Finishing a Novel One Step at a Time

Laura Ayo

I had the privilege of meeting Newbery winner Linda Sue Park when she visited my daughter’s school last month. In preparation for her visit, I re-read “A Long Walk to Water.” The novel is based on the true story of Salva Dut, one of thousands of Sudanese “Lost Boys” who were separated from their families during the country’s civil war in 1985 and traveled on foot for hundreds of desolate miles to reach a refugee camp in Ethiopia. In the story, Salva’s uncle motivates his nephew to keep putting one foot in front of the other by breaking up the daunting trek into smaller, manageable parts.

Uncle tells Salva he only needs to walk as far as a group of bushes. Then to a clump of rocks, a specific tree, a bare spot, until, at last, Salva and his fellow travelers reach the camp.

As I’ve been preparing for the upcoming Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators’ conference for my region, I’ve been heeding Uncle’s advice from a writer’s perspective. Writing a book is a journey, best managed by culling the process into smaller tasks.

Many writers do this by specifying a set amount of time they’ll write every day. Others rely on reaching daily word counts to chart their progress.

I’ve found I’m much more productive if I set specific, scene-based goals and give myself a designated amount of time to complete them. Those deadlines vary, depending not only on the writing goal, but also what’s going on in my life at the time.

With the September conference creeping up on me, I sat down at the beginning of the summer with my manuscript and calendar and came up with a game plan.

It began with gathering everything I’ve written to date – roughly 38,000 words. I don’t write in a linear fashion on a first draft. I prefer to write scenes out of order, each as a separate document, depending on my creative mood and the time I have for the day. So, I needed to put the scenes in order in a single document and do a quick read-through.

My fingers itched to edit and polish as I went, but that wasn’t the purpose of this exercise. Instead, I jotted notes in the margins when I found inconsistencies and marked where I needed to flesh out a scene, totally rewrite it or insert a scene that I hadn’t written yet.

Armed with those notes, I then worked out a schedule and a to-do list. Some tasks – write a transition between scenes seven and eight, or condense the action in scene 18 – require little time to complete. Others, such as add introspection from protagonist here or rewrite scene 12 to show, not tell, need some time to digest before the words feel right.

The list is lengthy, but simply having it wards off fears of ineptitude. I know what I need to do and when I need to do it. While I might still struggle with getting the right words on the page some days, the list minimizes how often I stare at a blank page, wondering what to write next. Not to mention, checking things off a list fuels my sense of accomplishment, turbo charging the next writing session.

I’ve built time off into the schedule, as well, so that I won’t wake up in cold sweats in the middle of the night if it takes me longer to complete a task than I thought it would, or if what was supposed to be an hour at a doctor’s office turns into three. Life happens. But detailing everything I need to do to finish my novel before I hit the road to head to the conference means I’m on track to arriving there with a completed manuscript in my bag.

If you’re struggling to finish your writing projects, be like me and learn from Uncle. His wise words led Salva to eventually bring clean water to his native land and, in turn, education and hope to many of the people there. Who knows what his words might do for you and the people you will touch with your words. Rest in peace, Uncle.

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