Things to Try when it’s Hard to Finish a Story
This is something every writer experiences. It has certainly been my problem in the last month. I’ve been productive, to be sure. I’ve got a little stack of blog articles, two or three almost finished short stories, even a book chapter that just needs another 400 words. But, for whatever reason, nothing gets finished.
This blog article will lay out some techniques that can help when you are having trouble finishing. They are all things that have worked for me in the past. This is for when you have bits of work that just needs that last push, but every time you boot up the computer you find yourself scribbling notes for another project or starting off that short story idea you had in the shower and BAM – the day is over and nothing is finished.
I’m hoping writing about these ideas will help break my block. With a bit of luck it will help you as well.
As this is a pretty long, splurging article born out of my desperation about not being able to finish anything, I’ll start with the TL;DR version and you can skip down if you want the rest:
|Possible Problem||Potential Solution|
|Fear of Criticism||Write down the worst criticism you can imagine on a piece of paper, and then imagine how your life would be the day after. Sounds silly, but great for getting perspective.|
|Indecision about the Ending||Decide to write both, write the first one, if you still need to write the second and flip a coin. If you disagree, you know which ending you prefer.|
|More complex than you thought||Keep on breaking it down into smaller pieces until one is small enough for you to write. If you can’t do it all, make your article about one of the small pieces.|
|Sick of writing it||Remind yourself how much work you’ve already done. Enlist a friend to bully you and set a deadline with them.|
|Worried it’s not good enough||Embrace rejection. Keep a record of your rejections and take pride in them. They’re what prove you’re trying hard enough.|
Problem 1: Fear of Criticism.
Potential Solution: Write the worst criticism that you can imagine. Then imagine what will happen if you receive that criticism. Then notice that the worst that can happen is, well, not so bad. (And whilst you’re writing things, write the rest of the article.)
This is an old CBT (Cognitive Behavioural Therapy) trick I got taught as part of my rehabilitation after I left the forces. Anxiety is a tricky bugger. Writing is one of those activities that invites anxiety. The possibility that you might be criticised for something that is so personal is really unpleasant, and can seem so unpleasant that it may start to feel better not to finish so that you avoid the very possibility.
Of course, and here’s the thing, you are inevitably going to get criticised (unless you only show your writing to your Mum, and maybe even then). This being the age of the internet somebody is fairly likely to take the time to publically declare that you are the antichrist, or a Nazi, or whatever, for having written “it’s” instead of “its.” More pointedly, you are also going to write some stuff that deserves criticism and isn’t actually all that great. This is going to happen. And there is a fair chance that it is going to hurt when somebody points it out.
And that’s all. It will hurt a bit. It may hurt for a while. But nobody is going to break your fingers, you will continue to breathe, and you can always write something else. Even for really important pieces of writing like a doctoral thesis, major corrections or even a fail are things that you can and will live through. I say this as a man who spent a year bragging about being a pilot in the Navy and then failed flight training. People live through a damned sight worse, and so will you.
Taking the time to pin down you anxieties can help stop them from being a big black nightmarish cloud and turn them into things that can look manageable and survivable (because they are manageable and survivable). Give yourself ten minutes, half an hour if you must, write down all the worst things that can possibly happen, and then once they’re out of your head and on the page get back to writing.
Problem 2: You are divided about the ending.
Potential Solution: Decide to write both. Pick one “at random” and start with that. Why have I put at random in speech marks? Because the odds are the first one you pick is the one you sneakily prefer and the one you should go with. If you really can’t decide, finish the other one, and get a trusted reader to pick for you. If you find yourself arguing against their choice, ignore them and go with what you’re arguing for. Still doesn’t work? Flip a coin. Seriously.
I was talking to a writer who was really struggling with this issue just recently, and I was struck by three thoughts.
The first was that nine times out of ten your first instinct is the right one (and the other time hopefully your reader will tell you).
