How to finish what you start

Short stories are easy to complete, because they require a commitment of time that spans a mere couple of days. But writing a novel is a real test of your dedication. Sometimes there are good reasons to stop writing a novel, such as when you realise the story’s not quite good enough, or when you hit a brick wall in the story that you can’t break through. In these cases, the author is to blame for his lack of planning. He had a vague idea in mind and a good first scene, so he jumped right in and started writing, full of enthusiasm. 10,000 words later, it’s clear the story’s going nowhere, and there’s often nothing he can do to fix it. I’ve been there, and I’ve learned my lesson from it: Quit flogging a dead horse. And next time, plan, plan, plan, before you write a single word of prose. So, there is a time when it’s right to quit, and there’s a way to avoid being caught in that trap.

That said, there are other reasons why we leave reams of half finished work in our wake. Fatigue is a major factor. I started my latest novel with great gusto during my summer holidays, but when I got back to my day-job, I felt too tired to write in the evenings. That said, if I’d still been as enthusiastic about the story as I was in the beginning, the fatigue wouldn’t have mattered. But you can’t depend on that excited feeling carrying you through the entire slog of the novel-writing process. When it wanes, it doesn’t mean you’ve realised your story is awful; it’s just life. And it happens in all walks of life, from getting a job, to buying a car, to starting a marriage. Excitement does not last; it is a transitory state that fades when you grow accustomed to something.

There is a simple way to avoid quitting in this circumstance: Stop treating writing as a pleasure and start looking at it like school homework. I said it was simple, but I didn’t say it was easy. Make rules for yourself, such as setting a time each day that you devote to writing, regardless of how you feel. Or make a commitment to write something every day, no matter how much or how little it turns out to be. The sprinter and the snail both make it the finish line, regardless of their speed; the key is to keep moving. I have to admit, though, that I am bad at taking my own advice – which is why my latest novel took six months (and it was a short novel). Discipline is a hard thing to muster when it’s for something you don’t have to do. We drag ourselves out of bed every Monday morning to go to work, because we have to; we do the dishes and the laundry, because we have to. But as for writing a novel, in most cases this is not our career; it is a glorified hobby, and none of us have to write. How then do you discipline yourself to get the job done? I have found that the larger my manuscript grows, the more important it becomes to me to finish it. In other words, the hundreds of hours of work invested can be a big motivator in making sure it doesn’t turn into the biggest waste of my time and energy. Fear may seem like a distateful motivator, but if it works, use it.

Another hindrance to finishing a large work of fiction is that you can always put it off, and there are no consequences in doing so. If you take a break today, you can always go back to it tomorrow. But before you know it, a year has drifted past, and you’ve made very little progress. What you need is a deadline. Andrew Harrison (my film-making partner) is good at giving me deadlines. He books the date for the film premiere while I’m still composing the soundtrack, and then I have to work my butt off to get everything done in time. But I don’t resent it one bit. A deadline is the kick in the nether regions that we all need to get moving; it is the magic ingredient that turns us into workaholics. But we independent writers usually don’t have deadlines. And even if we made up an artificial deadline, I don’t think it would do much good; we’re still only accountable to ourselves.

Here’s a funky idea for you that scares the hell out of me (i’ve never done this, and I’m not sure I recommend it). How about picking someone who’s not too close to you, but someone you trust? Tell him you will send him your novel, chapter by chapter, as you write it. Instruct him to file the chapters away somewhere safe, because you are going to delete them from your computer. And you will faithfully do so. You are going to entrust him, and him alone, with the safety of your sacred scroll. Before you begin writing, you are going to say to him, “If I don’t hand you the final chapter by [insert date here], then you are to delete the entire novel. Even if I beg and weep and scream for you to give it to me, you will delete it. You will only give it back to me if/when I complete it within the specified time.” (Now you know why I said “someone who’s not too close to you.”) Or if that’s too harsh a penalty, how about you have to pay him money to return the manuscript to you, if you fail to complete it in time? It sounds crazy, but if I could find the right person to share this mutual responsibility with, I’d be tempted to try this approach.

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