Henry Miller on How to Finish Your Novel

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“One: Work on one thing at a time until finished,” Henry Miller commanded himself. “Two: Start no more new books, add no more new material to ‘Black Spring.’ Six: Cement a little every day, rather than add new fertilizers. Ten: Forget the books you want to write. Think only of the book you are writing.”

I was never very good at finishing. I used to get a good start on an idea for a novel or short story. I would get five or ten or twenty-thousand words into it. And then I would get another new idea for a more interesting project and take off doing that. I have five or six unfinished novels on my computer hard drive. I call them my skeletons, and I ask, occasionally, if they will ever be covered in flesh.

henry miller writing commandments

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Henry Miller seemed to have the same issues. As he was laboring to finish his first novel, Tropic of Cancer, he wrote a set of eleven commandments to keep himself from flying into every new project.

Why You Lack Discipline

We do this, don't we.

We dream up a new idea for a book, and since we are creative and emotional, we start working on that new project and abandon the one which is proving so difficult.

You get an idea, seemingly from God, and all you can see is possibility. It gives you chills, it makes your chest swell up with pride just to think about it.

How much better would it be to accomplish that novel, rather than waste away your time feeling like an idiot on the one you're working on. Wouldn't it feel so much better?

What Books Do You Want to Write Before You Die?

I sympathize with this especially because for me, sometimes the feeling has been right. I've started novels that weren't very good. I'm glad I abandoned them. If I had finished them, they probably wouldn't have been published, and if they had been published, I wouldn't have wanted to put my name on them.

At the same time, if you don't finish something then what is the point of all this writing anyway?

A few years ago, this problem was settled for me when I made the following realization:

Someday, I will die, and all the novels I dreamed of writing will die with me. Therefore, what books must I complete to die satisfied?

This solved the problem of finishing for me. By embracing my limits, I was able to prioritize the work that was most important to me. Rather than flying after any old idea that struck me as interesting at the time, I started searching for just a few ideas I could devote my life to, and since then, I have worked slowly and carefully on one novel for the last two years (it's a really good idea).

And I promise you, I'm not going to give it up.

What books do you have to write before you die to be satisfied? Are you going to finish them?

PRACTICE

Spend some time working on your work in progress today.

Write for fifteen minutes. As you write, ask yourself, “Is this a book that will satisfy me. Is it a good enough idea to spend the little amount of life I'm given?” If yes, then don't ever stop working on it. If no, then maybe it's time to look for a better idea.

Post your practice in the comments section. And if you post, make sure to comment on a few others.

And, most of all, may you finish something you're proud to put your name on!

Joe Bunting is an author and the leader of The Write Practice community. He is also the author of the new book Crowdsourcing Paris, a real life adventure story set in France. It was a #1 New Release on Amazon. Follow him on Instagram (@jhbunting).

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33 Comments

  1. Oddznns

    Well Joe, I just finished a draft of the novel that I’ve spent quite a bit of my life living, observing and then finally writing. But yes, it did take a very long time. Maybe you can help me polish it now???

    As for what’s next… hahahaha…. I think I’ll start with spring. Watch out !

    Reply
  2. JB Lacaden

    Wow. This post is very timely with what I’m experiencing right now. I just finished browsing through my unfinished work and the feeling I got afterwards was not good. I know the feeling of starting on one project and devoting hours on it only to be sidetracked by a new idea and to be completely immersed at that new idea. The cycle just won’t stop.

    Thank you for the advice. “Someday, I will die, and all the nov­els I dreamed of writ­ing will die with me. Therefore, what books must I com­plete to die satisfied?” I don’t want this to happen. I feel that it’s unfair for those novels to die with me just because I wasn’t disciplined enough to devote myself to them.

    Below is a segment of a story I’m working on. I really hope I’ll be able to finish this one. I’ll do my best to follow the commandments listed above (easier said than done but I will do my best).

    ***

    “May the Sol Father always shine down on you until the end of your days,” the High Priest’s deep voice filled the solemn interior of the temple of the Sun.

    “And may he always shine down on you as well until the end of your days,” Jess said in reply.

    The High Priest then turned to the disciple standing in wait just beside him. He dipped a finger in a clay bowl filled with yellow paint. “Lift your head sister,” the High Priest said to Jess.

    Jess looked up right at the cold, gray eyes of the High Priest. She felt a chill ride down her spine. No matter how many times she had done this ritual she could never get used to the High Priest’s chilling stare. She felt the High Priest touch her forehead. He then started to draw a sun.

    “Thank you,” Jess said after the High Priest finished painting the sun. She then stepped down and another disciple took her place before the High Priest.