The second was that this is a problem where it really helps to have a deadline. I was struggling with this with one of my own stories a little while ago (not the ending per se, but a line I kept on putting back in and then taking out again). The editor said I should go with my first instinct, but I had second guessed my first instinct enough to be totally muddled. Thankfully, the submission deadline came and went and I was forced to stick with what I had. Thank goodness for that.
The third is that it probably isn’t that important which ending you choose. If you’re that stuck they are probably both good. I certainly have moments when I want to believe every word I write is Shakespeare, and the exact choice of how this particularly sentence is phrased may mean life or death for the text… but then I know full well that Shakespeare was a master of knocking of words for a deadline and, well, if it’s good enough for the bard then it’s probably good enough for the rest of us. At the end of the day you’re wasting time that could be spent writing something else.
The best bit about cracking on and writing the first possible ending on the premise that you will write both and then decide, is there is a decent chance that once you’ve got the first one down you’ll think “sod it, that will do” and move on. And you’ll probably be right. That’s not settling for mediocrity, that’s trusting your writerly feel in a traditional self-depreciating writerly way.
Remember, this is about finish things that are close to the end. You are already committed. The conclusion is probably imbedded in the text (or it should be). You just need to follow through.
The coin flipping thing is stolen from that movie Indecent Proposal; if you flip the coin and don’t like the result, you’ll probably want to flip the coin again and there’s your answer. Same with arguing with your reader. So flip a coin, finish the document, submit, and go write something else.
Problem 3: The story is more difficult or complicated than you first thought.
Potential Solution: Break it up into smaller parts and then write those. Concentrate on finishing the smaller parts and let the big parts get there on their own.
The problem of every doctoral thesis ever. Also an issue with novels, which it turns out are big and take a long time to write. I find it easy to imagine Tolkien scratching his head as he realises Saruman and Sauron had started out as spelling mistake and now had become two people, and having no idea how to put it all back together again. When you’re trying to finish you can become overwhelmed by how horribly big the job is. Quite normal.
One of the things that distinguishes this problem from the other 4 is the horrible moment when you realise you are not as close to finishing as you were pretending you were. Time to knuckle down I’m afraid.
So, grab a piece of paper and start scribbling down all the things that need to be done and that you are trying to say within the work. You don’t have to get everything down, you can (and probably will) add stuff later. Once you have a list then pick one thing and write that. Don’t worry about which one. The point is to get you writing again. If you are still stuck, take one point and break it down again – what things do you need to say to prove this individual point? Break it down into a sentence by sentence state if you have to. But in the end it will get small enough that you can manage it, and you will be writing again.
There is a subtly different variant of this, which is where you are overwhelmed by the size of things and are no longer able to tell what is important and what is not. This takes a bit more work (annoyingly, it means you weren’t quite as close to finishing as you thought you were). Having scribbled down all the things you still need to say, now try grouping them together, and ordering them in terms of the most important things. Start with that. If it is so important that it blows you mind and you can’t start, break it down into pieces again, and again, until you can. You really can build the pantheon brick by brick.
The final variant of this problem that I’ll talk about is where you’ve started writing an entire treatise on the rise of the extreme right or the influence of sexuality on Proust, and realised that actually this won’t fit into your 500 word limit for the blog site you have been commissioned by. Now you still need your scribble list, but your objective here is to pick out one little bit and make the article about that instead. Sometimes you have to recognise that the reason you can’t finish is because it is impossible to finish, and change your direction to something smaller and more manageable. You can complete your unifying theory of non-competitive equilibriums as a book afterwards.
Problem 4: For whatever reason you’re sick of it and don’t want to do it anymore.
Potential Solution: Consider work done against work to go, then enlist help and get a deadline.
Also a problem with every doctoral thesis ever. And, frankly, any piece of work that takes more than a couple of days to blat out. It’s the moment when you’re bored. Or you hate it now. Or you’re so convinced that what you are writing is rubbish that just looking at it fills you with a sense of loathing. Sometimes all three. Maybe it’s just me, but I doubt it.
