to finish it.  And I guess I apply this same attitude to my writing … though hopefully my books aren’t ‘atrocious’!

One blog reader recently commented that her reason for writing was a ‘selfish one’, in that she has to get her stories onto paper for her own sanity.  This is definitely something I can empathise with.  Quite often my head buzzes with a story all day, and I find myself literally racing home in order to commit it to virtual paper.

And so my disciplined writing style might just be the result of stubbornness, or of an unerring need to spill out my day’s plot-developments.

However, I like to think there are two key ‘secrets’ to how I have finished three complete novels, and all the necessary edits, in just two years.

Firstly, I have time.

As an ‘unpublished author’, the main problem is obviously lack of funds.  You’ve found your vocation, but you’re not reaping any of the financial rewards.  Unless you’re being supported by someone else, or are fortunate enough to have saved the funds to take a sabbatical from the more mundane side of life, you need to have a job.

But exactly what your day job is will affect your writing.

At university, when my mind was whirring all day, every day, I found if very hard to concentrate on anything particularly taxing in my ‘spare time’.  I read very little, and the only things I ever wrote were essays.  My time to read and write had always been my holidays.  With my mind free from other distractions, I would not only digest one or two books a day, and also began to pen my own ideas.  The concepts for Flicker and My Ten Future Lives were thought up during a particularly lazy ten days in a Miami Hostel at the end of my third year.

And as I described in ‘So am I an Author Yet?! Flicker went from an idea to a full novel during my year backpacking.  Trapped on twenty-something hour-long bus journeys across South America, I had the time and the inclination to write.

However, no one can travel forever.  And so I ended up in Whistler, Canada, feeling like I was at least a writer, if not an ‘author,’ but knowing that without a book deal, neither of those self descriptions was going to pay the bills.

Anyone who has read my bio will realise I’m a Type A overachiever.  I studied Law at Cambridge, and went on to do a Masters.  If I were back in London, my own conscience would have forced me into a stressful 80-hour week city job, and my writing would have been relegated to the back-burner once again.

However, for the past year and a half, I’ve been living in Whistler – a ski village full of Brits and Australians escaping their high-power jobs to feel sixteen again, and work in basic service industries, in return for a free ski pass.  Everyone in Whistler is over-qualified.  The guys behind the counter at McDonalds have MBAs, and the girls scanning your ski pass every morning have done six years at university to qualify as vets.

Being a nanny with a Cambridge Law Degree is completely acceptable … because everyone else working in Whistler is in the same boat.  And so I unashamedly became a full-time babysitter.

Not only do I love children, but the job is perfect for my writing.  If I am working during the day, the children wil normally nap for at least two hours, and if I’m working in the evening, then I  have plenty of time to write once the kids are in bed.  And when I’m not working, I’m never too mentally-drained to put pen to paper.

So, that is my first ‘secret’.  Time, and a job, which provides it.

My second secret  to efficient writing is the adoption of a writing routine.

I’m not simply talking about writing at the same time each day, though for me this definitely helps.  A time-tested night owl, I know anything that I write in the evening will read far better than something written earlier in the day.  I’ve also worked out, that for the most part, if I have trashy American TV playing on loop in the background, only having half my attention on my own story also seems to work!

But the main part of my routine, which seems to be pivotal in me finishing novels, is the template I have established for writing those books.

First I divide the book into a series of empty Word documents.  One for each chapter.  After planning out the story roughly in my head, I then split up my notes between these documents, working out roughly what ought to go where.  I write my notes in italic font, and add to them liberally.  When the rough outline of the book is down, I then begin with the first chapter.  I brainstorm the section, play it out in my head, and write down anything and everything that comes to mind – phrases, scenes, rough ideas – again all in italics.

Once I’m happy I have the majority of the chapter planned, I then begin to write.  I leave the italic notes at the bottom of the document, and write above them in normal font.  And then, as and when I include something from those notes in the main text, I simply delete the notes.

