How to Finish a Writing Project

"Oh that my words were written! Oh that they were inscribed in a book!" -- Job 19:23

Do you have two chapters and an outline for a novel you started ten years ago? Do paragraphs or pages clutter up your hard drive, your desk, your file cabinet, and your brain, but you can never herd them into a coherent whole? (If you've got a detailed outline, come on!! You just need to get to work.)

This essay is an exhortation on the subject of healthy habits for those who want to finish a writing project. If you're a writer, you've heard this stuff before. Perhaps you will take it to heart if you read just one more harangue.

So you have this great idea for a novel, a screenplay, a short story, an essay about how to finish a writing project. How do you get from high concept (the great idea stated succinctly) to a completed work? Probably in a lot of different ways. From my reading on the topic, many writers flesh out their characters, and figure out plot points so that the characters interact. Then the author allows the characters to play out in these situations, all in his or her mind. Freeing the author to type and type and type: translating the movie in their head into words on the page.

That's not what I do (well, I do a bit of this, at a later stage). It seems like most people who work this way wouldn't have much trouble putting words to paper. I am setting out here to tell you how I do it. My point being, this is not the only way. Do what works for you; hopefully some of these tips will help.

Take Notes

I start with an idea, but that's not enough. I need more than just the idea. So I carry a Moleskine Reporter Notebook around in my purse, which goes with me everywhere. I also have multiple Word files on my computer. One file has random ideas and notes. Characters. Funny scenes that I witness or imagine. Names. Titles. Plots. Events. Absolutely anything that might provide a paragraph or more in a written work. Once I've committed to a plot that might actually turn into a finished work, I make a Word file specifically for that project.

If you have an inspiration, an idea, a line of dialogue, a plot twist, anything that strikes you as an idea: write it down. (All you phone zombies could use your smart phones. Taking notes for your writing can substitute for your crack-like texting/eye-contact avoiding habit! Win win!) Anne Lamott, the author, carries index cards and a pencil in her pocket. Use whatever works for you, except for relying on your memory. I hope that all of your brains are fresh and agile, and you can remember everything. I can't. If I delay writing something down, two hours later, all I remember is, oh, I had a good idea. What was it? I can't remember. I open up my Moleskine notebook every few months and I don't remember half the stuff I wrote down in there. I'm shocked at some of the good ideas I came up with! Hopefully, your memory is better than mine. Even if it is, the act of writing is good practice.

Whew. After all that nagging, hopefully, I've talked you into writing stuff down, no matter how random it is. Eventually, the goal of all your notes is to "blow up the balloon." Or how about this one: "roll the snowball." Expand all your ideas into material. The linear, translating-the-voices-in-my-head process doesn't work for me. I need to acquire enough ideas to fill up my empty pages. So I need material. I need a lot of material. I need things that I can write about, from the most general plot idea to the most granular, small-scale snippets of action or dialogue.

I've found that if I have a big idea, and I keep thinking about it, the details will start rolling in. I'm a daydreamer. If I've got a project in the works, that's what I daydream about. If you've got someone to talk to about it, talk. And of course, when a thought comes to you, write it down. The accumulation and the retention of ideas should become part of your daily routine. If you're not focused on a specific project, just write down the random stuff. If you've got an project that you're working on, try to keep your brain chugging away on it. I think that if you keep bringing up the subject (even just to yourself), your brain will keep working on it, even when you're doing something else, even sleeping.

Write an Outline AKA Break Up the Task

Once you've accumulated a mess o' ideas, you need to organize it. I sit in front of the computer and move ideas/events/scenes around until I've got them them in order from beginning to end. I number them, just so I can have an idea of how much I've got. At this point, it may be glaringly obvious that you haven't accumulated enough material. In that case, you need to hold off on the outline until you've come up with more material. As you're moving pieces of the puzzle around, think about how the scenes will transition. Think about what has to be added so that the flow of the story keeps going. Add any new ideas you come up with. When you've moved all your pieces into a coherent outline, set it aside for a few days or weeks. Come back to it fresh and read through it. When you're looking at something every day, it can be hard to see problems. If you let it fade out of short-term memory, when you come back, you might see things that you didn't see at first.

The book Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life, by Anne Lamott, provided a wonderful story which she used as the title. As I remember, Ms. Lamott's brother had to write a report about birds during grade school. He put it off until the night before (more on the agony and ecstacy of deadlines later). At that point, he was completely overwhelmed by the task and collapsed under the weight of the report. His father's advice? Take it bird by bird.

