Five Ways to Finish Your Writing
It begins as an idea or a hotbed of ideas. A hotbed is hot because it never goes cold. Your ideas are on your mind day and night, minute-to-minute, hour-to-hour to the point where you can’t take it anymore. You have to put them down on paper. The writing you want to do is complicated. It’s not a conversation between you and the page. It’s a conversation between you and a third party, the reader. So you’ve got to consider that you first have to translate your ideas into words and make it so that the reader translates those words back into ideas and images that concretely capture the universe you are trying to share. This is going to take more work that you can imagine. When finally you have all your raw material, you’ll need to revise. Over and over again, you’ll need to revise. Revision is the writing.
You’ll have to be able to finish a draft first. With everything happening at the same time you are no doubt full of excuses as to why you can’t finish. All of us, even the most prolific authors amongst us, have those excuses, but the worst is losing the idea itself in the process of being busy with the rest of life. Once you lose the idea, you lose momentum, and the work has to be saved or cut and pasted, and that won’t do. Here are my five ways of getting my projects done.
1. Write in public
Everybody has their own writing process; this is about generating the next sequence in your work, continuing to the finish. The idea and the words could come to you at any time so you have to be prepared. The strongest memory is worse than the weakest ink. I started grabbing for my pen when I wanted to remember was happening around me or the exact words that were being said. It was a long time before I realized that my notebooks were full of code I often couldn’t re-engineer. The thing that pushed me to write out the full idea—all the way to the clear feeling beyond the logic—was being in public. Take your notebooks out and do this: force yourself not to think about how other people are viewing you. Between the distractions around you and your own effort to center yourself around the material, the stuff you want to write will hit the page unconsciously, directly, and with surprising clarity.
2. Apply timed conditions
Sure a work of art needs to be crafted with great care and without the imposition of time limits. It must become inevitable. But you aren’t doing that. You are overthinking. I am not telling you to speed it up, I am suggesting that you use time as an instrument of pressure on your writing process. Time often provides the ultimate stakes in a story. The bomb that’s going to go off, the winning lottery ticket that can’t be found, the money needed to pay a ransom. These are all plot details that play with time. Why not relate the fact that you can’t finish your work to the idea that you have too much time to finish it? I use the clock to generate content and to innovate form. My experiments have clearly defined time limits and conditions. That way I can focus on my task to produce material, not yield the best results. It’s okay to fail. You should plan on it. Setting a time limit makes me less worried about failing and more interested in completing my session. It helps me sharpen my voice and my powers of observation. For a sustained period of time you can do anything and then you can be prepared to work with the results as a part of a process and not the final outcome.
3. Be spontaneous
Overly-formal and predictable material is straightjacketing your designs. Whether you want to write the next bestseller or a work that is more clever than your latest read, your writing doesn’t come to life when you force it to live up to your expectations. It has to come out of life and life is inconsistent. Get this through to your mind as you write: inconsistency enables you to finish the story you are writing. When you allow for spontaneity in the writing you follow the line and not the intelligence that you want to bring to the work. You have to allow yourself to lose your way so that you can find what that way is. In the end you’ll see that the difference between writing as a craft and writing as a mindless expression is that when you craft a work maybe you don’t know where you are going, but you don’t confuse yourself by abandoning the formal elements of the work (like voice, perspective, and narrative distance), you keep them under control and make the substance of the work surprise you. If every time you read your own work there’s a fresh excitement to it, you will keep yourself and your reader invested to the end.
4. Ignore the critics
Your material cannot be judged by publisher or critic alone. We are in a new era of natural selection. More and more ideas are being advanced by people developing their own tastes. The market is epidemically cluttered and real competition is coming from the clutter. Those people who judge you are those who have earned the right to invest in ideas by using their earnings. Don’t focus on zigging when everybody else zags. You can exaggerate your differences to gain attention or you can see for yourself that if your work manages to be intuitively good and different it’s not because of your desire to be a tastemaker, it’s because you stuck with what you had for the first draft, finished it, and revised. New emerging programs are already reversing the social norm of the individual not having to form her own opinions. By the time people begin to understand the merits of your work, you’ll have a reliable process that comes naturally.
5. Develop a larger body of work
When I’m writing something, I like to put it into perspective with a more ambitious project so that I won’t try to make whatever it is an impossible task to finish. You will never get everything you want to say into one work. It’s ridiculous to think that possible. You have to finish writing what it is you are working on so that you can make progress as a creator. If you think of those pieces as part of a larger body of work then they will seem sufficient on their own, and you can focus on getting them done.
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