On Saturday, I submitted a 5,000 word excerpt to a writers conference I will attend in late June. There are 10 of us in the workshop; between now and the last week of June, we will each read one another’s work, and then come together for one week under the mentorship of an instructor (a published author + teacher) to provide feedback and learn.
With those 5,000 words under my belt, my “usable words” for this book project hovers at 35,000. By “usable words” I mean prose that has been shaped into some semblance of a workable draft, in order to distinguish it from the one-off paragraphs that I scribbled in the middle of the night, the reams of freewriting that contain just a handful of interesting nuggets, the essays I started and stopped because I could not figure out where they were going. If I added those to the word count, I might be at 70,000+. But that prose cannot be used in my project – not yet, anyways.
A crude rule of thumb states that you need 50,000 words for a novel. When writers takes up National Novel Writing Month every November (or NaNoWriMo), the premise for the challenge is that if you write 1,000 words daily, at the end of the month you will have 30,000 words, which is enough for a novel’s first draft. Just think – a novel draft in a month! I tried it once and got to Day 3. I do have a friend for whom “Novel #4” is his “NaNoWriMo novel,” so I know from anecdotal evidence that it is doable, but wow, is that a lot of words spewed out onto a page every day for one month straight.
Thanks to NaNoWriMo, 30,000 words has always been a milestone for me. In my mind, 30,000 words meant significant progress. It meant my idea had a shot at becoming a reality, it meant moving from the realm of “pipe dream” and into the land of “holy shit, I might just do this.” It was like the invisible line between wannabe writer and serious writer.
On Saturday, I got there! I submitted my excerpt and did a little happy jig. And then I rewarded myself by ordering a set of these – what can I say, I love quirky and I love supporting small artists. I am a firm believer in rewards not just for the big goals, but also for the smaller milestones along the way. Passion projects are rarely easy, and we should take time to celebrate our successes.
On a recent post about creating a daily writing habit, my friend Kevin pointed out that I had neglected the most important piece: finishing. He makes a good point. As critical as it is to “show up” regularly, these past few months, I feel my writing has improved because I finally began finishing pieces. With every piece I finished, my skills expanded, which made the next piece easier to finish. Or I pushed myself to be more ambitious with the next piece, or take greater risks.
I love starting pieces. The thrill of a new idea, that initial rush of words! And then I get stuck in the middle, uncertain what comes next and how to pull together all the loose threads. Sometimes I find myself at a loss for words. Before I gave myself this time-bound project with a distinct end goal (book finished, by age 30), it was easy to just store the offending piece on my hard drive, figure that someday I would come back to it all, and start something else (or stop writing for 6 months entirely).
I think we all get stuck for different reasons. For me, it takes a lot of brain power and patience to work through the problems and come out with a solution at the other end. And hey, this is supposed to be fun, right? So why would I carve out an hour before work just to flail through writers block, feel like a failure, wonder if anything I’ve ever written in my entire life is relevant, and question my creative genius? So much easier to just walk away and wait for inspiration to strike. I don’t pretend to have all the answers sorted out, but I thought I would take a moment and reflect back on some tricks that have worked for me, so far, in getting things finished.
Outside Deadlines (and the power of 1.0)
This is the classic, right? You want to submit to a competition or apply to a writers conference, and so you need to finish your piece, much as work deadlines keep up our productivity. This also works for smaller, regular deadlines, like when people form writers groups. They know that every couple of weeks, they will be on the hook for a finished product.
In my first job out of grad school, whenever I found myself flailing in my project, I would email my boss to ask for a meeting in a week’s time, to go over my ideas for said project. This forced me to put aside my perfectionism and start sketching up rough ideas – better to walk into my boss’ office with something bad, than walk in empty handed. I think of this as “version 1.0 creating.” The key was that I knew I had to walk in with some semblance of a finished product. Maybe it was an outline or proposal, maybe it was just a handful of strategies, but they had to have a beginning, middle, and end. I did not blindly brainstorm. I created down-and-dirty prototypes that were whole products, albeit crude ones. If I had leftover time, I knew could revise and improve, but I put it on myself to always bring something complete for my boss to review. Scheduling this meeting gave me the external deadline and the impetus to go for v1.0. It’s a lot easier to get from v1.0 to v1.1; the hard part is getting to v1.0.
Remember my group of writer friends who share a Google Spreadsheet to update one another on our writing progress? My dirty little secret is that they are all better writers than I am. They are better read, they have completed more projects than I have, are further along in their books than I am. When I get stuck, I turn to them for advice. They are not so far along in their writing careers that they have forgotten what it is like to struggle through my current predicament, and so they always have a tool in their arsenal that is perfect for me. Maybe it is an author I should read, or a new way to think about pacing, or just words of advice on how to get through a rough patch.
Now, it just so happens that these 3 writer friends are the only writers that I know, and I feel really lucky to be able to turn to them. Never underestimate the power of pulling together a couple likeminded folk to cheer one another on, swap ideas and commiserate over setbacks, or provide small doses of tough love at just the right time. You will probably go farther as a group than you could as individuals. Passion projects can be long, sometimes solitary, pursuits. So don’t be shy about reaching out to somebody to see if they want to form some type of mastermind or accountability group! It might take a couple iterations to figure out the proper format, but it will be worthwhile.
Knowing that I trail the others in terms of experience, I work hard to make it a relationship of mutual benefit. Recently, I sent out a group email to make some virtual introductions (since they do not all know one another). Writing can be intensely solitary, and I hoped to add a bit of a “community” feel to our shared online space. One mentioned that she has an internally-imposed deadline, so I sent a follow-up email asking if there was anything that I could do to support her as she wrapped up her second draft. I now email her every couple days to check on her progress and provide some virtual cheerleading.
Light It Up
Sometimes, a piece just needs to breathe. When you’re nose-to-nose with a project, it can be difficult to find the perspective to move forward. At this point, I might temporarily put something down, but always with a game plan for when and how I will return. For example, I know that I am a minimum-seven-drafts-before-a-piece-works kind of writer, so when I planned out my project timeline from December through September, I built in time for reflection and revision. If, while writing a first draft, I could not see the story arc, I wrote a bunch of small segments with the intention of shaping them into a beginning, middle and end, at a later date which I had already specified on my calendar. In the interim, I read books I wanted to emulate – new authors, old favorites with an eye towards careful deconstructions of my favorite passages – and I came back with a ton of notes on techniques to try during the revision process. I also made sure to read a handful of really bad books, which was just as instructive for what not to do. I watched movies, read poetry and fiction and narrative journalism, looked at the arc of song lyrics.
One of my writer friends told me that when she got ¾ through her first draft she was utterly stuck, so she started reading books about screenplay writing. She is a fiction writer, but she liked the ways these books broke down plot, pacing, tension building. This gave her structure for rewriting her novel. Another writer friend had taken several screenplay classes in grad school and fears his prior novels had hewed too closely to their format, and he is now looking to his own genre for inspiration on breaking out of that model. I have heard several artists comment that regularly engaging with other people’s work does more than generate new ideas. It also renews their love for the work. Whether looking within a genre or to another medium, it is helpful to stay engaged with your “field.”
How about you? How do you get yourself to finish your projects? And be sure to check out the comments from the last post, where Kevin has a careful dissection of his thoughts on finishing a project.