    She slowly walked past the other disciples standing in line, waiting for their turn to receive the blessing of the sun. With their shaved heads bowed down, Jess could only guess the thoughts that were running in their minds.

    She could still feel the eyes of the High Priest on her even though she was no longer in front of him. Her pace quickened. The sound of her hurried footsteps mixed with the heavy voice of the High Priest—“always shine down on you until the end of your days” she heard him say from behind her. In front of her, two disciples pulled open the huge iron doors of the temple.

    “May Sol shine down on you,” they said in unison as the light from outside flooded the dim inside of the Temple of the Sun.

    “And may he shine down on you as well,” Jess mumbled as she quickly stepped outside.

    With a deep sigh of relief, she quickly ran down the steps of the temple of the Sun. She won’t have to receive the blessing of Sol until the next month. That means she won’t have to face the High Priest and stand in front of his piercing gray eyes. Jess smiled at the thought.

    The outside of the temple was a stark contrast to its solemn inside. The air was filled with the relentless sound of hovercar horns as traffic piled up on the streets. Jess stepped out of the gates of the temple grounds and onto the bustling streets of the Third City. She looked at her wrist and rubbed a finger on top of it. The skin glowed neon blue and numbers appeared. It was five in the afternoon.

    “Shit,” she hissed. She was late for her work shift.

    Reply
    • Heather Marsten

      Interesting story – one part stopped me – when she could only guess what the others were thinking – I sort of wanted to know what she was thinking – how this impacted her. But the descriptions, the action, and the use of different senses is fantastic. The idea of the watch glowing neon blue on her wrist is interesting – curious what the work shift was. Also, as I read I wondered why she felt his eyes on her – I found myself wondering if it was a sexual liaison or something else – like considering her for a plan. How did she feel his eyes on her?

      I think your story is interesting and one I’d read on.

      Reply
      • JB Lacaden

        Thanks! I’m glad my story was able to pique other people’s curiosity.

        Reply
    • Mhvest

      I like that JB. Did we read part of that here before? I think I remember something like it, but I’m very prone to deja vu glitches.

      I wanted to say that I do the same thing with starting something and then moving to something else. I told myself that I was going to finish what I’m doing now before I move on to something else. Yesterday when I got stuck I really wanted to start something else.

      Reply
  3. Nona King

    The kicker for me was your posed question of what projects do I want to finish before I die. A necessary question to get me turned the right direction.

    Reply
  4. Sherrey Meyer

    Well, Joe, I’ve been muddling over what to work on lately . . . simply because I’m in a bit of a slump. There’s the memoir, several contests to enter, and spring to write. What to do next? Better yet, Joe Bunting asked me today what books I have to write before I die??? I’d better get busy on that memoir, then the book on my dad’s time in an orphanage, but first to spring forward and jump on Joe’s “show off” contest for April!

    Great post — a keeper!

    Reply
  5. Laura W.

    I think I am afraid of finishing. I’ll get close to the end, or start steamroller-ing along, then suddenly panic and back off. It’s nothing conscious, really; I’m just now noticing that I tend to do that. Obviously it’s a fear I need to overcome.

    Reply
    • Christelle Hobby

      I like “steamroller-ing”! That is a good verb for how story writing can get. I will undoubtedly being using this term in the future!

      Reply
    • Heather Marsten

      I know how to finish my novel, where I want it to go, but am having a problem sorting out how to do it – so I went back to the beginning and am improving it (I hope :))

      Reply
    • Katie Axelson

      I think I have that, too: fear of being done. What on earth would I work on next? That idea hasn’t come yet. Until then, I’ll just keep picking and procrastinating.
      Katie

      Reply
  6. Christelle Hobby

    I am the worst at starting one novel then moving onto the next long before I’m finished with the first. New ideas are exciting and intense and motivating and it’s often hard to feel that every step of the way. I love getting swept away by an idea, but it does a lot of damage to the one I had before. Guess I’m going to have to get that locked down!! Ha.

    Reply
    • JB Lacaden

      Exactly! I get all excited when new ideas pop inside my head that I tend to forget that I’m currently working on another story.

      Reply
  7. Heather Marsten

    Struggled with this segment, hoping it works – my abusive father had heart palpitations, went back to his Christian Science religion – in the chapter I describe a testimonial meeting, but want to show how he abused us in the reading of the lesson sermon – not sure if the dialogue is too confusing. I used to be terrified to read in public because each night I faced the following – He still continued his incest, and my mom has now moved to two notebooks detailing his abuse – she did nothing to stop it. I am ten years old, writing in first person:

    Excerpt from Tell Me What He Did by Heather Marsten

    Daddy calls from the living room. “Shirley, get in here. Finish your homework later.”

