The Finishing Game: Simplify

I was the girl who never finished anything. That was my rep as a child when it came to finishing my math homework or cleaning my room; that was how I thought of myself when I first started trying to be a writer.
This is a blog post in the IWSG blog hop:
it is also the first part of a series on learning to be a finisher of writing projects.
Then I read about Heinlein’s business rules for writers. The Second Rule is that you must finish what you write. And I didn’t think of myself as a person who could do such things.
But wait a minute. There WERE writing things that I regularly finished without a problem. I have written loads of short poems, and I finish most of them. I used to regularly submit poems to poetry ‘zines and got published.
I also can finish blog posts. I have no doubts about my ability to finish this one, even though I’m writing it on Evernote instead of on Scrivener because BOTH of my old wore-out and/or demon-possessed computers don’t want to let me use Scrivener right now.
And based on this accomplishment in the finishing department, I recently completed a short non-fiction book on blogging called ‘Getting More Blog Traffic: Steps Towards a Happier Blogging Life.’ I thought of it, not as a big scary book-writing project, but as a bunch of little blog posts. Only instead of publishing them one-by-one on a blog, I compiled them and published them as a KDP ebook.
When I think of a book writing project, fiction or non-fiction, it gets big, scary and never-ending in my head. And that’s what kills the project. What helped in the blogging-book project is that I simplified. Instead of focussing on everything I could possibly say on the topic of blogging, I narrowed the topic to things that help improve blog traffic— the number of readers one gets for one’s blog.
I narrowed my focus for the audience as well— mainly author bloggers and other topical bloggers who blog out of love for the topic rather than as a blogging-get-rich-quick scheme.
By narrowing the focus that made the project into something I could do and finish. It wasn’t any more difficult than writing several blog posts on different aspects of the same topic.
The same narrowing can make a fiction idea more doable. My current fiction WIP is science fiction set on a lost starship. Now, I have been making up stories in my head about these characters for years, and I have pages and lists of backstory, dozens of characters, enough for a 20-book sci-fi epic that I could never finish because I could never hold all that detail in my head.
So, instead of writing yet another novel-beginning destined to have no end, I’m paring things down to short-story level. Instead of having to introduce and develop the three major characters and the dozens of minor ones, I’m paring it down to a story focussed on one of the three and a single challenge he must face and overcome. (Current plan is to do one short story for each of the three characters.)
The paring-down process seems to help. Instead of doing something that might involve months of outlining and planning before actual writing even starts, I’m setting my sights on something short enough to start today and work on until the finish.
Both doing actual writing (not planning to write or talking about writing) and finishing what you write can be such a challenge. But not writing and not finishing don’t exactly help you develop your writing skills. I can’t write a 100000 word book right now in my writing life. But I can and do write shorter things. And shorter things can add up to something epic.
Springtime greetings,
Nissa Annakindt
Questions: Have you ever had problems finishing writing projects? Have you tried things that have helped? Have you tried things that just made everything worse? Share your thoughts in a comment!
Recommended Reading: Heinlein’s Rules: Five Simple Business Rules for Writing by Dean Wesley Smith (author of over 100 books.)
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Rule #3: The Poverty of Rewriting

Rewriting, rather than fixing or redrafting, is a philosophy of poverty. Every one of the words of your not-quite-good chapter 12 is to be considered a rare gem of which your mind only has so many. So you rewrite and rewrite and rewrite, keeping some words and sentences and ideas from the first draft intact while you suffer through five or ten or twenty rewrites. 

Real writers like Robert Heinlein, Harlan Ellison and Dean Wesley Smith didn’t believe in that kind of writerly poverty. They wrote and finished stories and put them on the market. There was always a fresh story progressing down the pipeline. If story #27 didn’t sell, by the time these authors finished sending it around to all the markets they had written half-a-dozen more to market and some of those most assuredly would sell. 

When I first started writing and submitting poetry many years ago, I did believe in the whole infinite-rewrites myth. But I found that when a poem ‘worked,’ going back to it days or weeks later to do a rewrite didn’t help. It was either as great as I could make it already and changing any word made it weaker, or it was a flub that didn’t get good no matter what I did to it.

I sent out those one-draft poems and some got published. And kept writing more and more and more. No word poverty there! There was always another idea coming along into my fertile brain. I didn’t have to waste hours, days or weeks trying to spin my flubs into gold.

