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How to stick the landing
“Finishing” doesn’t have to be a dirty word.
I was chatting to an early career writer last week who mentioned that she really struggled to finish anything, and oh my, did I empathise. In the first half of my writing life, I finished barely anything. One early attempt at a novel saw me painting myself into a plot-based corner that I simply couldn’t see a way out of. I’d made my antagonists so powerful and the protagonist so vulnerable that there was just no plausible way that she could ever triumph.
Other stories just fizzled out within a few thousand or a few tens of thousands of words, perhaps because I got bored, or because when I read them back I hated my writing, or because I got distracted by things that weren’t writing and lost momentum.
But one key problem I had was that I often didn’t know where the story was going. I didn’t know anything about structure or how to plot a novel and, back then, if you wanted to learn to write you either did a course, which I couldn’t afford, or bought books, which I also couldn’t afford. This was either pre-web, or at the very beginning of the web, so going there for writing advice wasn’t a goer. (I’m sure there were writing communities online at the point I joined in the mid-90s, but I didn’t know about them.) And I didn’t know any writers, or know how to find any writers, to talk to about writing.
Part of that latter point is that I was painfully, horribly shy and introverted, and even if you’d walked me into a room full of experienced, friendly and helpful writers, I still would have found a floor-to-ceiling curtain to hide behind.
Finishing a story is hard. Finishing a novel is harder. Finishing anything should be celebrated. And now that I am better at finishing, here are a few thoughts on things you can do to make it easier:
Getting lost along the way
Like, I suspect, many people, I started my writing career as a pantster – someone who comes up with an idea and starts writing to see where it goes. No plotting, no planning, just the raw joy of letting a story unfold in front of you.
Writing by the seat of your pants can be very risky, particularly for new writers, because it means that you’re putting a lot of time into something that may or may not come good in the end and you don’t necessarily have the experience to steer you through 100,000 words. If that is genuinely the only way you can work, then you’re going to have to learn how to recognise the duds as early as possible, make peace with tossing work out, and develop the ability to immediately move on to a new idea.
Action: Learn to plot
Plotting can be a bit tedious, but even if you just do high-level bullets for key plot points, it can help you work out what comes next and give you something to refer back to when you get stuck. There are so many books about structure and plot available, but my current favourite is Actions and Goals by Marshall Dotson which takes a character-oriented view of story structure and comes with a handy worksheet.
Action: Start only when you have a destination
One way to ensure that you get lost is to start writing before you know what the ending is – if you don’t know where you are going, how will you know when you’ve got there?
I have started winnowing story ideas by whether or not they offer up a clear end-point or not. Those where the ending is fuzzy are left to ferment a little longer, and those that have a clear ending go into my “start this next” pile. Some story ideas are just too vague to be actionable, so those get noted down in case they are useful for something else and then largely forgotten. But I now no longer start writing until I know that what the ending is.
I thought I had an ending but the character(s) can’t get there
Sometimes our characters just seem to fade before our eyes, becoming thinner and more translucent the more we write. Their dialogue sounds generic, their actions predictable, they lack humanity and three dimensionality.
When we’re working with underdeveloped characters, our subconscious knows and it, frankly, I think it just stops bothering.
Action: Do some character development work
There are so many techniques for character development, from sketching out their Big Five personality traits to doing Holly Lisle’s very cheap but very good Create A Character Clinic. I’ve heard of people doing astrological profiles, Myers-Briggs tests for characters, or working with tarot. You don’t have to believe, you just have to find the outcome useful for understanding how your character thinks, what they believe and how they would act.
I can’t seem to sit down and write
I’ve had long periods in my life where I’ve not been able to write because I let other things get in the way. This could be, and indeed has been, an entire post on its own:
Action: Make writing a habit
If the issue is about getting into the swing of writing, then habits are your friend. Writing for five minutes a day every day will get you into the habit, and once you’ve settled into a nice routine you can expand the time you spend writing. Don’t worry if you break the habit – you can just start it up again as many times as you need to.
I have a mountain to climb and I just can’t
Sometimes, external pressures make it very, very hard to feel creative. I have found that money stress and depression absolutely kill my creativity stone cold dead, and it’s not something that it’s easy to get through.
Action: Get professional help
It’s much easier to find professional help in the form of therapy, debt counselling, etc now than it used to be when I was at my lowest, though it’s difficult when the debt is causing the depression and you can’t afford counselling. But even if you can only get a little bit of external help, it will be worth it.
Action: Get career help
Few people get to write for a living now and my biggest mistake was to think that I could have been one of them. I spent two years as a horribly underpaid freelance journalist, then I started working as a freelance web designer and slowly became what I can only describe as ‘deinstitutionalised’, unable to imagine that anyone would want to hire me as an employee.
Better would have been to get a career advisor or mentor to help me develop the bit of my life that pays for the writing. Had I learnt how to earn more sooner, something I am still in the process of doing, my creative life would have been more vibrant.
I’ve read it and it’s shit/I’m scared it will be shit
We all hate our own work at some point or another. It’s inevitable. I know experienced published authors who get halfway through the first draft of their book and want to throw it all away and go live in a nunnery/monastery somewhere instead. They never do though.
Action: Just keep going
Don’t read it back until you’ve finished your first draft. You can read a few paragraphs to pick up your train of thought again, but don’t edit, and don’t be tempted to read through from the beginning until you’ve typed those glorious words, The End.
Action: Accept your first draft will indeed be shit
It’s OK for your first draft to be shit. There’s a reason people often call it ‘the vomit draft’ – it exists to be shit. That is its purpose. If it’s not shit, then well done, you are amazing! If it is shit, then the rewrite is when you deshittify it. But no matter how you feel about your first draft, you can’t let its probable shitness stop you from finishing it.
Ultimately, it’s your job to do the best writing you can do; it’s not your job to judge the end result.
There are, of course, other problems with other solutions, but these are some of the ones that I’ve struggled with or seen other struggling with.
When it comes to finishing, the place to start is to diagnose your problem as best as possible, and then just try stuff. Be stubborn. Because if you keep looking, you will find the right solution for you. You have it in you to finish, so finish!