Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Reaching "The End"

I've got another reader request writing topic: How do you finish a book? I'll address this one from two different angles -- getting to the end and then creating a satisfying ending. This time, I'll talk about getting to the end.

Eventually, at some point, in order to be a published author, you have to finish a book. There are some cases of authors who have sold their first books on proposal -- with just an idea or maybe the first few chapters -- but these cases are very rare, and what you don't usually hear is that most of these authors have finished other books. Quite often what comes about is that the author writes a complete book, gets an agent with that book, that book gets submitted and the editors love something about the writing but aren't sure they want to buy that book, ask if there's anything else, and then either the partial or the idea for something else really gets them excited, and they buy that unfinished book. Otherwise, it's celebrities or people who already have established names who can sell a first novel without having written the whole book. To sum up, yeah, it may happen, but do you really want to base your career on that? And then even if you sell on a partial, you'll have to finish the book to get it published (though a contract and a check are pretty good motivators).

So, you need to learn how to reach "the end." I don't think there are any hard and fast rules about working methods or productivity. Some people say you need to plan the story so you won't get stuck, but other people would be paralyzed by that plan. Some people say you need to write at least something every day, but others do far better writing in long binges when they have the time. My tips here are going to be general suggestions to try applying to your own situation. Pick and choose what works for you.

I think problems with getting to the end fall into two categories: the problem is with you or the problem is with the story.

If the problem is with you, it may have to do with your motivation to write, the time you have available, other things going on in your life or your inability to focus. Some things to consider:
-- Focus on just one project and try to get to the end before you start another project unless it becomes very obvious that this project isn't working. If you get a great idea while you're writing (and you probably will because creativity breeds creativity), jot down what you know of that idea and file it away. Don't try to ignore it because that will likely make it take over your brain, but writing it down will offload it and allow you to focus on your main project. That idea will still be there later, if it's any good, and it will probably be even better for having been relegated to your subconscious for a while. It does you no good to have dozens of projects started and none finished (not that I'd know anything about that. Ahem.).
-- Try setting a deadline for yourself. It's harder to force yourself to work when you know that there really isn't any time intensity. If it doesn't matter when you get it done, what will it hurt to skip a day? If setting an arbitrary deadline isn't enough to keep your feet to the fire, look for an external reason to have a deadline -- is there a manuscript contest you could enter once the book is finished? Is there a conference or convention you could attend where you might have the chance to talk to a prospective editor or agent and need to have a finished manuscript? Or you could look for a way to make your arbitrary deadline more time sensitive -- look for a reward tied to completion of the book that connects with a specific date, like a movie opening weekend, a concert or a book/CD/video release date. Share your goal and planned deadline with a friend and ask that person to hold you accountable, or work with a writing group where you all share your progress.
-- Set production goals based on your deadline and writing schedule -- look at how long you have and what you need to accomplish and break that down into how much you need to accomplish in each writing session. I like to keep a running tally of how I'm doing and even recalculate how much I need to do each day every week or so if I'm passing (or missing) my goals regularly I can see how that affects my daily production goal. It's hard to tell yourself you need to write a 100,000 word book, but it's easier to say you need to write 1,000 words today.
-- Make sure your deadlines and production goals are realistic -- not so easy that you breeze past them without effort, but not so hard that you can't reach them and get discouraged. Factor in all the other things going on in your life so you don't feel like you're falling behind.
-- Plan a reward or other celebration for when you finish the book. You can even cut out a picture and keep it handy to remind yourself. Or do positive visualizations, picturing yourself finishing the book, selling the book and seeing it on store shelves.

But sometimes, no matter how motivated you are and how hard you work, it can still be difficult to finish a book. Then the problem may be with the story itself. In that case:
-- Although I usually recommend writing to the end before doing serious editing, especially on a first book, so you don't get stuck in the trap of having to make chapter one perfect before you can move on, if you do get stuck, it may help to re-read what you've written. You may have gone in the wrong direction somewhere in the book that's now keeping you from working things out. See if you can figure out that fatal point, and you may have to start over from there. When there's a fork in the road, daydream a little and imagine how things might have gone if you'd taken the other direction with the story. Play with it in your head before you try writing it.
-- If you've been writing without an outline, try outlining. If you've been using an outline, put it aside and try writing free-form to see what happens.
-- Try mind mapping, flow charts or other techniques to make the story flow visual.
-- Make a list of twenty things that could happen at the place where you're stuck. They don't have to be realistic. Even if one of the items is along the lines of "and then aliens killed them all," another idea might be what you need.
-- Analyze your characters and make sure they have enough strengths and weaknesses for there to be enough conflict. Are there sources of conflict you aren't mining?
-- Brainstorm with someone who's either a writers or enough of a reader to know how stories work. Talking about it can help you see problems more clearly.
-- Sometimes you only discover that an idea just won't work by trying to write it (sadly enough), so you may have to come to terms with the fact that you won't be able to finish the book. If you reach this point, you can consider items from this idea that might be worth saving and using elsewhere, or you could consider colliding ideas to create a fresh story. For instance, if you're trying to write a romance and your hero and heroine keep getting together too soon and you can't keep them apart long enough without it being contrived, then maybe those are characters who belong in an adventure story, where they can save the world together and don't have to worry about staying in conflict with each other. A great character may do better in a different setting, or a great setting might work better with different people in it.

But I would only recommend giving up and starting something else when you've exhausted all other options. You don't want to get in the habit of starting a lot of projects and then quitting when it gets hard. From what I've heard from a lot of writer friends, it seems like most authors reach a point in almost every book when they hate it and don't think it will work, but they get past it and finish the book -- and most readers can't tell the difference between the books from hell and the easy books. You generally need to have a couple of complete books under your belt before you start to develop a sense for when a story just isn't working and when it's simply being difficult and frustrating.


Carradee said...

I like those tips, and I've used most of 'em, except... I like leapfrog.

Right now, I have two main novels-in-progress, one in the "revision" stage and one in the "first draft" stage. "Revision" doesn't feel right, so I've been shelving it to give myself space so I can figure out what is nagging me about it.

In my limited experience, writer's block indicates something's wrong. I'm currently on a "ulgh!" time with the usually easy-to-write "first draft", and so far, that has always indicated a problem, be it a discussion that doesn't "fit" properly where I've put it or someone acting out of character.

I've also noticed, though, that if I try writing a project I don't yet have the skill to pull off, I likewise get stuck.

*shrugs* You know a lot more about ending projects than I do, though. :)

Shanna Swendson said...

I think this is a case of knowing how you work. I tend to have project ADD, so if I tried leapfrogging when I was starting, I'd end up with multiple incomplete projects. But two projects in different phases can be good. I do a lot of that now, where I do a draft, then let that sit while I revise something, then revise the earlier one, then start something new. I guess you could call it project braiding.

But for a very first book, most people would do better to write it through to the end without getting sidetracked on other projects.

Carradee said...

Very true re: first projects. You want to make finishing projects the habit rather than the exception.

It took me a few years to realize that.