Think of the very first story you wrote— perhaps as a grade-school assignment. Do you really think if you had been rewriting that story time and again it would now be so polished that it would win you a literary prize? Or did you learn more by writing other stories or essays or poems? 

A writer writes— puts down new words on paper or screen. Writing is not outlining or talking about writing or gossiping about your writing plans in critique group or promoting your published books on Twitter or filling a world-building notebook. It’s putting down new fresh words to a new fresh story. Again and again and again. Because your mind will never run out of ideas. You don’t have to infinitely rewrite the old ones until they turn into gold. You write, you finish, you put it on the market (or self-publish.) It’s that simple. Or that impossibly hard.

Rule #3: Redrafting is not Rewriting

What is redrafting? Redrafting happens when a chapter or a whole story is Just Not Working. You junk what you have written down and write a new draft from your memory of the idea. I did redrafting myself before I even knew that was the name for it.

Dean Wesley Smith describes it as being all from memory, but I use name and place-name lists in order to keep from having to reinvent the wheel because I don’t always have a good memory for things like that. Before I read about redrafting, I did redrafting when a chapter I had written got bogged down and felt unfixable. I just started over. I might make it a different scene with different characters but serving the same purpose as my original scene did. 

What is the big difference? When you do many rewrites, you end up with a pastiche which has sentences from the first draft, third draft, tenth draft, and so on. They may not match each other well— which may trigger yet another rewrite in the endless process of Not Finishing your writing project.

Every word in your redraft will be far more consistent in tone than something that has been rewritten and rewritten. Your first draft in rewriting mode may have been humorous, your third deadly serious, your fifth melodramatic, and your tenth an odd mishmash. While your redraft will be fresh and more consistent.

Redrafting when you need to gives a project fresh life. Your bogged-down chapter 7 does not need to be rewritten ten more times in a vain effort to make it good enough. You don’t ever need to look at it again, because your redraft has taken its place. 

Now, you may need to keep various notes and outlines that date from the writing of your original draft. But if you ‘outline as you go’ you may need to not keep some of that original draft’s outline lest it turn your redraft into a mere rewrite.

Rule #3: Fixing is not Rewriting

Rule #3 of Heinlein’s Business Rules for Writing is ‘You Must Refrain from Rewriting Unless to Editorial Order.’ But the problem is, what do we mean by rewriting?

Imagine in the middle of the night you wake up and think that in your day’s writing work you called a character by the wrong name. Or you really need to look up the date of death of Ludwig II of Bavaria before you make him a vampire character in your novel. Or you let your cat help with the typing but now that you think of it you are fairly sure that the word ‘trebuchet’ is not spelled with that many sevens.

You do not need to leave these issues unresolved in order to follow Rule #3. Because fixing is not rewriting. You may fix mistakes, typos, misspellings, errors of fact, and other such things. 

You might also, upon thinking of the matter, decide to develop a rule or system for naming your space alien, elf or dragon characters, even though this will involve changing the names of characters already mentioned in the story. But this is not rewriting. It’s just fixing.

One bit of fixing I had to do was in my starship fiction. I needed to create a system of ranks in the Terran space fleet that was consistent and not borrowed from Star Trek. I wrote down the perfect system for this once— and then lost the paper it was written on. So I had to laboriously create a new, not so perfect system and then go about fixing my story and my notes to reflect the new system.

You may feel the need to write your initial draft of your story with the spell-check OFF, and go through later with it on to fix any spelling boo-boos. This is also fixing rather than rewriting. In fact, Dean Wesley Smith recommends hiring a copyeditor who will find mistakes and wrong words spelled correctly (like using ‘effect’ when you mean ‘affect.’) The story-fixing draft that results from the copyeditor’s work is fixing, not rewriting.

Rule #3: No Rewriting?!?

No rewriting? What is this? Writing IS rewriting, isn’t it? But Heinlein in his five business rules for writers very clearly states “You must refrain from rewriting except to editorial order.”

‘Editorial order’ means an order given by an actual editor. You know, the guy who works for a book publisher or a story magazine who has the power to buy your story. If an editor of this variety says he’ll buy your story if you lose the hero’s girlfriend and replace her with a talking dog, change the unicorn to a dragon, and throw in a time machine, consider it. But as for suggestions given by people who are NOT that kind of editor, feel free to ignore them.

