A writer should focus all of their energy worrying about if they are going to be a good writer. It’s the only way to finish writing a story. Hikers don’t finish a hike by actually walking right? No! They accomplish their long journey by agonizing over taking the first steps and planning every petty detail of their long hike. That’s how a writer should do things too!
My Honest Thoughts on How to Finish a Story
How does a writer finish a novel? I get asked this a lot. Usually it comes paired with the question of how to handle your self doubt. This has led me to believe that the two are likely linked (at least for a lot of people). Insecurity has slain more writing careers than even the thin skinned author’s reaction to criticism. The thin skinned author is actually the flip-side of the inner doubt problem. These are authors who have used their ego to bulldoze their inner critic. This then leaves them vulnerable to external critics instead.
I do understand the problem with self doubt. After I finished the first draft of Aeon Legion, I started to show the early chapters to a writer’s group me and my friends started. I kept asking them if my concept was good. They just shrugged. After that I came to the realization that seeking validation is a waste of time. Of course they couldn’t tell me my story idea was good. There is no way of knowing if there was a good story in there or not. Good stories are not written, they are revised out of bad early drafts.
So how did I finish my novel? Well allow me to go into a personal anecdote, you know, the kind of sappy personal stories that I make fun of when other people tell them! So a few years ago I was still working on my book. I had left my previous job working for an insulation company partially because I was an idiot who thought he had a chance at a creative career, but mostly because things had gotten so bad that the company hired armed guards to keep out the previous manager they had fired. It was a very dramatic place. Anyway, my money was ticking down and I was on the 8th draft of my book. I had exhausted my beta readers and I couldn’t really find any more. So I had to make a choice. Either I release my book even though I knew it was messy, or dust off my resume and go back into the work force. Conventional wisdom would have me get a steady job while working on the book in my spare time until it was in better shape. I chose to self-publish my flawed first novel instead.
“Why on earth would you ever release a book you knew still had errors in it?” I hear some of you say. Well because I knew if I didn’t release it right then, I never would. Letting your creative work go is extremely hard. I nearly suffer an anxiety attack before I release every video. Well, at least now I do. That wasn’t much of an issue when no one was watching. Now I tense up every time I hit the Publish button and I wonder “will this be the one that sinks my channel and ends my career?” But I have to let it go. I published my book because I felt it had a good enough story that most people would be willing to forgive it’s poor prose. So far, that seems to be the case. If I had waited you wouldn’t be reading this right now and I wouldn’t have a creative career. I would still be working a job I hated while my book would have sat in my hard drive, collecting digital dust rather than building me an audience.
So how did I conquer my inner doubts? I didn’t. I still have them. No positive review in the world will make that go away. Even Authors a thousand times more talented and successful than me still experience doubt about the quality of their creative work.
So if an author can’t defeat inner doubt, how can it be managed? Well allow me to go into another personal anecdote. For many years I constantly belittled myself and my work. My inner critic did not criticize me, he tore me down. Then one day I just finally got tired of it. I grew tired of calling myself a terrible person who makes awful art. That day I made an amazing discovery; that what I had thought was my inner critic was actually two distinctive parts. One part I labeled the inner critic, the other I simply called the “Voice” (I still hope to use that as a villain concept because the name is so cool!). The Voice was simply me personifying my inner self loathing and inferiority. It did its damage by posing as legitimate criticism. Eventually I learned to filter the Voice out until only the more helpful inner critic remained. That inner critic proved useful because it pointed out the flaws in my story, not the flaws in myself.
So assuming a writer can learn to manage their inner doubt, how can a writer not fall into all of the other traps mentioned in the video? Well, that depends on the writer, but I can say what works for me. When I am working on the first draft, I do not stop to fix things. Get the first draft done first. The story needs a skeleton and that’s what a first draft is. Just get it done. Finishing a first draft is a huge accomplishment. Getting the first draft done vastly increases the odds of a writer going back and fixing it later.
As for everything else, most of the other issues that might stop a writer from finishing a novel are pretty easy to sidestep. I’ll try to touch on a number of the more common issues.
To Outline or not to Outline
Outlines are entirely optional. Outliners just need to be careful they don’t get too hung up on adhering to their outline or spending too much time outlining.
How to protect your ideas
Don’t bother. Ideas are cheap. Here is a link to Jim Butcher talking about how cheap ideas are. Seriously, don’t get hung up on ideas. It’s more about the writing. Also, your work is automatically copyrighted the moment you make it. Worry about copyright after you get it nearly done. No one is going to steal a crappy early draft.
Revising too much
Revise and move on. Come back and revise the same section again only if it has been a while since the last revision. If you have revised it three times and it still feels off, then find someone else to read it and give feedback. Otherwise a writer can fall into the trap of moving things around rather than actually improving them.
World building can be a lot of fun. Don’t get lost in it. How much world building is enough? Hard to say. I can say that if you spend more than a year on just world building, then it may be time to focus on other parts of the story. Also, I find that actually writing the story changes a writer’s perspective on the world and greatly enhances world building. You might get more world building done by actually writing the story.
Don’t be afraid to ditch a project
Yes. I know. Probably not something any writer wants to hear. However, there is no shame in admitting to oneself that a story they were working on simply wasn’t worth finishing. This is not a bad thing. I would go so far to say that I learned much more from my failed projects than I ever did from my successful ones. Failed stories are not necessarily a waste of time if a writer can gain insight and experience from that failure. The only true failure would be if a writer stops writing completely.
I think the most important part of the writer’s journey is courage. Those first steps are always the most frightening. Thankfully, it gets easier as time goes on. The more you write the better you will get at it. Patience and persistence are key. Facing your doubts may be harder than ignoring them, but the very act of doing so gives your writing so much more meaning. If you can’t face your inner doubts, how will your characters? One day you will need that courage when it comes time to finally release your story.