I often get e-mail from writers I don't know asking for advice. If the e-mail seems sincere I try to answer it sincerely. I do sometimes get angry missives on how unfair and/or archaic the publishing industry is, and I admit that I don't always answer those. They seem to be more of a way to let off steam, and, well, it seems their mission was complete when they hit send, so...
Anyway, once in a while I get asked my opinion on writing matters from someone I actually know. A friend even.
I sometimes hesitate to be fully honest in my answer, because if I know the person well it almost seems to take unfair advantage of that knowledge, no matter how I couch it, and if the person is feeling uncertain to begin with (and why else would they be asking for advice?) it can come off as a personal attack. The friend gets defensive, I feel anxious and guilty...it's not really a win/win, is it? But not being honest isn't helpful, either.
I rarely blog about the mechanics of writing. And that's mostly because I don't know that readers really want to know about the nuts and bolts and agonies and frustrations. My husband hates to see how special effects are achieved in movies. He hates blooper reels and insider information because it ruins the overall experience for him, whereas I love that stuff and it only serves to enhance my enjoyment. Everyone is different. Heck, I've been known to read the endings of books after only a chapter. Doesn't ruin my enjoyment of the book at all, but it drives my husband absolutely bonkers when he sees me do it.
But a close friend asked for my advice recently, and I gave him/her some. It was likely more than he/she expected to get. And since I took the time to write it all out for him/her, I thought I'd share here, in case anyone else is having this problem and thinks they might care what I think about it.
His/her main obstacle is that he/she refuses to finish a project. Lots of novels started and not completed. It frustrates me because the person is perfectly capable. So, if that's you, read on for the text of the e-mail I sent to him/her.
But, if you're a reader who hates the insider stuff, just skip this. And if your perception of me is of a benevolent, kindly soul who only ever has nice things to say and never struggles with my own writing, you skip this, too. And if you're my wonderful mother-in-law (who I respect with all my being), or my publicist, stop reading right now. Because I swear.
Dear Wonderfully Talented Friend:
I think my one real concern with your writing (if I may) is your inability to finish a whole project. And as you seem to want some real help on that one I will forget that you're my close friend and will tell you what I would tell any writer who wrote to me with the same concern. Um, I'm very honest, so if you don't like the following, then also forget that I am your close friend and we'll just move forward from there. :-D
Keep in mind that I actually feel very qualified to give this particular advice. I've been busting my ass every single day for over ten years to do this, and I learn every day, and some knowledge I do have under my belt, even if I don't always put it into practice myself. But it still feels rather arrogant to be giving my friend such strongly worded advice. It makes me nervous that you're going to read it personally and think I'm making a sly and passive-aggressive attack on YOU because I have some underlying resentments. But you're talking about the very thing every waking moment of my life revolves around and has for over a decade.
I happen to have strong opinions about this stuff, and it's NOT personal. So. Fair warning and here we go:
There are two really broad reasons why you're not finishing what you start.
The first is pure technique, craft, experience. Which breaks down to:
1) You think a finished product results from inspiration. You believe in a muse. Here's the truth: your muse is a fickle, lazy wretch who wants you to fail. She does NOT own you. YOU own HER. YOU summon HER. You shackle her nasty little fairy wrists and drag her out by sitting down every day and completing your goal. Period. Even if she sits there sullenly and gives you nothing. You make her sit there beside you and watch while you struggle and complete your goal. Even if it's crap, you complete the goal. Because that's what rewriting is for. Every day. Over and over. Over and over. Over and over.
And it is tedious. It does not always fill you with joy at the wonderfulness of CREATION. You are not a god. You are a worker, a toiler, and it is hard work. And it can be deadly boring. And if you have ADD then you are doubly cursed.
But here's the cool thing: Eventually that rotten slutty little muse gets interested. Because you made her sit there every day and forced her to endure crappy writing and cliche prose and predictable plot twists and boring characters...and she gets irritated that SHE might be blamed for this piece of crap, and she starts to whisper in your ear, and THAT is when the joy comes.
YOU OWN HER, and then you make her dance for you and you laugh cruelly at her, exhausted, dancing so beautifully, ENSLAVED. Frankly, it's an awful, thoroughly dysfunctional relationship. But she's yours. And she's also your responsibility, and if you don't accept the responsibility for making her DO HER JOB then shame on you, and you've only yourself to blame because you couldn't hack training her properly, and you will never finish a thing because you believed she would do it for you.
2) You don't know what happens 1/3, 1/2, 3/4 of the way through, or at the end. Why would you do that? Why would you even start? You're clearly doomed to fail without any sort of plan. It's premature ejaculation. It's only satisfying to YOU. You get your rocks off, but then you're spent, you've nowhere to go, and your partner (reader) is left going, uhhhhhh, really? That's it?