  1. Critique Group Members are Not Editors. They may concoct a criticism only to have something to say. Or to please you since you WANT a critique. Or they may be so wrong that any rewrite you do to their suggestion just weakens or kills your story.
  2. Beta Readers are Not Editors. Beta readers are people you pay— with an Amazon gift certificate or with a promise to beta-read for them— and do not have the power to buy your story. Unless they have a very similar writing mind to yours, they are likely to say nothing that will help. And like critique group members they can lead you astray.
  3. Literature/English/Writing Teachers are Not Editors. Many teachers have never written or sold anything. Even the creative writing teachers who are actual writers and have sold may be putting out the false ‘keep on rewriting’ line so popular among English teachers. A teacher’s suggestion does not trump your instinct of what your story is and is not about.
  4. Book Fixers You Hire are Not Editors. No, not even if they call themselves ’editors’ or ‘content editors.’ Real editors in the sense of the Rule pay YOU— at least if they accept your story. Book fixers are people you have to pay. They are going to come up with a lot of suggestions so you feel you got your money’s worth. These suggestions might be good, bad, or story-killers. 
  5. Agents or Would-be Agents are Not Editors. The kind of agents that YOU as a new or not-famous writer can get are of varying quality, but they are NOT the dudes that handle James Patterson or Naomi Novik. They may THINK that if you turn your cowboy hero into a transgender saloon ‘girl’ they can sell it to a real editor but they may be wrong.
  6. Real Editors who have Turned You Down are No Longer Rule #3 Editors. Sometimes you get a rejection letter which says, not for us, but before you resubmit elsewhere turn your main character into an owl, lose the spaceship, and put more metal into your time machine. But once this editor has turned down your story, the suggestions this person makes just stand in the way of you having FINISHED that story and marketing it.

A major reason for obeying Rule #3 is that it helps you keep Rule #2, ‘You must finish what you write.’ If you declare a finished story unfinished and do another rewrite every time you get a suggestion from a critique group or a rejection letter from a publisher, your story gets farther and farther from being finished.

The worst part about the endless-rewrite culture is for most of us the more we rewrite the more our story becomes conventional, less risky, more boring, more the same as what every other writer puts out. We don’t want or need that!

“You Must Finish What You Write.”

The second of Heinlein’s Business rules for writers states that “You must finish what you write.” And that’s always been a problem for me. My life is littered with incomplete writing projects I will now never finish. And my life since childhood has been full of unfinished things. “You never finish anything!” my parents would say. Maybe it’s the Asperger Syndrome?

Feeling guilty about not finishing has not helped. White-knuckling my way through— forcing myself to go back to writing projects and finish them— has not helped. Believing I am destined to ‘never finish anything’ has really not helped.

What does help is looking at the stuff I can and do finish. I have finished poems— short poems anyway, not long epic poems or series of poems. I can also finish blog posts— in fact this is the second blog post I am writing this day, and I have every expectation of finishing although I have to break off in a minute to yell swear-words at some cats. (Tomorrow is Lent so I have to get the swearing out of my system today.) But I know I will get back to this post, finish it and post it. (Update: See? I did it!)

OK, so I have two kinds of writing I know I can finish. What I am trying to do now is create a little longer writing project that is similar to writing blog posts, but that will result in a short book— a short ebook anyway. It is about blogging— a topic I blog about here on this blog— and more specifically is for author bloggers who have blogs who are neglected and have few visitors.

My timeline for this project is 12 writing days. My word count goal is about 800 words per day. So far I have skipped a couple of days, and am 9 days in to the project. I am also starting to re-read what I have written to fix what needs fixing, I’ve also designed a book cover on Canva though I may have to tweak it if I modify the book name or tagline before publication day.

The problem is my long history of not finishing is starting to drag me down. I have started so many writing projects with high hopes and seen them bog down. To the point when I start a new novel or short story I feel that the odds are against my ever finishing or even getting to Chapter Seven.

What I am doing is tapping into something I can finish regularly— finish blog posts— and essentially turn a writing project into a short series of blog-post-like chapters. I set a time limit— a deadline— so it will have a finishing point.

When/if this works, I can use the same principle more or less for fictional…. But I probably should not blog about that or even think about that right now. My soon-to-be-finished book on curing blog loneliness is the only think in my universe right now (except cats to swear at and chickens/a goose to feed.)

Is finishing stuff a problem in your writing life? Has anything you have tried helped you? Are there writing things— like writing poems or blog posts is for me— that you can do, easy? Maybe you can use that to help you learn to finish other writing things— drop me a comment and let me know about your struggles and triumphs in finishing things.