Monday, January 31, 2011

Finish the Darn Book

I wrote my first book in 1993. It did not sell. I wrote my second book in 1994. It did not sell either. Third book in 1995. It sold, but not until a decade and several revisions later.

Between 1993, my first foray into novel-writing, and 2003, when I quit dithering and dedicated myself to the goal of publication by a major publishing house, I wrote exactly...

5 books.

That's what I said. 5 books. A romantic comedy, a mystery, and three romantic suspense novels. That's an average of one book every two years.

That's no way to have a writing career.

I know great literary novelists often take that long to write their books. But I am not a literary novelist. I don't aspire to be, although I do like to think that my works are literary and moving. But I'm in it for commercial, mass-market success, which means I've got to produce at least a book a year. And since I'm writing for a category-length line, I have to produce multiple books a year to be successful.

Which brings me to the point of this blog: finishing the darn book.

I can't tell you how many books I started but never finished over that ten year period. Sweet romances, romantic suspense, mysteries, paranormals—any story that flitted through my head earned a paragraph's blurb in my little list of story ideas. When I felt the urge to write, I'd pick one of those blurbs, sit down and start writing. Many times I made it to chapter five or six with no problem, the story just flowing like water from my fingertips to the keyboard.

And then...nothing. I had no idea where the story needed to go. I might be able to see the end—happily ever after, natch—but no idea or means of getting there. The couple either refused to fall in love or fell in love but had no reason to stay apart, and I couldn't keep throwing external problems at them for 280 pages.

I know from listening to other authors that this problem is a common one. How many writers do you know who have started dozens of books but couldn't figure out how to finish them? The common reaction when you reach that point in the book is to put it away in frustration and disgust and start a new book. Am I right? Raise your hand if you've done that a time or two (or five or ten).

::raising hand::

I found my inability to finish books far more frustrating and disheartening than getting a rejection letter. A rejection letter only matters if the book being rejected is the only book you have out there. If you have other irons in the fire, you find you can bear rejection more easily. My biggest fear was not having my books refused but having nothing else to send if the editor rejected my submission but asked to see something else.

I didn't have much in the way of something else.

What I finally realized was that winging it just didn't work for me. I have a theory that, being a middle child, I'm conflict-phobic by nature. Can't we all just learn how to get along? That makes for a relatively calm and peaceful life, but it's not so great for writing a book. Conflict doesn't come naturally to me, even though I've come to appreciate the dramatic benefits of a rich and twisty conflict. It takes work and planning for me to infuse my stories with enough organic, sustainable conflict to make them work.

I can't say I was smart enough to figure out the solution to my productivity problems all by myself. It was partially a process and partially an unexpected and highly unusual stroke of luck. The process started with purchasing the books of workshop handouts available from past RWA conferences.

I found a couple of intriguing mentions of using a spreadsheet program like Microsoft Excel to set up a daily writing chart. Between working full time and being a professional procrastinator, I was very, very good at not writing daily. But I do have a sort of fetish for checking things off a to-do list, and what is a daily writing planner but a big old to-do list?

As it happened, my decision to try using a writing chart coincided with the aforementioned unusual stroke of luck--which was a story idea springing, fully formed, into my head during my daily commute to work. The heroine seemed to burst into my head like a real person, along with her story problem, and within two or three days, I had written a synopsis for the whole book--before I wrote a word of the story, which at the time, I had never done before.

And to add in a third element, there was a writing contest entry date coming up in a couple of months. I wanted to enter the contest, but I wanted to enter it with something brand new, not the same two books I'd been peddling around for the last couple of years. So there I had it—my goal.

I set myself up a fast-paced work schedule. I didn't like to enter contests with unfinished books—I'd done that already and lived to regret it when I received two or three editor requests for a book that was only half-finished at the time—so I was dead-set on getting the book finished or nearly finished by the time I entered the contest. To do that, however, I had to keep to my writing schedule.

