Once upon a time, I think people bought into this idea that poor Taylor Swift just had bad luck with guys. She’d date a guy, the relationship would go south, and then she’d write a sad song about it and make money. After she’d reached the point of building a singing career on this, it became pretty obvious that the guys aren’t to blame. Taylor Swift is the problem.
Here’s another sad truth: There are a lot of “Taylor Swift writers” out there.
Yes, you’ve started dozens of stories. You wrote a few chapters on one book but couldn’t get any further. Maybe you got fifty pages into another, but never wrote more to it. Hell, there’s that one manuscript where you plowed out more than 100,000 words, but you still never finished it either. While some stories aren’t meant to be told or a writer chooses the wrong one to tell, there’s a point when it’s clear your pen name is Taylor Swift.
Seriously, when the inability to finish is a pattern in your writing career, you need to suck it up and complete a manuscript. Terrified you can’t? Here’s some tips that might help.
1. Send your inner-perfectionist to Antarctica to chill out. A lot of writers get hung up on making that story perfect from the very first sentence. Well, the main difference between a polished rough draft and a perfect rough draft is that the former is achievable and the latter is not. Don’t let that inner-perfectionist free from its southern exile until it’s time to edit. Then you can celebrate its return with a glorious red pen orgy.
2. Quit trying to revise your story when you haven’t even reached the end yet. This is the inner-perfectionist once again having its way with you. A lot of problems in a story are born from not knowing how the story will end, and even when you think you know how it will end, that can change once you get there. Knowing the real ending to your book makes it easier to recognize what needs to change in the beginning. This isn’t the same as when the story has just completely gone off the rails. Sometimes you gotta start over, but this can sometimes be an overreaction, like using a sledgehammer to put a nail in your wall. Yes, your first chapter needs to grab the reader, but when you’ve changed the first chapter ten times without ever getting to the end of the book, the problem isn’t the story. The problem is you.
3. Fake it until you make it. There are lots of seemingly legitimate reasons for a story to stall. You need to research something you didn’t anticipate in the plot. You’re not sure what needs to happen next. Maybe you do know what needs to happen next, but the current scene just isn’t working the way you hoped. No matter the reason, you can only let that put you in pause for so long. At some point, you need to tough it out. Force yourself through the next scene, no matter how ugly it needs to be. The answers to make the story work better might be found later in the story, and you can’t get to those brilliant solutions if all you do is sit in park.
4. Quit waiting for the Muse to strike. There’s a saying that God helps those who help themselves. I believe the Muse subscribes to this same bit of wisdom. All too often, the only thing needed to get the words flowing is to force out the first few lines.
5. Accept that art demands sacrifice. You don’t have enough time to write. Trust me, I get that. Most writers aren’t making their living off their writing. Their primary income comes from a full-time job they have to contend with while trying to write. Even if you’re a stay-at-home mom or dad, odds favor you have a lot more than what’s for dinner eating into your time. I’ve sacrificed many things to find time to write: time with my wife and kids, overtime at work that would have added more “real” and immediate income, and choosing not to apply for time-consuming promotions at work. These aren’t simple sacrifices, but I’ve made them. Ultimately, you’re gambling that one day you’ll be able to look your loved ones in the eyes and tell them, “It was worth it.”
6. Be disciplined. I don’t believe a person has to write every day. To me, that’s a recipe for burnout. After all, being a professional writer requires doing a lot more than writing. Once you’ve got a story written, you have to figure out your pitch, research which agents/editors to query and send out your query letters. If you are published, then you also need to promote your work, which probably involves writing blog posts and maintaining some form of social media presence. All that said, when it’s time to write, you need to be able to plant your butt in the chair and get it done. Don’t get distracted, and if you find you have an ideal time and setting for when you write, make damn sure you create the opportunity to do it as often as possible.
7. When all else fails, go read a book. It’s amazing how inspiring it can be to just read something, but be careful what you choose. The stories we write echo everything we’ve ever read. Don’t pick something too similar to what you’re currently writing, or you run the risk of rehashing something another writer has already done within your genre. While writing an epic fantasy with my wife many years ago, I tried to think up an original “curse” for our characters to use. I initially went with the phrase “Burn me.” I thought it sounded great. There’s a reason it did, because I’d read it in several of Robert Jordan’s “Wheel of Time” books. Even though I caught this in time and changed it to something that was original to the setting in our story, I learned my lesson.
Finally, some general writing advice for people struggling to get a solid, complete manuscript written: go write some short stories. I resisted writing short stories for many years, and it’s a choice I regret. While I learned a lot from the unpublished novels I’ve written, I think I learned a lot more from the short stories. The reason is simple. There are lots of stories I couldn’t finish, and it doesn’t take as long to get to the end of a short story as a novel. I point that out, because there is something you gain as a writer from seeing how a story progresses from beginning to end, and the more you experience that, the better you’ll be as a writer.