Why Writing a Novel Isn’t the Same as Finishing a Novel

“What made you decide to write a book?” 

I still get this question from time to time, though less often now than I did in my twenties and thirties. Maybe there’s something about being older that makes it more likely we’ll have something to write a book about? I still sometimes come back with my old retort, “What made you decide not to?” but I find myself thinking about it more and more often. What made me decide to write a book? 

I’ve been writing since I was a child. I love storytelling, and I love word-craft, and I love coming back to something I wrote years ago and thinking that it’s good. I’ve started more projects than I could ever finish in this lifetime, and I’ve finished more rough drafts than I will ever polish and submit, but even those tiny bits of randomly started chapters and strange pages of un-finished storytelling are good; they are glimpses into something that my mind created and could be something spectacular if I ever get back to them. 

The real answer to the question of what made me decide to write a book is that I have always written, and I’ve always had stories bouncing around in my head that are eagerly waiting to flow out onto paper. The more important question is why did I decide to finish a book. I’d been writing for decades. Why didn’t I have more finished work, more complete manuscripts? I had thousands of pieces and no comprehensive complete work to distribute, nothing finished. 

Enter a collaborative writing adventure, an online text-based RPG, where I was writing with the most amazing authors I’d ever worked with. It was exciting, dynamic, and ongoing- Our stories never ended, just flowed into new adventures. We had story-series that went on for years, flowing and changing as players joined and left, and sometimes returned. Then, one day, one of the writers mentioned National Novel Writing Month. “1660 words a day? Oh, I could never do that…” I said. And then I tallied up everything I’d written in our collaborative world for a week, and discovered that I’d written over 40,000 words that week alone. If I could do that, why not try my hand at 50,000 words of finished manuscript?

First National Novel Writing Month, I failed. I wasn’t dedicated. I wasn’t attentive. It was a lark, something I took on by chance. My second National Novel Writing Month, I was between jobs, had nothing to lose, and I wrote a science fiction mystery novel. And I completed it. And I haven’t failed a NaNo challenge since. (The Kami White mysteries began with a manuscript that was my third NaNoWriMo win.)  Deciding to write a book is easy. I did that a thousand times, maybe more judging by the numbers of files in my back-up hard-drive. But deciding to finish it? That was hard. It meant taking myself seriously, as a writer and as a creator. It meant finding the passion and self-determination to make it happen all by myself.

Collaborative writing is a blast- you write until you’re stuck or tired and then pass it on to someone else. When you write alone, you’re the only one doing the work. You are your own judge, jury, and sometimes executioner. My first attempt at NaNo, I’d finish a scene and think  “Phew! I did it! Who’s next?” only to discover that I was the one who was up next. I remember sitting at my computer at our over-sized dining room table and looking around asking, “Hullo? Anyone there?” And I discovered over and over that I was the only author up next for the scene after that and the scene after that. I hated whole paragraphs and deleted them, setting myself back in word count, sometimes by days. I’d write other scenes and love them so much that going on to the next scene all alone was intimidating. What if I couldn’t duplicate that awesomeness every step of the way? In the end, I discovered more about myself and about my creative process than I thought possible. I’d always been a writer, I’d always decided to write books. But now I was an author with a completed rough draft in front of me.

I’d decided to write a novel, and that was easy. I did it over and over. It wasn’t until I decided to finish a novel that I discovered the difference between writing and finishing. I still from time to time will finish a scene and look around for my collaborative authors, wondering who is up next. “Oh, right. That would be me, then. How about I get started on that.” And I still delete whole paragraphs, and keep others long past when they actually fit because I still love them too much to let them go. But now, when I say I’m going to write a book, there are not half-finished thoughts and scrambled bits of paragraphs left behind in files labeled by dates. Now, when I say I’ve decided to write a book, what I really mean is “I’ve decided to finish writing a book.”  And that difference, between deciding to write and deciding to finish, is all the difference in the world. 

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