Disclaimer: I'm on my sixth manuscript, and yet to get a coherent/complete first draft of any of them. (Although come to think of it I have a great idea for another one written down somewhere that I was going to use for NaNoWriMo this year, until life intervened). The point here being, I can tell you what has helped me but I am not one of the auspicious / organized ones. I just tend to sit down and try my best.
Formalities out of the way, probably the best piece of advice I've gotten on actually finishing is to write the thing chapter by chapter. End each chapter with a cliffhanger and you'll automatically have somewhere to start next time. Second disclaimer, if you do it this way, when you give it to a friend to read don't do it a chapter at a time. It just makes them frustrated that you don't write faster. I found this method really helpful as a minimal planner (I'll start with a sentence or two like the kind from the blurb on the inside of the dust jacket, and just go with whatever comes to mind). It enabled me to finally get a coherent chronologically ordered story, and feel like I was making progress. I have since taken up another project that I've been at for around two years now, without the structure the story is all over the place. The big difference between the two projects is "step size": the current story has been going for longer, I have character arcs and a timeline and everything, but that doesn't stop new characters from showing up most of the way through without bothering to introduce themselves; there is a plan but no cohesive chunk of text longer than a scene or two. The earlier story is shorter and has been dormant for a while, but is very easy to keep track of with the chapter-by-chapter progeression. I have no idea for what's going to happen next, and make things up as I go along (in the hallowed tradition). But the chapter-by-chapter story always has a clear place to go, while the disorganized one is like trying to find the end in a Gordian knot.
Without the facile direction to progress in, it can be incredibly difficult to feel like I'm making progress at all, because while the word count increases it doesn't necessarily get closer to being a story, if that makes sense. So I would recommend:
If you're a planner:
- Get your story arcs / plan all worked out
- Decide on a general chapter length (I tend towards 5,000 words but I'm long-winded; 1,600 is good for some people)
- I prefer sitting down and writing most of a chapter at once, although if you do more with scaffolding, intermediate drafts, or organization your timetable will depend on that. Figure out your preferred organizational style, and try to find a writing schedule that works for you
If you're not a planner:
- Have a general idea for the story
- Start with the first chapter. I tend to prefer starting with slightly absurd situations as a way to introduce my character and because I write to have fun
- Every chapter should feature a choice/decision, and the results of that decision should lead to the development of a slightly new situation
- This way, every chapter builds on the last, and you can change the story's direction whenever you want
Then, once you've got a first draft, revising. Quite frankly, I have no idea how to go about this one. Even for academic papers I tend to be a one-and-done draft writer, and if multiple drafts with "significant changes" are required I sometimes take out the best parts and use the mutilated essay as a first draft.
So, to summarize, the best technique I've been recommended is to take it chapter by chapter. Chronology and context are somewhat automatically included, because you'll be building off what you just wrote. Don't ignore your other ideas: write them down somewhere else fully enough that you'll be able to use them later. That way you can decide to either flesh out the new ideas more fully, or to continue with your current project. I tend to keep comp books so for new ideas, taking a marker or highlighter and color-coding the edge of the pages for new ideas can be really helpful. Other than that, I put the working title at the top of the page when I write part of a story. I should probably have separate sections for different stories or something, but I don't. I just flip around a lot, and look for labels. The other thing I enjoy about the comp book system is that typing it into my steadily growing word processor document gives me a chance to kind of edit as I'm transcribing, and comp books are much easier to carry around than a computer. The downside is that if you have multiple comp books without clear delineations between story ideas, you might end up doing a lot of flipping and end up with multiple comp books. If my own experience is anything to go by, organization is incredibly subjective. Working from front to back, my comp books are a series of bits and pieces of stories I'm working on, sometimes picking up from the previous page, or where I am in the word processor document of the story, or an entirely new scene I just realized could be incredible. Working from back to front is more organizational, so currently to-do lists, grocery lists, more planning stuff. The two sections tend to meet closer to the back cover than the front, but beyond a general "creative writing in front, executive function from back" scheme there is no real organization. I've tried using sticky note flags and paperclips and dedicating a single book to a single project. For me everything runs together so it's easier to just flip around and have everything in the same place. Some people are highly organized and have an entire system that works for them; if you're one of these people I admire your innate talent for executive functioning. If you're not, don't worry: there are plenty of unorganized or somewhat organized folks out there. Pick a system, try it, and keep trying and modifying until you find something that works for you. There's such a wide variety of people, it;s no surprise that something different works for everyone.
One last note, I think it;s a little unfair to expect yourself to focus solely on writing your novel until you finish it. Everyone needs a break, to focus on different things from time to time. Taking the time to do some writing exercises, or planning, or writing an unrelated short story, are equally valuable. The human mind is hardwired to wander to some extent. So what if you take a break from your novel to capture that awesome short story idea you just had? It's not like that day will be the difference between your novel being a couple pages versus a couple hundred. So while I think the dedication and perseverance in writing a novel are important, I think it's also important allow yourself to enjoy other smaller projects in the meantime.
Wow, that ended up being a lot longer than I intended. Hope you find some of it helpful!