Now, I'm not a robot. There were days when nothing would come, and I'd had to mark my lack of progress by changing the page numbers for that day down to zero. But I simply added pages to other days, or added days to my goal, always trying to keep within that two-month goal period if possible. And you know what?

It worked.

I finished the book in just over two months. I entered the contest, finaled and won. I wish I could say I sold the book, but I didn't.

But what I learned from writing that book was the most important lesson to date. I learned the best way for me to write. I need structure. I need a goal and I need accountability. I need to know the plot ahead of time and work out the details of the conflict so that I know I have enough story to get me through the rough spots in the middle. These are things I know about myself as a writer.

But what does that tell you about yourself as a writer? Not much, really. Every writer is an individual, with different needs and different goals. But still, you have to finish the darn book. So you're here, reading this blog, looking for a takeaway, right?

Here it is. Pay attention. Take notes.

As a writer, you have to figure out what your weak spots are and fix them.

Yeah, as far as takeaways go, I guess that's pretty obvious. But it's also true.

My weak spots were the ability to sustain a story from beginning to end and the ability to write fast enough to have the commercial career I wanted to have. Once I figured out that those were my obstacles to publication, I found ways to work past them and achieve my goal.

You may have ten weak points. If you're very, very lucky, you may have only one. But even if there's only one sticking point for you, it's still a sticking point. And you need a game plan to overcome it.

So, first, identify your weak spot. Is it motivation? Try music. Try movies. Try looking at your checkbook and thinking how much nicer it would be to have extra cash.

Ideas? Find a magazine or newspaper and read it cover to cover, taking notes on anything that catches your eyes. Try an hour of unfettered, anything-goes brainstorming with a friend. Read a type of book you've never read before. Pull out your book of fairytales and think of ways to twist them into new stories.

Procrastination? Write in smaller chunks but more times a day. Reward yourself for finishing that small chunk with something you enjoy doing, whether it's reading, watching a favorite TV show, surfing the web or going shopping. But then apply plenty of guilt by reminding yourself that the only reason you got to do that enjoyable thing was because you made yourself a promise that you'd get back to work when it was time.

Writing every day? Make yourself a schedule and stick to it.

Craft issues? Figure out what they are and ask your fellow writers what tricks they use to deal with those problems. Find books on writing that address your craft issues. Practice daily to improve your writing.

So many problems, so many ways to solve them. But first, you have to take time to be honest with yourself and figure out what's really keeping you from completing a great book in a reasonable amount of time.

The rest of the year stretches out in front of you, full of writing obstacles but also opportunities. What are you going to do about it?

What do you need to fix in order to finish the darn book?

Over the next few months, I'm planning to do an ongoing series about the challenges we face as writers in finishing the book. I may be sharing my own struggles as I attempt to write six books in one year, by far my most ambitious writing goal to date. I'll be talking about tips to increase your productivity and ways to tame your rebellious muse. And I want y'all to share with me in the comments of these posts. Most of you are planning to write at least one book this year, so let's all do it together. Tell us what problems you're having. Tell us when you learn a tip that works for you.

Let's make 2011 the year we finish the darn book.


Lisa D. said...

Great post, Paula.

I think that the schedule idea is one that might work. When I was reading for my preliminary exams, I procrastinated about reading the theory and criticism books until I was about two months away from my exam with 50 books left to read. I wrote them, almost a title a day, on a calendar and just forced myself to check them off.

Deadlines will do that for you.

I think that the hardest part about being unpublished is that we don't have deadlines. So maybe we need to self impose them-- finding contests to enter, promising someone a certain number of pages that they can read. Anything to keep us honest. Because I know with kids, and my online courses, and trying to start up a new business, the writing I want to do gets pushed further and further back in the queue.

Lexi said...

Awesome advice, Paula. You are my hero! Seriously, I tell myself if Paula can write SIX books in a year and work full-time, surely I can write one? Butt in chair, butt in chair, butt in chair.

Carla Swafford said...

Middle child here too! I have problem with conflict. Hey, I still hide my face when a couple argues on a TV program. Needless to say, I don't watch much reality TV.

Wonderful post!

