December 30, 2023

On finishing that project

You’ve been staring down the ending of that creative project of yours for quite some time, huh? Here’s why you should finish it, even if it feels wrong.

Wooden blocks spelling the end Image by Ann H from Pexels

One of the nice things about becoming part of a community of writers is that you get to meet many, many writers. Quite apart from the social and emotional benefits of being around groups of people who share some of your goals and struggles, it is also a tremendous source of knowledge and experiences and insights, many of which you might struggle to find out for yourself.

I know this for a fact, because I’ve experienced both ends of the scale of writing community. At one end (the terrible end) I was writing on my own for years, discovering things through trial and error and feeling really quite lonely and isolated. And then there’s now, where I’m embedded in a number of inspiring, exciting and incredibly supportive virtual and in-person communities with hundreds of members. Trust me, the latter is better.

I’ve also been writing for quite some time now, about twenty years of writing novel-length work and five years since I established a regular and consistent working practice. Getting to that regular practice took a lot of false starts and dead ends. And now that I’m in larger writing communities (as well as close-knit critique groups) I’ve started to see other writers running into some of the same roadblocks and frustrations.

The Neverending Story

One of the most common of these frustrations (and sometimes persisting surprisingly far into many writing careers) is the Neverending Story. No, not the early 90s fantasy movie with the spaniel dragon, but the tendency to never reach the end.

When I started writing, I used to spend a lot of time agonising about the opportunity cost of nearly every idea, story or novel that I was considering or working on. I was painfully (over)aware of the time required to do my writing and hence constantly weighed up (consciously or unconsciously) the value of the time I was spending on a piece of work. Was this story good enough? Was it worth it? Was my execution of this idea the right one? Should I change the tense? Maybe the POV? Or perhaps I should put this story down for a bit, outline something else.

Stop me if any of this sounds familiar.

However, the big issue was not whether I was writing the right thing, or writing it well enough. The issue was that I only ever finished something by accident, usually in a white-hot fury of excited drafting. Far, far more often, I trailed off at 8,000 or 10,000 or 30,000 words, or I wrote a half-hearted three paragraphs and then just stopped. And one or two things, I got them nearly to the finishing line, then just… never quite finished them.

I was so focused on writing the right thing that I didn’t realise I wasn’t actually completing the storytelling cycle. It’s a very common trap. Because there is a part of you, right at the back of your head, that knows a finished thing means you have to take the next step. And that’s scary. Especially if you don’t actually know how to do the next bit.

So you end up with a folder full of half-finished projects, or even a few that have collapsed a few feet from the finish line under the weight of endless reworking. You don’t know how to end it. All the ideas you have to end these stories or your novel draft seem absolutely terrible.

The power of completion

You should finish it, even with a no-good-very-bad-doesn’t-feel-right ending. A book is not set in stone the moment you type THE END.

But finishing has a strong and immediate effect and it is cumulative - the more projects you finish, the more your brain, body and sense of self as a writer believes you can finish - it’s a virtuous circle that strengthens over time. This feels really hard to believe when you’re in the midst of this kind of multi-project flailing, but from my experience and the experiences of the many, many writers I’ve seen develop the Finish Your Shit muscle, it is absolutely a measurable effect. Finishing one story won’t do much, but finishing three, or five, or nine? That will begin to add up as a tangible body of evidence.

Another reason why you should not fear writing the bad’ ending (I’m putting this in quotes because it may not be the right ending, but I sincerely believe it will be a good ending in terms of pure craft) is that it is not actually the end of the story.

It may feel like right now you’re closing off possibilities, but finishing a piece actually does the opposite - it doesn’t narrow down, it opens up. Once the piece is complete, you can see the whole shape of it. Plus you will often find solutions in the drafting and editing that you can’t find through the process of brainstorming, outlining and just Thinking Really Hard about your book. This too is a cumulative and incredibly effective skill that gets stronger and better through repetition.

But howwwwwwww

When you’ve rarely finished a story, it’s very easy to fall into the logical trap that tells you the conditions where you have finished a story before are the only or best conditions under which you can finish a story in the future. That’s a problem, because it means you associate finishing with the extremely occasional white hot blast of a story that just absolutely begs to be written as quickly as possible. That kind of writing is a real thing that most creative people have experienced at some point, but it’s also relatively rare.

So if that’s your only or main experience of finishing things, how do you grit your teeth and get it done when that excitement isn’t coursing through your veins?

You may not be an outliner. But I bet you can write the half dozen bullet points that have been ping-ponging around inside your head as terrible ways you can’t possibly finish this story. Doesn’t matter. Get them out of your head, even if you’re not a outliner/planner. Just write em down as bullet points. They don’t even need to be grammatically correct or make sense. I guarantee they will look thin, stupid and unworthy. They will not be right.

Doesn’t matter, put them down on the page. Then, whenever you’re not sure what to do next, look at your little list of bullet points. Turn those points into paragraphs. Make them into words. Pick the first one, write it. Second one, write it. Carry on until the story is finished.

Stories have to end, so they can be told. End this story, finish telling it to yourself, then put it aside so it can become a story you’re capable of re-entering at another point. Then work on something new. You may well find that the act of finishing stories is what gives you the ideas to create new ones.

How I Write series routine process writing endings editing finishing

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