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Saturday, January 05, 2013

Don't Just Start the Great American Novel... Finish It!

Many people want to write a book but never start. Many others start but never finish.  
            One, because it’s hard work. But even those with indomitable spirits can be overwhelmed by the prospect of writing 100,000 cohesive words.
            I have a very simple philosophy to writing and completing projects. To borrow a football analogy, it’s all about moving the ball down the field.
            In other words, simple progress. We all want to get to the finish line, but you can’t treat it as a sprint. If you do, both your enthusiasm and energy will wane. Rather, think of it as a long-distance run and you want to make sure you’re putting yards behind you every day. Here are some tips that should help in your quest.

Choose to ignore the existence of writer’s block.
            Mike Harden, the late columnist of the Columbus Dispatch, put it best when he asked, “How would you react if you hired a plumber at $60 an hour and he sat in front of your clogged sink for a couple hours, doing nothing, because he claimed to have ‘plumber’s block’?”
            You may lock up over a phrase or a scene, but you shouldn’t let that stop you from putting words on paper or in your hard drive. Don’t agonize trying to find the perfect words. Keep moving. The words you put down today might not be the exact ones you want, but they’ll fill the space until the right ones come and enable you to keep moving forward.

Write every day.
            I try to write every day. Sometimes, life gets in the way, but I make an honest effort to do something. It’s part of the aforementioned game of moving the ball down the field. Some days you lock up big yardage. Other days, it’s a game of inches. However, even if you’re inching along, you’re making progress. My daily goal is a minimum of 500 words.

The brain dump.
            During the early stages of a project, I don’t concern myself with chapters, grammar, punctuation or structure. Rather, I focus on ideas and the story. There will be time for structure and tweaking later, but early in the process you need to capture the ideas and create the overarching essence of your book.

           Early on, my books look like a stream of consciousness. It might include dialog, plot ideas, scenes, etc. At some point, I start creating chapters and doing the organizing. For instance, in my recent novel, The Essay, I worked on the brain dump for a good six-eight months. I had 20,000 words of ideas, quotes, scenes, etc. When I was ready to start piecing the book together, I spent two days of going through my brain dump and cutting-and-pasting passages into chapters. By the time I was ready to write, I had all the components for the book, and I was able to start crafting words.

Don’t be afraid to write out of sequence.
            If I’m struggling over a particular scene, I may just leave it for a couple of days and work on other parts of the book. Because I like to lay out the book before I get to heavily into the writing, it doesn’t bother me to jump around. If you’re working on Chapter 3, but the juices are flowing about a scene in Chapter 7, ride the momentum.
            In The Essay, for example, I wanted to create a scene late in the book where the main character, Jimmy Lee Hickam, confronts one of his teachers. It was a difficult scene because I had to juggle his desire to confront the teacher with the realities of the situation - the teacher being the authority figure and Jimmy Lee a student. I was still in the early writing phase when I conceived the idea for the confrontation scene. I spent two days working on it, then went back to work on the beginning of the book. Again, it’s critical to capture those ideas while the juices are flowing.
            If you’re struggling, get out of the house - take a walk or a bike ride. Often, I’ll take along an audio recorder or use Dragon, a voice-to-text app on my iPhone. Getting out of the office is a good way to clear my head and play through difference scenarios, plots and scenes. The recorders will enable you to capture ideas when they are fresh.
            Driving is a great place to think without interruption. Turn off the radio and focus on a part of the book that interests you. Imagine a scene and play it through in your mind like a movie. What are you seeing on the screen that will add depth to your characters or the scene?

Outline your book.
            I don’t follow a strict outline, but I find that having a framework helps me with structure and keeping on task. If I know how a book will end, I can draw the road map to get there. I still have the freedom to change the story along the way, which is perfectly fine. However, without the framework, I tend to wander.
            Somewhere in my computer is an unfinished manuscript that is probably a couple hundred thousand words, the result of a book I tried to write without an outline. The characters refuse to tell me how the book ends. It’s maddening. The main characters are at a cocktail party right now and I’m thinking of having a train full of napalm derail and roll through the living room. The End!

