Why can’t I finish my story?
The many pitfalls in bringing a long-term project to an end
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A problem I see very frequently in young authors that are starting out is the difficulty staying focused on a single story. All too often, they start on a project, only to be distracted by a new idea shortly after, and abandon this project to start another one, sure that the new idea is going to be THE project that they will finally finish… until it happens again. And again.
There are many causes for this phenomenon. The first, and very obvious one, is that it is extremely exciting to begin a new project. A new idea invariably sparks creativity and interest in a project. The unfortunate truth is that this excitement must invariably wane, because it is the newness of it which is exciting, exactly like a new toy, and not the nature of the new idea. Writing is hard work, and we must face and accept this is we are to bring anything to term.
Of course, sometimes there really are some factors which can prevent someone from continuing. There are, for example, an entire roster of problems which can be mistaken for writer’s block, on which I have made a post, which you can find here. But one traditionally does not experience such a block until they have reached at least the halfway mark, and the “starting a new project” syndrome rarely happens after the quarter of a story has been written. For the moment, there are a few tips I can give to help those with this problem.
First, if you fear losing your ideas, keep an ideas log. This is like a journal, in which you write every idea you have, and elaborate on them as much as you want to without writing the story itself. There is a very good reason not to jump on an idea the very moment you get it; ideas need to mature, to grow themselves, and you need to give them that space. If you write them down in a journal, you will not have to fear losing them, and they can go rest on the back burner where they need to be until they are ripe enough to live up to their potential.
Another thing that can help regain the excitement and momentum of the beginning of a story, is (after you’ve written your other idea in a journal, of course) take what you’ve written so far, go somewhere comfortable where you like to read, and read what you’ve written so far. From the beginning. Not like a writer, not doing any revision, just reading it. Enjoying it. After all, if you once were excited about this project enough to work on it, reading this story should be enjoyable. What will happen, most often, is that you will get to the point where you are at, and want the story to go on. That should be enough motivation to get the ball rolling again.
One last thing that can really help, is to plan ahead. It’s very difficult to muddle through a story with only a vague idea of where you’re going. I’m not saying you absolutely have to have a detailed outline, but you should have at least a good idea of where your story is going, of your ending. In fact, you should know how your story is going to end before you get to the middle, so that you can direct it instead of just expanding; expanding without a goal is the best way to create terrain that is simply too large to find your way out of. The definite advantage of the detailed outline is that you never have to sit and stare at your screen wondering what will happen next; you know what happens next. And if it doesn’t feel like that’s what should happen anymore, you can always revise your outline; after all, you know what happens after that bit, and the one after this, and so on until the end. It is easy to fix a chain of events like this, and make the story fit no matter how you’ve veered off the road you intended to take.
The only real, solid advice I can give you, though, is to make a real commitment to your story. Decide that you will finish it. Set a goal for yourself. Give yourself a deadline (that is realistic – don’t sabotage yourself!!) and a daily word count goal, and reward yourself when you reach it, with indulgences like video games, chocolate, television, going out with friends… all the things you usually do to avoid writing, you should be using to reward yourself when you’ve reached your goal! There is a great site called WriteTrack which can help you keep track of your word count. Learn how to set priorities! I have made a post about setting priorities, and another one about setting goals. There is always time to finish the projects we start, it just depends on how high they are on the list of priorities. If writing is way down at the bottom with flossing your cat or painting your garage floor, then no, you probably do not have time to write. Otherwise…
Learn how to motivate yourself. Write down somewhere where you see it often, like a post-it on your front door, a card in your bathroom mirror, or your screensaver, why it matters to you to finish this project. And if you care about writing, it is important that you see at least one long-term project through. Finishing a novel teaches you more about writing fiction than a thousand classes ever could (though of course, when you take and work at the classes, your first project might not be something you cringe at hearing mentioned in ten years). And, if you think that beginnings are exciting, think about the most exciting part of the books you’ve loved to read over the years. The end is always the most exciting part of a book. It’s true that it can be hard to write, but it is SO satisfying to reach. After all, there’s a reason that specific part is called the climax.
Think about it next time you’re seduced by a new idea… writing only the beginning of a story is exactly like starting a relationship with someone, and immediately dumping them for someone who seems more attractive, over and over again… and never get to enjoy the really good parts, which only happens when you’ve gotten to truly know someone.