Finish or Languish?

Following on from two great posts by my fellow Killzone blog mates: Joe Hartlaub (Saturday’s post – here) and James Bell (Sunday’s post – here) , it struck me that both raise an issue about a fundamental obstacle to many (if not most) writers – finishing the actual book. Joe regrets not doing anything with a great idea he had, while Jim discusses whether it’s the best or worst of times to be a writer – both raising the obvious point that the only way you can be in the game is to sit down and actually finish your project. I can’t count the number of people who have expressed how much they want to be a writer but cannot seem to actually finish writing a book – they have parts and bits in a drawer but nothing complete – either for further editing, submission or publication. I sympathize because this was me for many, many years.

I always wanted to be a writer, or at least I expressed that desire, but, apart from half written pieces, drafts and jottings, I somehow never managed to actually finish a project. This all changed when, though some weird serendipity/alignment of the stars, I quit my job in anticipation of starting a Ph.D and then discovered my brain was finally free to do what I had always wanted to do – write a novel. I was extremely lucky to have found an agent interested in my work at my first writer’s conference and this undoubtedly spurred me on to finish the project she and I discussed. (Who knows, if I hadn’t had this impetus, maybe Ursula’s first mystery would still be half-finished and languishing in a drawer…)

So what are the many impediments to actually sitting down and completing a manuscript? There’s the time factor obviously – but this is an excuse which wears thin as even established novelists have to carve out time from their lives (a task which is never easy) and most have balanced other careers, families and other commitments in order to complete the task ahead. For me, I think the impediment was always internal, rather than external. I lacked the confidence to complete a novel, and I spent more time self-censoring myself in some elusive quest to be ‘literary’ enough (a standard I set that could never be attained). Even today I still question my ability to complete the task, but I am fortunate enough to have the motivation and the support of family, fellow writers, editors and my agent to continue to write. Now I suspect it’s a mixture of stubbornness, accountability and ambition that keeps me writing – but that doesn’t mean it gets any easier to complete the task!

So what about you, fellow TKZers, what are your obstacles (both internal and external) to completing your writing projects? How do you face the challenge of finishing the work rather than letting it languish either in your mind or at the back of a drawer?



19 thoughts on “Finish or Languish?

  1. These days it’s marketing distractions for me that prove the obstacle. Publicizing backlist titles, promoting new releases, keeping up with social media, and writing blogs all keep one from the creative aspect of writing a book. The only way I get anything done is to establish a strict schedule, like a quota of 5 pages a day, and stick to it. It’s harder when you’re in the revision phase or at the plotting/character development stage for a new book. Then the main motivation, at least for me, is to get another volume out there for my readers. As hard as it is, this might mean avoiding email, Facebook, and Twitter until I get some work done. So what am I doing on here? Back to work!

    • I try to have a ‘strict schedule’ and then it usually unravels after a few weeks (kids sickness, PTCO ’emergencies’ etc.) so I know I have to get better at saying ‘No!’ – except obviously to my kids!

      • Certain things you can’t avoid, like sickness or other snafus. Then you have to go with the flow. That’s why I do weekly as well as daily goals. But also cushion time into your schedule for those unexpected happenings as well as vacations or conferences.

  2. You reminded me, Clare, of Heinlein’s two rules for writing:

    1. You must write.
    2. You must finish what you write.

    Early in my career I found myself hitting some sort of wall at the 30k mark. I discovered other writers felt this, too. I think it was because the first act is always easy for me. It’s fun to get that protagonist up a tree. But then you look ahead and see how far you have to go, and you start to wonder if you have enough rocks to throw at him up there. If you freak out about it, worry about lost time, you’re sunk. So just putting fingers on keys eventually got me through.

    Eventually, though, I learned to lay better foundations and have a store of scenes that excited me. The 30k wall has been reduced to a small hedge.

    I love your three attributes, Clare: “stubbornness, accountability and ambition.” Excellent motivators!

    • Perhaps I should have also added my new mantra (after re-reading the Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy’ to my boys) ‘Don’t Panic’…If you panic about the book then everything goes down the toilet fast. You just have to finish that first draft and then face the plot tangles/character snarls – otherwise that draft will never get done if panic takes over:) Learned that the hard way!

  3. For me, the obstacles are time and competing “chores.” My day job is a busy medical practice that sucks up about 50 – 60 hours per week. The chores are all the repairs and things that need to be done around the house and office to keep the place from falling down around us.

    So, to find time to write, I work early to late four or five days a week. I then set aside two or three half days to isolate myself and write. This means I am clueless when friends ask me about evening TV. I don’t keep up on social media. And I don’t get a lot of things done that “need” to be done. We also don’t have time to attend evening social events. But those are the priorities I have set.

    And my saving grace is my wife. She knows how much I want to write, and she has taken over many of the tasks that I am too embarrassed to list – ones that I should be doing.

