Revision notes for Framed and Burning. This was after I received BETA reader feedback and needed to revise the draft.
At last month's meeting of the Lewis County Writers Guild, we chose our programs for the year, starting with a list of brainstormed interests and then voting on our top picks. The most popular topics were 1) finishing drafts and 2) making a living as a writer.
These would seem to be in obvious conflict with each other, for if you can't finish the draft, you're a long way from making a living as a writer. But the group is the affable sort, its members up front about their own strengths and weaknesses. Thus "finishing drafts" garnered more votes than the latter.
I have to admit, this surprised me. I had not had occasion to think about it before, but I guess I'm what you'd call a "finisher."
It took me two years, but I finished my first novel around a demanding day job that required me to put in sometimes as many as 70 hours per week. I did it by using every three-day weekend and all of my vacation days to write and revise. This was a sacrifice, and I had the support of my husband and stepson, or I could not have done it. I also saw my friends a lot less and gave up fun Seattle activities, such as happy hour and live theater shows.
For my second novel, I rearranged my life drastically in order to make space for both writing and the business of writing. I stepped down from management, scaled back to 32 hours per week (with a commensurate cut in pay and benefits), and moved to a small town where I could buy a house with room for a home office. Of course, things don't always go according to plan. The day job demands have sometimes meant I end up working 40 hours in four days so that when Friday comes, I'm pretty exhausted.
But the struggles and small sacrifices aside, I finished a draft of my second novel in only two months. I got up at 6 am and finished my day job duties by 3 or 4. Then I shifted over to the novel and worked till I went to bed that night, stopping only for dinner. I used Fridays to write, and I took a much-needed break from social media. I also wrote every weekend. I got to 90,000 words in record time.
But this isn't something I'd recommend. Sitting that much, as science has told us, isn't good for us.
Part of the reason I pushed myself so hard is because I was passionate about the project. It had to come out. And I would say that if you aren't passionate about what you're writing, then of course you won't finish it. Why would you? We writers come to this because we have something burning inside us to share with the world. And if you aren't feeling that, then simply being able to check off the "done" box won't drive you to the page.
There have been projects I never finished, but it was right for me to abandon them: A novel I started in the summer of 2002. Another I began in the summer of 2003. When I look at both drafts now, I don't feel the passion in them. They didn't need to be finished the way other works have. Knowing when to abandon a project is key. I never think of these as losses. It was good practice, writing them.
I also have a finished manuscript I'll forever keep in a drawer: the memoir I wrote between 2006 and 2008. My agent at the time couldn't even get through it, it was so dark. But that writing wasn't wasted. It was a powerful catharsis, at the very least.
And I have one long-term project, a magnum opus of sorts, that I've finished half a dozen times in various incarnations, as a short story collection and then a 'novel in stories' and most recently as a straight-up novel. I might be periodically doing what amounts to rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic, or perhaps it will end up being my greatest work. I could also end up abandoning it for good. But for now, the passion is still there, just not the understanding of what to do with it. And that's okay. I've got plenty of other works to sustain me in the meantime.
So here are my first couple of tips on finishing:
- Write where your passion is. Don't sit down to write a romance novel just because you think the genre sells. But if you read romance novels and think you can write them better, that's great! I chose to write mystery after working on the story lines for more than a hundred games in the mystery genre, reading mystery novels, and interviewing a crew of popular mystery authors for a magazine.
- Don't be afraid to abandon a project if you can't finish it. All writing is practice, and if you've lost the passion for your novel, maybe it was just your warm-up draft. Do not read this as failure. All writing practice is useful.
The other reason I pushed myself to write 90,000 words in two months has to do with that other topic the Writers Guild chose to explore this year: making a living. My goal is to be a self-supporting independent writer by this time next year. That's a hell of a motivator, let me tell you. It makes me nervous just to write that here, because what if I fail? But I have a good plan in place for how this will happen, and writing it down is part of my goal-setting.
There's one among us in the Guild who's already making a living as an indie novelist, and you can see how he set the goal and then achieved it, his focus undeniable, his passion palpable.
At the day job, I spent five years on nothing but finishing things. Our deadline-driven, high-volume work was so focused on finishing that I had to design a digital queue to manage the projects and then hire a team to complete them all. My team routinely finished rewriting games with content equivalent to your average novel in about a week's time. When your job's on the line, you finish.
And that's the same level of urgency, I believe, that it requires to get to the finish line as a writer. Otherwise, your writing is what amounts to a hobby, something to be done at leisure, for the sole pleasure and enjoyment of the activity. And that is more than okay. It's wonderful, in fact.
Which brings me to these tips:
- Consciously decide what your intention is. If you want to earn a living at your writing, that will lead you down a different path and set of choices than if writing for you is a hobby or sideline. For example, if you are a poet, you are not going to make a living at your writing. End of story. But like I said, that's more than okay. A great many writers would actually be happier if they relaxed and accepted their writing as a hobby. Writing and publishing my poetry collection was 100 percent a labor of love.
- Set realistic goals either way. For my third novel, I've set a goal of getting to 20,000 words by the end of October. I'm at 2,800 words currently. That's a bit more reasonable than finishing a novel in two months around another job, and this will be better for my health and sanity, too.
If you're new to writing as an activity, which means you haven't actually done a lot of writing in your life, then you will need a great deal of training and practice, and that should be your mini-goal. While I completed a first draft of my novel in only two months, that was the tip of the iceberg you're seeing. What's underneath the water? Training through my English bachelor's degree, a certificate in writing, and a Master of Fine Arts in writing. After that comes my twenty-five-year career as a writer, editor, narrative designer, and teacher of writing.
I'm not saying you have to have all or any of that to be a writer who finishes drafts, but I suspect that a good deal of "not finishing" comes from encountering problems while writing and letting that stop you. Knowing how to tackle problems on the page takes instruction, training, and experience. And that definitely helps you finish!
Here's my last two bits of advice:
- If you don't have the experience or training, get it. But if a degree program is not in the cards for you, there are lots of other ways to get the training you need, such as feedback groups, how-to books, conferences, workshops, and so on. There's an endless pool of resources available to you. In fact, a lot of writers end up making their living telling other writers how to do it. Beware that pyramid scheme, but do get the help you need from reliable sources.
- Know what helps you finish other things in your life, and use them. I started off this post with a photo of the wall in my studio, which I've covered in clear whiteboard paint. I'm a list-maker and a visual brainstormer, and I know I have to see it "up on the wall" to get it finished. But for you, it could be something else.
Now let me turn this over to other writers out there: How do you finish? Please share your thoughts, tips, and techniques.