Finally, while I am writing, I keep other documents related to the book in the same file on my computer.  I have an on-going Excel sheet, which records the number of words in each chapter, and tallies the total word-count as I go.  I also have a separate summary document, where I add the key facts and actions from each chapter, as I write them, so that I can trace different themes and stories throughout my own work.  In this respect, it’s a little like an English Literature assignment, but back-to-front.  Instead of dissecting the novel into its themes and various storylines, I’m working backwards to ensure my own themes and elements are consistent.

I doubt my routine would work for everyone, but I think it’s simply the establishment of a routine, which helps you as an author.

Stubbornness, Necessity, Time (and a Job which provides it) and a Routine.

Those are my secrets!


I’m sure other people have others – feel free to share yours in the comments page.  And if you don’t have any secrets yet … well maybe it’s time for some trial and error to create your own!

Keep writing, (and reading!)

C-C xx




Filed under C-C Lester, General, Unsigned Author Commentary, Writing

15 responses to “The Secrets to Finishing a Novel

  1. Girl, you are way too organized! Where’s the fun in that? I fly (or write) by the seat of my pants, having a general idea where I’m going but little idea how I’m going to get there or how many detours I’ll take along the way. I know that one day it may come back to bite me. So far, though, my system (or, more accurately, my lack of one) seems to be working. I do share the trait of stubborness with you, both in reading and writing. I don’t think I’ve ever quit a book I made a mental committment to read, and I’ve got 3 completed novel written.

  2. jesswords10

    Thanks for sharing your tips. I really like the idea of splitting the story into multiple documents, what’s nice about that is that you can easily write your book in sections, jumping from different chapters as your adrenaline pushes you. I just might use that when I rework my story. I’m not sure what my secrets are, does junk food count? I think the biggest thing for me is to get out of the house. I accomplish much more if I take my butt to the library or to a coffee shop and devote time to sit and write. At home, too many interruptions, even from myself.

    • See that’s really interesting – I’m the complete opposite, if I’m not on a long-haul journey, I write best sitting in bed, some inane tv playing in the background of my laptop … a more interesting form of white noise. Occasionally I’ve tried to work in coffee shops, but then I just find the constant traffic a distraction! (and eat WAY too much cake … which might fall under your first class of ‘secret’ 😉 )
      C-C xx

  3. Diolch yn fawr (Thanks from here in Wales).
    You inspired my blog post today – giving secrets away.
    You are the inspiration we all need; demonstrating persistence and thats what you clearly have. And a STERN approach:

  4. Thank you for responding Laura 🙂
    And I LOVE the ‘stern’ approach!!!
    C-C xxx

  5. I love this post! I was a PM for 22 yrs. and it resonates with me as I never considered that job skills could actually be beneficial to me in my writing enedavors. Experience yes, skills no. This woke me up with a resounding smack lol. The Excel idea and “anatomy of a novel” are excellent. Thanks for sharing.

  6. I laughed when reading this… Here I was thinking maybe this would help me, maybe this would be a jem of advice… and my heart fell as I realised I could never, NEVER be that well organised! I just write as the words come. I have a BAD case of verbal diarrhea and just have to get the words out of my mind… never would be able to restrain myself to plan out the entire book first! Thanks for the advice nonetheless! Its always great to see other writers’ styles!

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  9. Wow – just reading that made my head hurt at the organised effort required :). Then again – when I and two colleagues at work decided we would *attempt* to write a novel for our works charity (yeah right) I realised just how much my latent, self-diagnosed OCD, might come in handy :).

    Each character got their own bio document produced: age; birth date; height; weight; hair colour; favourite colour; character traits etc. Then, based on dates of birth, world events that took place during their life times were documented as well.

    With it I had a complete tapestry of intersecting lives laid out, not only in my mind, but on my hard-drive as well.

    The result of all that effort? Of the folders and folders of facts? Well – I submitted my chapters to the project (Josie & Beryl on my blog) and everyone absolutely loved Beryl.

    Beryl! The one and only character in the whole piece that didn’t have a bio. The one character I thought up on a whim to play opposite the main character Josie! All that work and it was the improvised parts that people liked the best.

    Needless to say, we never finished that novel – but perhaps, one day, I’ll summon up the motivation and courage to finish the idea.

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