    My biggest internal obstacle is guilt for not being “industrious” when I am writing. I grew up in a professional family, but both of my parents grew up in farming families. As a child I was kept busy with chores. And sitting reading or watching TV was equated with being lazy. So when I write, I fight thinking about all the other things I “should” be doing.

    My internal motivator to finish the work is my drive to “accomplish” something, to succeed, to leave a legacy. And I stop in here at TKZ to charge my battery each morning before a writing session.

    Thanks for the post, Clare, and the reminder to keep driving for the finish line. Now it’s off to finish one of those “short-forms” JSB wrote about.

    • The finish line indeed – great attitude – and I’m often surprised by how many people fail to realize what you have to give up in order to fit the writing in. Socializing, TV…they’re the first to go!

  4. Finishing really is the hardest part. I’ve been noodling about the endings to two different stories, one in draft, one in edits. My lazy side whispers that it would be easier to shelve both stories. But my Type A side snarls that I MUST finish, even if the first draft of the ending sucks.

    Also, I start getting really unsettled in my mind if I’m not writing.

  5. Heinlein’s other rules:
    n Rule Three – You Must Refrain From Rewriting, Except to Editorial Order

    n Rule Four – You Must Put Your Story on the Market

    n Rule Five – You Must Keep it on the Market until it has sold

    My obstacles are the fact that writing a novel is a massive amount of work. Almost finished with 3rd rewrite of first draft and I know it needs at least one more

  6. Good post, Clare. My advice to those that find it hard to keep going when life gets in the way is to set manageable goals. The bigger the obstacles, the smaller the goals. For instance, if your schedule becomes so packed that you really have no time to write anything of significance, then set a goal to write one sentence or one paragraph. If you have the day off from your job with an open schedule, the goal could be to write 2000 words. The point being: make goals manageable and write something everyday, even if it’s one word. It will be one more word than you had yesterday.

  7. Daily distractions get in the way of my projects — family crises, letters that need to be answers, bills that have to be questioned, and suddenly my whole morning is gone.

  8. I’ve always wanted to be a writer, and I’ve written tons of stories. But when I finally started researching the market and important things like how long a book was supposed to be, etc, I started getting really caught up in the business side of writing. I read tons of blogs and social media, feeling like I had to catch up on this industry knowledge I was lacking. I also took a lot of courses about how to write, and write better.

    My writing improved, but my confidence took a huge hit. It didn’t feel like a confidence issue at the time, but I struggled to finish the books I was starting because I felt like they weren’t good enough to get published. I kept hearing about how the genre was glutted and no one was publishing books with the things I was writing about in them (vampires, when everyone talked about how tired they were of vampires, urgh). I forced myself to finish the books, and then edited them into pieces. Then I would decide they were so bad, they weren’t salvageable.

    Rather than query them, I stuck them in a drawer, and started another. Each book had it’s own issues, and I keeping struggling against my harsh inner editor which had gotten out of hand at this point. Nothing felt good enough. I was miserable. During this time frame, I also moved four different times, once to a foreign country, and had a baby.

    It’s taken me a while to realize that I’m never going to feel like a book is good enough for other people to see. That I have to do the best I can and then move on. Interestingly enough, the advent of self publishing has helped. I know I can write a book and put whatever sort of genre stuff in it and then publish the book. My inner editor can’t hound me with taunts that no one is publishing vampires right now (which isn’t actually true, but feels true just the same). Of course, I worry people will think I’m a hack since I’m self publishing first, but I’m trying to put those concerns away. I’ll do the best I can, hire some great editors, and let the readers sort out the rest. I’m also going to query books for the traditional markets alongside my self publishing efforts.

    This was a great post today, something that doesn’t get brought up enough. Finishing what you start is very important, and so it editing and submitting it.

    • I have often felt exactly these same things – and gotten caught up with the negativity of my own inner voice as well as others. You do have to ignore it, write the best book you can and move on from there. That isn’t easy though!

  9. Elizabeth Poole: give it another year or two. I’m starting to see agents asking for fantasy stuff again, and vampire books are creeping back into the big book mailing lists. Seeing as agent requests reflect on upcoming trends (last year they all wanted contemporary, so contemporary is flooding the market now), I’m remaining hopeful.

    Of course, indie trends don’t always follow trad pub trends.

    • I have noticed that, and the thing is, I love reading urban fantasy, and don’t get tired of vampires, werewolves, and zombies. I don’t think the core readership gets tired of it either, but the reality is when it’s “everywhere” it’s harder for agents to sell and thus, they are pickier about what they’re accepting. It’s not that they hate the book, or don’t think it will sell, but they don’t think it will sell “enough”.

      You’re right though, and lately I’ve seen the market bounce back a bit. The nice thing about indie publishing is I can find the people who will read that stuff all the time, and hopefully make some headway with queries when agents are able to move UF better.

      Thanks for the insight!


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