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...
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).
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?
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.