THE BOOK DOCTOR
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Believing Your Book will get Written
Image by Hannah Olinger
By Caroline Donahue
In my twenties, I was absolutely certain that I was incapable of writing a novel.
I would sit at the desk in the corner of my tiny kitchen in Los Angeles and stare at the screen, often while my neighbor blasted “All the single ladies” on repeat. For hours.
The only motivation I had to write novels was desire. I had dreamed of writing books since I was little, yet in order to finish a book, I believed that I had to already know how to finish a book.
How often does this happen? We’re presented with a challenge and we assume that the solution for all obstacles is either hardwired into our brains or we will never reach our goal.
This tortured me for years. I discarded idea after idea thinking that getting stuck was evidence that I didn’t know what I was doing. If I had the “right” idea, it would make the writing effortless from beginning to end, surely? Can you relate?
I struggled through days at jobs that were ill-suited to my skills and temperament, carving out little windows of time to write, windows that often felt more painful than enlightening. I made more cups of tea and coffee and got more powerful headphones to drown out the catchy tunes playing next door. I took writing workshops, joined groups, read books on the craft.
But I was missing the whole point.
Finishing your first novel isn’t about skills or pre-existing knowledge.
In school, we learn that the most important thing is to get the right answer quickly because you won’t get another chance to take that test or write that essay. You either “get it” or you don’t. But novels don’t work that way.
If you’re writing as if each draft is an exam you’re going to be graded on, you’re torturing yourself for no reason. When you start writing fiction, and novels in particular, you’re beginning a long journey that you have no experience completing.
You have to let go of the need for evidence.
The most important thing that every novelist needs is belief that the book can be completed. Without proof of it happening in the past, without feeling you are “gifted” or naturally able to do so. To finish a novel, you have to trust that you will make good choices at points where the answers aren’t clear.
Trusting your ability to risk and explore over time will take you to the end.
This isn’t easy. It took me over ten years to get to this point. I was a good student. I loved to study and get good grades as proof that I knew what I was doing. Writing novels took all that external validation away.
And yet, when I began to trust that I could get through to the end of the book by taking small steps over time, my writing changed completely. Not only that, my whole life changed.
Trusting that I could succeed even if the way to completion wasn’t clear — especially if it wasn’t clear — was the key that unlocked the door.
If you knew that you could eventually figure anything out, how would that change your life?
If you believed you could ultimately finish a book, even if you had no idea how to do it right now, what next step would you take?
A frequent guest on the Secret Library Podcast, award-winning author Jacqueline Winspear wrote her first novel in her 40s, a mystery called Maisie Dobbs. She’d never written a novel before but the story kept asking for her attention. When a fall from her horse meant she had to take a break from her job, she pecked away at the keyboard with her left hand to keep taking little steps forward.
How did she do this? Here’s a piece of advice her husband gave her as she was struggling through.
“Just do the next indicated thing,” he said. So she did, until the book was finished.
Today she’s written nearly twenty books including a beloved series, a memoir, essays and a stand-alone novel.
You don’t have to believe the entire project will work all at once. You just need to take the next indicated step and believe that another one will appear.
If you believe you can get to the end of your book, that’s all the proof you need to start.
What if you didn’t need another piece of proof to get started?
What’s the step you’re ready to take now?
You know more than you think, and remember – novels don’t happen all at once. Take small steps and you’ll get there in the end.
I’d love to hear what the next tiny step is for your book. Please share in the comments below!
Caroline Donahue is an American writer, podcaster, and English teacher living in Berlin. She is the host of The Secret Library podcast and co-host of GTFO pod. She is the co-editor of I Wrote it Anyway: An Anthology of Essays, and the author of Story Arcana : Using Tarot for Writing. She is currently at work on her first novel. Get even more writing resources and inspiration at carolinedonahue.com/footnotes.