I've written many novels--some awful, some pretty good, I think. Five have been published, but I think I'm writing my best work now (though an author always thinks this. Let's be honest we have a love/hate relationship with our work. We write a note about what to get at the grocery store and we're really pleased with a turn of phrase about apples and we think to ourselves--that is one great note--really very nice. But then we look at it latter and we think to ourselves--well, it could have been better if only, if only). Still I've finished many novels.
By not thinking about writing a novel, not thinking about all I have to do to complete the daunting and ridiculously difficult task of finishing a novel and then somehow revising it into something that not only makes sense but that is a great story with interesting characters told with beautiful language in a unique and powerful way. SEE the problem? These kinds of expectations are deadly to a writer's finishing a draft of the novel. So, yes, it's important to have low expectations for the first draft. That's helpful. But what is essential, in my mind, is that no matter how much you think about different aspects of the whole novel, when you sit down to write you just think about writing a scene and then writing another scene and then another. A novel is made up mostly of scenes. Think of it in those terms to keep pushing forward.
For me, personally, I keep trying to come back to my characters and what they want and what gets in the way. So as I'm writing, I'm thinking about situations that will force my character to act--physically, emotionally, intellectually---to overcome the threat or difficulty in that situation and move on to the goal of getting what he/she wants/needs. I do think of other situations sometimes that might develop aspects of the story or theme--again always coming back to doing this through my characters. Still, in my humble opinion, it all begins with scenes and keeping your focus on scenes and not on the major task of finishing a whole novel. Just think of moving forward, bit by bit. In a few months or a year, you'll have a draft. Then revise.
The key to finishing a novel is not thinking about finishing a novel while you're writing your first draft. Think about your story and characters in scenes that keep building toward an ending. You may, at first, only see this as a vague destination in the distance. That's fine. Trust your instincts. Keep pushing on.
Or so I think today.