Invite distractions.
            Yes, I realize that sounds counter intuitive, but I find human distraction great for adding depth to my characters. Everyone has a story; listen to them. It’s entertaining and can add fodder to that cache of stories that will one day become a novel.
            A few years back, I was in Detroit on business, walking from Cobo Center to the Renissance Center, when a bum walked up alongside my client and me. “Can I have a dollar?” he asked.
            “No,” my client answered.
            But, he kept walking with us, enumerating the reasons why we should give him a buck, but having no luck with my client. Finally, he said, “You know, I’m Stevie Wonder’s cousin.”
            “Please leave,” my client said.
            “No, wait,” I said, suddenly interested. “Are you really Stevie Wonder’s cousin, or is that just your shtick to get me to give you a dollar?”
            “No, man, me and Stevie are tight.” He went on for several minutes, talking about his boyhood experiences with Stevie Wonder.
            “Did you ever move his chair on him when he was little?”
            “Huh? No, man. Not to Stevie.”
            I pulled out a dollar and handed it to him.
            “My client rolled her eyes at me and asked, “Why do you do things like that? It was a scam.”
            “Maybe,” I said. “But I got more than a buck’s worth of entertainment out of it. And, I’m going to use that in a book some day.”

Robin Yocum is a novelist living in Westerville, Ohio. His recent novel, The Essay, focuses on the life of 17-year-old Jimmy Lee Hickam, who is growing up dirt poor in Appalachian Ohio, and the teacher who risks her job to help him break the cycle of poverty and alcoholism that has defined his family for years. The first chapter can be read at


  1. Definitely helpful info.In "Don't be afraid to write out of sequence" is me all the way.What you wrote about if you working on chapter three,but having idea for chapter seven that's me in a nutshell,sorta speak.I just didn't write down the thoughts/idea that I was having for another chapter,so I left it alone.
    Also in,"Outlining your book"you mention about having a manuscript with couple of hundred thousands words written,and you character refuse to tell you how the story is going to end,that's me as well.Well sorta of,I don't have a couple hundred thousand words written,but I have different scenarios on how I want the book to end,it's just a matter of choosing a good enough scenario that's good for the book. I know #TMI ...but,you touch on some of the things I'm having with one of my manuscripts.

    1. F.A:

      Keep moving forward. I think if you pick out an ending that you like, you'll find that things fall into place. (A couple hundred thousand words was probably an exaggeration, but it's loooooong.) Best of luck.


  2. Thanks for stopping by and sharing with us today, Robert!

  3. Enjoyed reading your post.
    I think it will be useful for my growing arsenal of writing tools for when 'my muse' throws up a wall that is hard to get around.
    Loved the plumber reference!

    1. Avery:

      Good luck. The plumber reference was one of my favorites. It's like any job, there are time when you have to plow through the rough spots.


  4. Great post, and love that your book is set in Appalachia. I live here, and I'm starting a series set here, as well. Definitely fodder for stories in these mountains! Your story sounds very inspiring!

    1. Heather:

      It's a rich area. My next novel also is set in Appalachia, though out of the mountains and in the Ohio River Valley. Good luck in your series.


  5. Really helpful advice here. The only way I've been able to finish (nearly--just a handful of scenes to write to fill in some holes) the first draft of my first novel is to follow the rule of just keep writing. Even if it's lousy and trite and repetitive, get SOMETHING on the page. Anything can be fixed, but you can't edit a blank page!


    1. Laura:

      Exactly. If there's a good book there, you can rework the parts that meet your standards. Best of luck.


  6. Hi Robin
    Thanks for the blog, some useful food for thought.
    i was intrigued by your description of your brain dump of ideas. I have tried this and planning/outlining and I really struggle with it.
    I tend to find that I begin with some characters, what the intent of the story is and (normally) the ending and then just begin writing. Often the characters decide what happens and when. and I'm just trying to keep up!
    I tried a few different things with my latest novel to plan it, like brainstorming and mind mapping and it just wasn't coming, so it's great to hear about a process so removed from my own.
    My new year's resolution is point number 2, and so far so good :)
    thanks again


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