Heather said...

This is such a great post and couldn't have come at a more helpful time for me. I don't have any problem writing on the weekends (other than starting - but I usually can get to work writing by lunch time) due to the uninterrupted time. The work week is my problem - I am mentally and physically wiped out when I get home from work (due to the nature of my job, writing during the day isn't an option). I've tried setting my alarm early to write in the morning, but the person who invented the snooze alarm sabotaged that plan before it ever had a chance.

I try to allow myself an hour to decompress when I get home (feed the cats, walk the dog, fluff clothes in the laundry, check email), then I open up my writing program. And stare at it. But I'm not typing. The moment where I put my plan into action is my problem.

Do you do anything when you sit down to get you moving (read the last page, listen to music, etc.)? Inertia will keep me writing once I start, but getting my fingers moving is becoming harder and harder.

Paula said...

Heather, I have a similar issue with getting started, and quite by accident, I discovered a trick that works for me.

A few months back, my computer at work went on the fritz, and I had to be without it for several days. I write during my lunch hour, so that was pretty disastrous.

So I improvised by writing pages longhand on a notepad during lunch and transcribing when I got home.

I discovered that writing long hand, while tedious and even painful (oh, the hand cramps!) was also kind of freeing. And usually, after I finished transcribing what I wrote by hand, I ended up writing more before I stopped for the night.

I also occasionally try to write in email and send it to myself to work on at home. Or write on Notepad and cut and paste. There's something about writing on anything but Word that feels like practice, and when it feels like practice, it takes away the need to write perfectly. It feels more like play than work, and that is usually enough to get me into the flow of the writing.

Louisa Cornell said...

Awesome post, Paula! Printing it out so I can have it close to hand when the "what am I doing" blues get to me.

I like the idea of a spread sheet or a checklist so I can keep track of what I want to do and what I get accomplished each day. I find that if I have good day writing and make note of it, it bolsters my self-image as a writer on those days I don't do as well. They say it takes sixty days to enforce a good habit. Sixty days of writing every day isn't much in the scheme of things, but the execution is TOUGH!

I agree with Lexi! When I grow up I want to be Paula Graves!

M.V.Freeman said...

This was the most inspiring post---it is my goal to finish revisions on this one book by March--and to write a second book.

Everything you spoke about resonated with me. I have made every excuse in the book--but this year I am stopping that.

I am writing.

SO I will join you on this journey..with relish!

Thank you!

Cari Hislop said...

I WILL finish the darn book! I will I will I will!!! I enjoyed your post and look forward to sharing your journey. I think one of the most important things a writer can learn is how they best write. I personally can't write with an outline. For me the motivation to finish is learning what happens and that unfolds as I go.

As for the darn book I'm trying to finish; it took the whole of last week to write chapter 33, but I reread it yesterday and I'm happy with it. I'm so close (half a dozen chapters at the most) I now risk the danger of assuming I know what happens and hitting a wall. So for me to finish I need to just let go of my preconceived notions of the ending and let the story flow. Easier said than done!

Cari Hislop said...

PS I found my motivator to finish the darn book! I bought a copy of a book I haven't read in decades (I'm dying to read it) but I won't let myself read it until I finish the rough draft. I think that's one draft coming up! Thanks for inspiring me!!!

Gwen Hernandez said...

Super post, Paula. I have a couple of unfinished MSs out there, and I realized that I need to have some of the structure worked out. Figuring out your own process seems to be almost as important as learning the craft.

Love your tracking idea. I used a calendar last year to track word count (initially just for IRS purposes), and this year I've added hours (with a goal, of course) to capture those times when I'm not adding words, but editing, brainstorming, etc...

I'm looking forward to the rest of your series. Thanks for the inspiration!

Sherry Cahill said...

This post is just what I needed. As you were telling your personal story, I kept saying "me too." I completed a draft which I struggled to figure out how to edit. I then finished a short story and edited it several times. But I don't even want to go into the many "Works in progress" currently cluttering my computer. I am highly interested in what you have to say over the next four blog posts.