The first thing to do is to remind yourself how far you’ve come and, relatively, how little there is to do. I don’t really care if it’s a lie or not. Just take a moment to look over your shoulder and see how hard you’ve worked. You are on the downhill straight. You’ve done harder already than there is to come.
Then remember that an unfinished work has virtually no value. You can’t share it. You can’t sell it. You can’t even look back on it and laugh, because you’ll always have that little bit of frustration that you didn’t finish it off. Even the worst piece of writing in the world feels better finished that unfinished.
In the meantime what you need is a pedantic or demanding friend. They don’t need to be the world’s greatest literary critic; they don’t even need to read what you are writing. They just need to be someone who a) likes you enough to put up with you, b) you will feel bad to let down, and/or c) will poke you if you do let them down. You then get in touch with them and arrange a deadline by which you will send them the completed work. Promise them with your biggest promise you will get it to them at that time. Possibly promise them beer.
This works. It really does.* Having a deadline gets you kickstarted again. And believe me, you’ll hate it less when it’s finished.
* Sometimes it doesn’t work. That’s when it helps for the person to be your friend, so they put their arm around your shoulder, tell you you’re not a crap person for letting them down, and it’s alright because you’re going to send it to them tomorrow.
Problem 5: You’re worried it won’t be good enough.
Potential Solution: Embrace failure. Set a rejections target and try to achieve it.
Good enough for what? Alas, the answer for many of us is there is no such thing as good enough, and this is a pretty horrible state of mind to live in.
There aren’t a lot of situations where you are going to want to fail. But, if you’re as demanding and difficult as I, and have the habit of interpreting the slightest misstep as a “failure”, then you are certainly going to have to get used to failure. And disappointment. And any other Princess Bride quotes that spring to mind.
Because, like criticism, failure is coming; be it rejections (and lots of them), dismissive notes, harsh amazon reviews or that little look of pain on a friends face when you ask them if they liked it and they try to think of something good (“your spelling was much better this time”).
If you finish your story and send it off to competition the thing that is most likely to happen is that you won’t even know it has been rejected until they announce the winner (and it isn’t you). If you finish your novel and send it off to those literary agents that you painstakingly selected as looking for your type of story then the most likely outcome is a stock “thanks but no thanks” letter. If you finish the article that you sweated blood over… look, you get the idea. It’s a harsh world out there and somebody out there is going to think you’re shit. Most of the rest won’t even notice you.
This is usually the point where you stick in an encouraging homily about how many people rejected the Harry Potter manuscript before it was picked up, and that’s true and worth remembering. But it’s also pretty likely you haven’t written the next Harry Potter. And it’s also true that you can’t control any of this. All you can do is write the best thing you possibly can, present it in the best way you possibly can, and move on to the next thing.
Lots of people hate Harry Potter, think it’s shit, and have gone to great lengths on the internet to explain why it’s shit. And I don’t care how many millions JK Rowling has made from her books, there will have been a moment when she’s seen that and she’s wondered if she isn’t good enough. I don’t think you can be a good writer without having this feeling from time to time. Maybe she takes comfort from the thought that, had the internet existed in those days, people would have been doing that same thing about Proust, Flaubert, Dickens, whoever and whomever. But I suspect it hurts all the same.
So the thing to do is to wear your rejections, your criticisms and your failures as badges of honour. It won’t stop them hurting. But a rejected paper is a damn site better than a paper that is never finished. A stack of rejections means you are putting yourself out there. A stack of rejections is what makes you a writer. A stack of rejections is the only way you get from talking about writing to being published.
Perhaps most importantly, a finished work that is rejected I can always take a little pride in – because I did it, because I learned from it, because I can keep on sending it out until someone takes pity on me. Unfinished work is just a little source of shame in the corner of my hard drive.
I know which I prefer.
And look at that. I’ve finished an article. Now it’s your turn.
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