ot long ago, I encountered two writers at two separate functions on the same day. At a morning function, one told me about a story that haunted her for 20 years. “I think about it all the time and I really want to write it, but…” She recounted the trips she’d taken, the hours spent caring for her house and large yard, and the many commitments that had overtaken her life since she retired 15 years ago. “I should write it, but I just don’t have time.”
At an event that evening, another writer talked about the debut novel for young people he’d been writing for 16 years. “My wife tells me it’s good and that I should look for a publisher, but …” He explained that he finished the first draft twelve years ago and had been revising and fine-tuning it ever since but “it’s not quite ready for publication yet.”
Most of us have experienced the first writer’s problem. Time is an elusive thing. There is never enough of it. But I suspect that time is not really at the heart of this writer’s problem. Fear is. A blank sheet of paper can be intimidating, especially when the project is long and complicated. So frequent is the inability to start (or continue) that we’ve coined the phrase ‘writer’s block’ to describe it. Whatever the term, fear is often what blocks us – fear of failure, fear of not living up to some perceived standard.
Although the second writer’s problem lies at the other end of the writing spectrum, I suspect fear is at its core, too. Wrapping up a beloved piece of writing – especially one we’ve tinkered with for a long time – means ending a lingering relationship with words and characters that we’ve nursed to life, and then having to start the process of confronting a blank page all over again. But in the second writer’s case there is, I believe, another source of fear. Stepping out of the shadows and going public with something that was private for so long means facing a jury of editors, reviewers and readers, and possibly a wall of criticism and rejection, too.
Much has been written about writer’s block, but less has been said about the second writer’s ‘failure to finish’ situation. Here are a few strategies that might help get you out of the starting gate and to the finish line without tripping over your laces:
Post a quote
Having an inspiration quote nearby – one that speaks to the fear you might be facing – can help get you over the hurdles of starting and finishing. My personal favourite is a tongue-and-cheek quote attributed to comedian and writer Steve Martin: “I think I did pretty well, considering I started out with nothing but a bunch of blank paper.” Seeing those words posted on the wall by my computer calms my nerves and helps me set realistic expectations.
Set a deadline
Without a set end point, it’s easy to become lost in a web of writing and rewriting. Even if you don’t have a contractual deadline, it helps to create one. Set an endpoint, work towards it, and stop once you get there. Take a deep breath. It’s time to move on.
Set weekly goals
I’ve never been a fan of New Year’s resolutions where goals are so large and looming they seem impossible to reach. For me, daily goals are too immediate: mess up one day and discouragement taints the next. Instead, I opt for weekly goals. Each Sunday, I set a target for the week – X number of pages, chapters, stories, articles. At week’s end, I evaluate. If I was successful, I congratulate myself. If not, I examine the reasons. What held me back? Based on my performance and deadline, I set another goal for the coming week.
Plan for the end
Plan for the day when your deadline arrives and set your sights on what comes after. Have another project in your crosshairs. If you plan to market the current material, prepare a list of potential publishers and have a cover letter, proposal and whatever other marketing devices you require ready. Send out your work, and then move on to the next project. If rejection comes, you’ll already be embroiled in an engaging subject that just might dull the pain.
Larry Verstraete (www.larryverstraete.com) is the author of 13 non-fiction books for youngsters. Science, history and true adventure are his favourite subjects, and he is happiest when writing about topics that weave all three together.
If you enjoyed this post, you might also enjoy:
Quotes to Get You Over a Brick Wall
Writing from the Right
Rejection and the Editor-Advocate