    Darn, was hoping he’d think I had so much homework there was no time to read. I grab my Bible and Science and Health and take my seat in the living room.

    “I’m tired. You ladies read tonight.” Daddy lies back on the sofa to listen.

    Can things get any worse? Underarm sweat rolls down my sides. Hope my voice doesn’t sound shaky.

    Mommy reads the Bible. Then it’s my turn.

    I open the Science and Health and begin, “God the great I AM; the….”

    Daddy yells, “Will you ever get it right? Listen to me, ‘God,’ he practically shouts. “pause, ‘the great I am;’ … a longer pause. ‘…the all-knowing, all-seeing…’ See how long I pause at the semi-colon? You’re supposed to pause longer at a semi-colon, than you are at a comma. Now get it right.”

    I never do it good enough. “God, the great I am; the all-knowing, all-seeing…”

    “Damn it to hell. A longer pause at a semicolon. What are you, an imbecile? Read it right if you know what’s good for you.”

    I want to cry. “God, the great I am; the all-knowing….”

    Daddy slings an ashtray at me.

    I duck.

    It hits the wall behind my chair, chipping the paint. The ashtray hits the floor and ashes scatter across the rug.

    “Give me the damn ashtray.”

    I hand it to him and sit back down, waiting.

    “Read it.”

    I read.

    “Idiot. I can’t listen to this anymore. Go to your room. Read the lesson over until you get it right. Better not read this sloppy tomorrow.”

    I’m glad to escape. I hate this. If this is what church does to people, who needs God?

    After I read the lesson sermon and finish my history homework, I open Wuthering Heights. No way am I going to the living room tonight, I’ll stay in my room until bedtime.

    ###

    In the morning Mommy says, “I heard him in your room last night, tell me what he did.”

    I point to the areas. “He touched me here and here.” As visits go it wasn’t as bad as some, didn’t even have to touch him.

    Mommy rubber bands the two notebooks together and hands them to me. “Go get dressed for school and put these in your sock drawer.

    Guess Daddy’s back to his old self. Can’t imagine how things can get much worse.

    Reply
    • JB Lacaden

      Your story has a great pull. I’m interested at what happens next. Will she ever be free from her dad? Will things get much worse?

      Had a nice read. 🙂 Thanks!

      Reply
  8. Katie Axelson

    Yes this book, once it’s done, will be satisfy me. The trouble is getting in there. I have wasted enough time already and will not procrastinate for 14 more minutes.
    This girl. Out.
    Katie

    Reply
  9. Allyhawkins

    I’m wondering this question quite a bit these days as I take a break from my novel in order to teach college English, hopefully get a “real” job with incredible benefits and salary AND that I will be fantastic at(an interview is anticipated soon) and how do I still honor my writing? Last night as I lay in bed the answer that came to me was,”When you retire from this new career, you can get back to it.” I’m not so sure I like that answer. And the one novel I have written is not what I know it could be, but is it worth the time and effort? I trust the answers will come as they come. For now, I write every day in some form or fashion, and as I teach writing, I learn how my writing can become better

    Reply
  10. Beck Gambill

    I’ve started integrating what I’m working on with who I am. Instead of churning out one work in a fixed amount of time I’m trying to develop a handful of thoughts and actions, like a theme weaved throughout my life. I have a handful of words I’m ruminating over and building upon; sisterhood, beauty, home, truth, love, unity, death, life. I blog about them, think about them, take pictures of them, talk about them, practice them, and write about them. I want to know what I’m writing about intimately so that it connects with the reader in an authentic, meaningful way.

    I love the novel I’m working on but I’m not sure how to end it. I think because I’m still learning, in my own life, the truth necessary to tie the story together. Parts of the book are really great, other parts not so much, but I don’t feel in a hurry to sort it out. Actually I have so many ideas for the finished product it would take a lot to distract me from my goal. I’m still working on the novel, “Sisters”; I’ve finished “Sister to Sister; A Mentor’s Handbook” a small ebook designed to equip women in building meaningful relationships; and I’m compiling, from my blog, “Women Who Inspire; the Sisterhood” true life stories of inspirational women. I would love to package them as a set, three facets of the same idea. I also know I need to grow a great deal as a writer before I’m satisfied with these books.

    Reply
  11. PJreece

    Good one, Joe… urgency works. I actually pubshed my current novel off the table because I felt an urgency to write that short Story Structure eBook… before I die. Now that I’ve done that, I’m waiting for my Muse to priortize my other projects. I need to make a series of speeches… so that novel of mine might have to wait a little longer.