I interpreted this to mean, break up the task into small pieces. And then tackle the smaller pieces, one by one, until you've done them all. I know that there are people out there who just sit and write, no notes, no outline. I wish I was one of them. For me, an outline, as detailed as possible, keeps me on track. It's a lot easier to write a little piece than it is to write the whole darn thing. Think about it. When you sit down at the computer, do you think, "I'm going to write my novel." Wow, Sisyphus, that's a big rock you got there! Doesn't it sound easier to sit down and think, "I'm going to write the scene when my hero sneaks into the crime scene, recovers the lost key, and narrowly escapes from the busybody police officer/love interest?" The second scenario is much longer than the first, but also much more specific. Specificity and granularity are your allies in the writing process.

"Wait until the evening before opening night. Nothing primes inspiration more than necessity, whether it be the presence of a copyist waiting for your work or the prodding of an impresario tearing his hair."
-- Gioachino Rossini, composer, on the right time to write an overture

Get a Deadline

Confession: I don't seek out deadlines for my writing projects. That doesn't mean I don't think they work. In my opinion, a deadline is the only thing that will work for some people (you know who you are). When faced with a crisis, we're a fight or flight species, but until the crisis comes, most of us lie around and conserve our energy. If you know that's how you roll, then you need to seek out an external deadline. Join a writers' group. Take a writing class. Make a commitment to someone who matters. "I will show you these two chapters next Friday." Take the deadline seriously.

Put in the Time

I am a true believer in the "seat of pants to seat of chair" theory of writing (and it probably works for other projects that can be done while sitting in front of a computer). If you can't commit to sit there and put your fingers on the keyboard for a certain amount of time, perhaps you should find another goal in life. The first time I determined to finish something, I committed myself to put in 45 minutes per day, sitting in front of the computer. I'm a morning person, but so is everybody else around here. I decided to pick 45 minutes in the evening, usually starting around 8 p.m., but sometimes later, because that was the time of day when I was least likely to be harassed. These 45 minutes seemed like the least I could do. Baby steps! If you can only do a half an hour, so be it. But make the commitment and stick to it.

Sometimes you'll sit there for 45 minutes and not get a lot done. Oh, well. Sometimes you'll sit there and the words will be flowing like a firehose. Don't ignore the momentum. If you can, keep a-writin'. The 45 minutes is a minimum. There's no maximum! Especially if the muse is singing. Trust me, she'll take a break eventually.

Don't Put Up Roadblocks

"I don't have time." How much TV do you watch? "There's too much noise in my place." Get some noise cancelling headphones, or better yet, practice concentrating. "Nobody will leave me alone." Find away to distract the distracters for your 45 minutes. Or just keep writing. Solve their problems, then go right back to writing. I seem to remember a famous author, I think it was Janet Evanovich, who wrote her first book during her daily commute on the bus. The prolific author Louis Auchincloss wrote longhand, sitting on the couch with the paper on a coffee table, while his young children played in the same room. My point being, if you want to write, you'll tune out the distractions.

You might be lucky enough not to have human distracters. You're sitting in front of the computer, though, which makes it easy to let the Great Web of Distraction suck you in. If you find yourself doing Internet "research" (or worse yet, checking Facebook, email, etc.) instead of writing words, resist! If you have a question while you're writing, and you can switch over to a browser and find the answer in five minutes, okay. That actually seems like a time saver. On the other hand, if it is going to take more time to find the information, or if you're using the Web to avoid writing, don't ever do it. Don't flip over to your browser; better yet, don't even open your browser if you're writing. When you get to a question, insert the question (in all caps, or a different color, something to grab your attention) into your work, for research after you've finished your first draft. For example, WHAT YEAR DID UTAH TERRITORY BECOME A STATE? Right in the middle of the flow of words. Then continue using your precious time to write.

First Drafts: the Horror, the Horror

If you've read this far, I assume you've found it difficult to write a completed work, whatever it is. So maybe you've never gotten to the re-write. Or maybe you're the type of person who is continually re-writing. If you find yourself spending all your time re-writing, and you're not progressing in the creation of new material as quickly as you'd like, maybe a different tactic would work. Don't let perfect be the enemy of good, especially in a first draft. Just power through from start to finish, no re-writing. I think it's easier to let the re-writing wait. Finish the first draft. You'll re-write after you get to THE END. If you ever had a job with an editor above you, you've experienced how much easier it is to re-write something, than to write it.

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