[process] More on finishing

Yesterday, I wrote about finishing what you started. [ jlake.com | LiveJournal ]. [info]kellymccullough in particular pointed out in comments that I’d somewhat overstated my proposition.

What I’d meant to talk about was a fairly narrow (if possibly widespread) issue of allowing a new idea to distract you from an existing one while in the middle of a writing project, specifically a novel-length project. This is a common enough symptom of muddle-in-the-middle, wherein about a third to halfway through the writing process, the manuscript feels tedious, pedestrian and boring. Your subconscious is looking for excuses to bolt at that point. Many if not most writers go through that experience. The point I was after was not to let the new shiny pull you off the current project. That’s bad discipline, and as you can neither revise nor sell an incomplete manuscript, it’s bad for your career.

[info]kellymccullough pointed out quite rightly that one can write oneself into a corner with respect to craft issues, lacking perhaps the right tools to do proper justice to an idea. Forcing yourself to keep working on a manuscript you’re not ready to finish can be self-defeating as well. Knowing the difference between distraction and an intractable writing problem is of course a challenge.

I myself have dealt with this. As I said to Kelly in comments:

And to be clear, I have one major unfinished novel that’s been on my desk for the better part of the last decade, for exactly the reason you describe. (It’s Original Destiny, Manifest Sin.) At that time, I didn’t have the professional tools to finish what I started back around 2004. But I didn’t abandon that novel because I had a better idea — which, you’ll note, is specifically the issue I address in the post — I set it aside until my professional development as a writer let me come back to it. And ODMS is the next novel on my writing schedule after I wrap the Sunspin cycle.

Original Destiny, Manifest Sin was simply beyond me at the time that I began writing the book. That’s perhaps the strongest novel idea I’ve ever had, but needed me to be a stronger writer to address it. As I’ve observed elsewhere, I realize a while back that in some important senses, the entire Sunspin project is a warm-up for returning to ODMS. This has to do with my control of structure and character in a highly multithreaded storytelling environment.

Likewise, back to my original point about stopping work, there are life crises that represent a legitimate and even necessary halt to writing. This was discussed by [info]valarltd and [info]cathshaffer. My own cancer treatments have done this to me. I cannot write for several weeks after general anesthetic, nor can I write after the first two or three months of chemotherapy. My right brain goes into vapor lock in a big way. In ordinary life, I’ve never been blocked for longer than a weekend in the past decade. If I get stalled on a project, I shift gears and write a short story or some such to clear my head. Then I keep going. But not with cancer. I don’t have those choices. Likewise the serious illness or death of a family member can throw you off. Not finishing a manuscript under those circumstances isn’t a failure of discipline, it’s a recognition of the pressure of life crisis.

My point being to clarify yesterday’s post — sometimes there are reasons to abandon a project. Simply falling in love with another idea is very rarely one of them. Discipline is still important, critical even, but as I’ve often said, there is no canonical writing advice except “write more”. “Finish what you start” is pretty high up on the list, but it’s still context dependent.

3 thoughts on “[process] More on finishing

  1. So very true. The first novel I attempted to write (in any serious fashion) kicked my ass. That’s when I took a hard look at my skills, came to the conclusion I wasn’t up to it, and started working hard on the craft (both writing and storytelling). I still don’t think I’m up to that first novel (although I could write it now, I can’t write it the way it feels in my head, yet). However my next novel (have one in the bag now, flogging it at agents) will be a huge stretch, but one I’m 60% sure I can make.

  2. Mary says:

    When I was young and innocent, one day, for some reason, I sat down and read a whole stack of my unfinished stories.

    I recommend that to any writer who finds it finishing hard. The craft issue you have to work on can leap out at you.

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