    Reply
    • Joe Bunting

      I love that. Isn’t it great that we don’t have to make all these decisions on our own. I’m grateful for my muse.

      Reply
  12. Mike Zserdin

    Really, really good thoughts Joe. Thank You!

    Reply
  13. Amanda Sue Duggins

    She had her long black hair pulled back with a pale blue ribbon.
    “Antonia dear has Lady Amelia left you with enough time to show Sophie here where she is to clean?” Missus Davies asked.
    “As long as she can keep up with me, then yes I have the time.” Antonia replied.
    Sophie thought she heard a Spanish accent in Antonia’s voice but she could not be sure.
    “She has kept up with me all morning. I think she can handle keeping up with you.”
    Antonia turned to look at Sophie. “Come along then.”
    She turned and started down the hall. “You are to sweep and mop all of the downstairs halls, that pantry there and the servant’s dining room.” Antonia said as she walked through the dining room and back into the kitchen.

    Reply
    • Kumara Velu

      Not comperlling enough, Amanda. You can do better.

      Reply
  14. Yvette Carol

    I love Henry Miller’s ‘Don’t be a draught-horse! work with pleasure only’. I guess because in the rest of my life I feel very much as if I am dragging this enormous wagon of what needs to be done every day. At times it does feel like work, work, work. Which is no good for anyone as Jack Nicholson reminded us so unforgettably in The Shining!!
    Anyway…onto the books I have to write before I die!
    Every one of them, starting with the book I’m working on now. I’m excited about all the books I’m writing and have yet to write. It is my juice in life, for sure.
    The fantasy trilogy I’m in the middle of at present, ‘The Grandfather Diaries’ concerns the quest type story for a mythical object. I had this idea (a germ of one) at the start, which electrified me. I thought of writing a prequel; covering the 2000 years the object has been missing. The thing is to take a spiritual relic from a temple is taboo; therefore bad BAD things must happen to all those who steal it/attempt to profit from it from thence forth. So if you think the current series starts early 1800’s, the object was stolen 2000 years before, well you’ve got some glorious, rich epochs of history to trawl through! So I nearly started writing that book instead and had to stop myself. But I seriously would drool over getting back to that little nugget.
    And then I also, see the possibilities of ideas the Muse could send me in future to be without end. The more I learn, the more I develop as a writer, the better I can utilise what comes through. And I can’t wait!!! 🙂

    Reply
  15. Bob Holmes

    Awesome post Joe! I’m sharing this one. Have an awesome day!

    Reply
  16. craftygreenpoet

    Excellent advice! I’ve written a novel in draft form but it’s not going to work in the original way that I planned it so I’m having to rethink huge amounts about structure and narrative arc. I think I’m ready to start totally rewriting and this blogpost is helping push me into that!

    Reply
  17. Dawn Heart

    Crap. This is depressing. I MUST LIVE FOREVER, THEREFORE I CAN TELL ALL THE STORIES I MUST TELL!!!!!!!!!! AEIGHH! *runs frantically around the town* I might DIE one day?????? WHY DIDN’T ANYONE TELL ME BEFORE?? 😉 Hahaha… But seriously. … Well. I guess I’d better get to work then. I only have a 1/2 century more of prime brain capacity. Catch ya on the other side of the publishing river. 😉 😛 (Hopefully… not that I confident in my abilities)

    Reply
    • Joe Bunting

      I know. It’s like chasing after wind, isn’t it.

      Reply
  18. Erik Corr

    Hard work will pay off- most of the time

    Reply
  19. Sam

    HI Guys, I just finished my novel and it is my first novel and I was having a hard time getting it published but then I stumbled upon a website called http://www.lithasa.com and i was able to upload the novel as a ebook and i earned alot of revenue from it. Check it out!

    Reply
    • Kumara Velu

      lithasa.com? This is a site with nothing but Google Ads.

      Reply
  20. Dead Even

    Very apt and well written post! Here is a chunk of my efforts for today from my story Dead Even;

    Slight inconvenience? Being ripped to pieces surely qualified as a minor nuisance at least? The b******s didn’t even give me a coupon or a get out of limbo free card for the bother. I would have settled for a loyalty stamp.
    There was also a scrap of paper with a note in the same cobalt ink curled inside the letter. “Loyalty is uncommon amongst the dead, Love is rarer still. Nicholas will be home at 19:17.”

    Reply
  21. Mustafa El laithy

    true , i like this a lot ,
    there’s a way to do it better , find it . Thomas A Edison

    Reply

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