I was reading a novel in a bar recently when some friends walked in, so I put my book away and we all started hanging out. I told them I had started reading the novel with high hopes, but I was growing increasingly more disappointed in it as the book progressed. In fact, I had decided that I didn’t like the novel — but I still intended to finish it.
“Man, life’s too short,” one of my friends said. “If I start a book and wind up not liking it, I put that sucker down.”
“Ordinarily I would agree with you,” I said. “But this is the year when I am attempting to write my first novel, and I’ve already tried that once and failed before I got to chapter 7, and this time I intend to finish. And all my reading is pointed toward supporting my novel right now, so the only fiction I’m reading is novels; no short stories. I’m trying to turn myself into a novelist, so I’m inundating myself in novels. And I’m finishing every novel I start, no matter how I feel about it partway through, because this is my year of finishing what I start.”
I did finish that novel, and I remained disappointed in it, but the time was not wasted because, as a novelist, I can learn from that novel’s mistakes; and because I won a moral victory by finishing what I started. A moral victory has value beyond being moral and beyond being a victory. A moral victory also builds strength of character, and if there’s one thing a novelist needs, it’s strength of character just to finish writing the damn thing. Salman Rushdie has said that a novelist needs “bloody-mindedness,” by which the British mean a cantankerous stubbornness, and he’s right. Most of us are not born with strength of character or cantankerous stubbornness, but it can be developed, and I’m working on that.
The best way to get good at finishing novels is to actually finish one, and I’ve reached a milestone in that regard: I just finished a complete first draft. It weighed in at about 140,000 words. Let me tell you, it was a powerful good feeling to type that last period, do that last save, back the file up, and shut the machine down. The very next thing I did was buy a bottle of champagne. That’s why I haven’t blogged in about a month; I’ve had a near-demonic focus on getting across that finish line.
Now that I have, I’m going to take a breather for about a week and let the novel cool on the windowsill, as my friend Jason Lundberg likes to say about just-completed fiction. I’ll read (Tallula Rising by Glen Duncan; Little, Big by John Crowley) and do a lot of staring out of windows. Then I’ll plunge back in for the next stage of this epic journey: the revision of the first draft. For Lord of the Rings fans, I feel like I’ve made it to Elrond’s house. Now the rest of the journey to Mordor begins. And as we all know by now, one does not simply walk into Mordor.