As an alternate, less disgusting example tailored specifically for you: You're so good at interior decorating. Consider your dream room. Is it a living room? Kitchen? Bath? Whatever. Close your eyes and consider your room. Put it together piece by piece and enjoy the final product. Now pretend you moved ahead on the project after only considering the paint color. That's it. You had that one idea for a paint color, you jumped in the car and went and bought 7 gallons of beautiful purple paint, and you're all excited, and you get home and immediately set to work painting those walls bright purple.
You leave everything else unfinished because you haven't given any thought to the whole. Purple is a beautiful color, but a week later, when you've finally decided that maybe you need to move to the next stage, you notice that there's not a lot of granite that goes with it, even though you've gone and looked at 12 different granite places. Hmm, maybe you should have looked at the available granite as part of a larger plan before you bought and applied that purple paint?
And you're stuck on the granite, because without the granite you won't be able to pick the cabinets, or the appliances, or the sink, or the tile, or the molding, or the lighting, and suddenly the whole project is overwhelming, and holy shit maybe the purple wasn't such a good idea, and now you're exhausted and overwhelmed, and you need a break so you move on the the bathroom.
Because you think lime green paint is invigorating, and you pick up the paint and paint that, and it is fun and exciting, and, and, and...you haven't given a single thought to what else you're going to do there and there are no materials that you have access to that go with lime green BECAUSE YOU DIDN'T PLAN THE WHOLE THING. Or at least the major elements. You have to have the bones, you have to have the basics. Everything else is window dressing and can be added later, but plot? Yeah, plot? That's a whole other thing. You need a beginning, yes, but you also need one third, halfway, three quarters, and the end.
Beginnings are easy. Everyone has an idea. Anyone can paint the kitchen purple and the bathroom lime green.
Now, combine #2 with #1? THAT'S how you complete a project. Plus a lot of Diet Coke. So:
1) Come up with your plot points all the way through. Resist the excitement, OR, allow yourself a wee tiny bit, like a sample you paint on the wall to see how the light affects it at all hours of the day before you spring for 7 gallons of the stuff. I'm attaching what I've started of my next novel in which I've done exactly that. This is ALL I will write until I have the entire plot thought out. This is my purple paint. I LOVE it. I'm excited about it. I want to marry it. And I am refusing myself the pleasure until I have each point of the whole to write TOWARD.
2) Make a goal. Mine happens to be word count. 2,000 words a day, though I suggest less to start. I began with 750. I know you think you can do more than that. Don't. Get your plot first. Then only write 750 words at least 5 days a week. Exercise. That's the only thing that comes first.
You don't do laundry. Don't shower (this one is negotiable.) You don't make lunch plans. You don't chat with your friends on the phone. You don't read a new book. You don't garden. You don't mop the floor. You DON'T PEE.
I know that you are shaking your head saying, but if I don't do those things first then they will never get done, and laundry, well, laundry is less a chore than an insistent force of nature, and I HAVE to mop the floor because the dogs are so dirty, and I HAVE to pick the cucumbers because otherwise they'll rot and BLAH BLAH BLAH.
Guess you'd better get those 750 words written then, huh? Because when you get them done? You can go do all those things. With such a sparkling clean conscience. And while you're doing those things, you get to think about what you're going to write tomorrow. And about how you're going to make your muse dance, dance, dance... YOU SIT YOUR BUTT AT THAT COMPUTER AND YOU DON'T LEAVE IT UNTIL THE WORDS ARE ON THE PAGE.
Have you really done those things? Really? No...REALLY?
Then things are worse than I thought, because the second possibility is just pure psychology, and that's a lot harder to overcome.
It's all wrapped up in people, family, friends, telling you in all different ways throughout your life-- in funny quips, charming observations, angry accusations, passive-aggressive asides, pointed barbs-- that you (choose one) never finish anything, that you always have such wacky plans, that AREN'T YOU CUTE, that you have such fun hobbies. Whatever it is.
You have a role that you're fulfilling. And that in itself can be comforting. Whew! That's just me! Hahaha! Yeah, just like me to never finish anything. *giggle*
Don't take yourself very seriously, do you? Why would anyone else? And why are you asking them to? Are you asking them for approval to finish? No? Well. Then finish. Stop talking about it. You do it, or you don't. And you take responsibility for both of those outcomes. You don't explain it to anyone. It's yours. Not theirs. Do you have a plot? Are you making your goal your priority and meeting it every day? No? Whose fault it that? It's not a movie, it's not dramatic and romantic. It's not even very interesting. You do it, or you don't. And YOU get to accept that.
And there are my thoughts on finishing a novel.
Aren't you glad you asked?!