Why I Haven’t Finished My Novel

When I decided to become a novelist, I thought I could whip out a novel in a year. After all, I knew how to write – I was a professional screenwriter. I could structure stories and develop characters and string together words in a compelling fashion. Why wouldn’t I complete a book in a year?

Six years and zero novels later, that question is no longer confidently rhetorical. What went wrong? I was prioritizing writing time (I even took a year off to write), I never gave up because writing is hard (I’m stubborn like that), and I rarely procrastinated (I beat that bad habit). So I did some painful soul searching and identified my three main problems and (fingers crossed) came up with some solutions…

#1 Problem: Over-revising.

Often people assume that I haven’t finished a novel because I’m simply not writing enough, but that’s not the case. I write constantly. The problem is I always find something wrong with the story, and instead of making a little change to fix it, I revise the whole story into something totally different. Like if I started with a forbidden romance between a cat and dog, I’ll change it to an epic journey starring flying pigs. And I do this dozens of times.

The Solution: Take a break.

When I find myself making a drastic full-story change, I must force myself to step away. Sure, I can write down the “brilliant new idea” first, but I now know it’s important not to rush ahead. For example, I recently got stuck on a WIP that I’ve been revising and re-outlining for over two years, so I took a look at some old outlines. Usually when I do this, I remember why the previous outlines didn’t work and why I changed or scrapped them altogether, but this time… this time I found one that was solid. Why did I scrap it? I remember the reason, but it was such a small thing, easily rectified with a slight change, but at the time I’d been so close to the story I couldn’t see that and instead changed everything. Now, I’m going back to that outline. If only I’d taken a break maybe I wouldn’t have spent the last year and a half pursuing less awesome story options.

#2 Problem: Falling out of love with the story.

This is either a reason for or consequence of over-revising. Sometimes I’ve just been working on a story so long that I’m sick of it, so I over-revise to make it fresh. Then, when I revise too much I lose sight of why I ever loved it in the first place, and dump it.

The Solution: Reignite the spark.

Like a lover, writers sometimes lose interest in their stories. Maybe the story just wasn’t that great to begin with, or the story morphed into something that lost the spark. To get the spark back, I ask two simple questions, “Why did I want to write this story? Is this story still about that?” If not, well, now I know why the flame went out. I have to bring the story back to what I was passionate about.IraGlass

#3 Problem: High standards.

There is a famous quote by Ira Glass that sums up my biggest problem: “All of us who do creative work, we get into it because we have good taste. But there is this gap. For the first couple years you make stuff, it’s just not that good. It’s trying to be good, it has potential, but it’s not. But your taste, the thing that got you into the game, is still killer. And your taste is why your work disappoints you.” Yep. For the last decade my goal hasn’t been “write a novel,” it’s been “write and publish a best-selling novel that launches my career as an author.” I’ve been struggling so hard to create the perfect story that I haven’t finished any story.

The Solution: Just write.

This is utterly terrifying to me. One of the reasons I’m a plotter and not a pantser is because I don’t want to waste time writing a less-than-brilliant novel. But after six years I have to admit that having completed a decent novel would be better than no novel at all.

So as of this week, I have a new goal: without doing any crazy big revisions, turn the outline I found from a year and a half ago into a novel. Just write it. Start to finish. In a few months I’ll tell you how it went.

If you’re having trouble finishing a novel too, you might also be interested in Writers: Should You Quit Your Day Job? and Write, Revise & Repeat – Are You Stuck In A Rut?


Next Up from Heather… I attack my over-revising problem and come up with two questions to ask to make sure I’m not revising myself out of the story.

Click here for more posts from Heather.


Author: Heather Jackson

Heather is a freelance screenwriter, game writer, and novelist based in Toronto. For more, visit her website at heatherjacksonwrites.com or follow her on Twitter @HeatherJacksonW

8 thoughts on “Why I Haven’t Finished My Novel”

  1. That’s great that you were able to take time off to write. Except…maybe it gave you too much time to revise! 🙂 Good luck getting it to completion. You will, it’s just a difficult task, no way around it, with a very steep learning curve. (And I totally understand how one form of writing does not necessarily translate to another. Poetry is not the best training ground for novel writing, I discovered. It took me a decade or so to learn how to plot. *sigh*)

  2. Heather, I’ve been playing around with a (fiction-based) idea for quite some time. I’m torn whether to attack it as a novel or try it as a script. Any advice??? This is my first go at either. Ahhh! Thanks so much, Lisa

    1. Hi Lisa. It really depends on the story and what kind of writer you want to be. Screenwriting is a business and writing an original script doesn’t mean that script will be produced, it usually serves as a writing sample to get a job. Basically, it’s your resume to get into the business. But writing a novel is more personal and you have more options to get your story out into the world. But from a writing perspective, if you think very visually, love writing dialogue and want to collaborate with others (producers, directors, etc), screenwriting may be for you. But if you love writing description and beautiful sentences in solitude, novel writing will be more up your alley. Hope that helps!

  3. Great post! I’m just starting that very scary step of starting my first draft, of my first (attempt) of a book this week. I have a working title and I have an illustrator lined up for the cover (starting out I’m looking at doing a self-published ebook on Smashwords). So now I just have to start writing….deep breath…..

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