You are going to write a story so gripping that your readers will forget their problems and disappear inside your well-placed words. You are motivated and have the tools, the skills, the coffee. You begin to write, propelled by your brilliant idea for a novel, play, screenplay, or poem. Words flow. They flow for a few hours, then you get up and live the physical life for a while.
This is where things get unpredictable. You return to finish a draft, or you don’t. It would be impossible to provide you a bar chart that shows the number of projects artists and writers begin next to the number of completed projects, but I would put money on the fact that there are more unfinished novels on the cloud than there are complete drafts. Struggling to finish a project is not a unique problem.
The moment of inspiration passes. Life happens. Bills need paid, work is demanding, and sometimes there’s nothing tangible to blame at all. The project is simply abandoned. You still want to finish, but the story seems suddenly unrealistic, daunting. Your brilliant idea begins to feel stale.
If you’re in this position, as I have been many times, I have a bit of advice. I am a firm believer that there are no wasted words. If I didn’t believe this, I would have given up on most of my stories. Before you abandon anything, the following strategies could be helpful:
Determine whether it’s worth it. Look at your work in a new way by trying the following exercise:
- Set aside a small block of time – 20 minutes or so – to rewrite your opening page(s). Do not look at your existing draft. Do it from memory.
- Read it. What stuck from the original draft? What did you sacrifice or add? Is it still the same story?
- If the answer to that final question is yes, it is the same story (possibly even a tighter version), then you have determined you must finish this project. It still lives and breathes inside you, and it is time to purge.
Once you’ve determined you definitely want to continue on with the project, the first way to work through the low points, or return to that abandoned manuscript, is to set a series of small, attainable goals.
- Set a routine, as low-maintenance as possible. Five minutes of writing a day can do wonders. As can the old handy gym schedule of three days a week. Whatever’s realistic for you, commit.
- Record the number of words you’ve written daily, and keep a running tally. Try to top each month’s number as you progress in the project. Remember, you’ve already determined this is a worthy project and every word counts. Even the words you cut later will count. You are getting closer with each one.
- If you are working on a novel or memoir, set page limits for chapters and look at your project as a series of parts instead of a whole. The parts will become something whole and coherent, yes, but to get it done it can be far more manageable to begin by concentrating on one section at a time.
Did you set your schedule? Only in your head? Not good enough, Writer. Write it down. Also, write down your overarching goal. This creative project is a mission. You must have an end goal in sight.
- Fill in the following: “I will write a total of ______________ (5 minutes 20 minutes, 4 hours…) each ___________ (week, Monday, weekend, day…).”
- Fill in the following: “I will complete the first draft of this ____________ by ____________.” (Do the math in order to ensure you are being realistic, and maybe add a few weeks for a buffer.)
- Fill in the following: “I am writing this story because ___________________.”
Now you’re ready to write. As you begin to find your footing, the work will begin to unfold and another possible issue could be that it may unfold in illogical and inconsistent ways. To curb this, let’s begin at the THE END.
- Write a sentence or two that describes how you plan to end the work. This can change later, but it’s important to have a general idea of where you’re headed.
- Write a sentence or two that describes your main conflict (internal or external).
- Pick a scene/chapter, any scene, and dive in completely. Write the entire thing before moving on to the next one. When you’ve completed writing your first scene, ask yourself where this scene fits in the trajectory of your full novel. Is it the final scene? Did you expand on the introduction? Did you write the most climactic scene? Is it (gulp) throwaway text?
- Outline as you go. You can either outline before the book is written or after. Either way, go minimal and be adaptable. The story, if it is truly alive like it needs to be, will run away from you at some point. It is your job to trust that it knows where it’s going. So keep the outline brief. It is the drunken guide that meets you when you deplane, and you have to trust him, at least for a while; or, venture off and reorient as you go. Whatever way works for you. Remember, a pre/post outline will also serve you later when agents/editors ask for a book proposal.
Keep going until you are done. When you are done, celebrate! Take a break. Revision is another story.