A friend has just asked for advice about how to get over the finishing line of a first draft. They're less than 10,000 words from the end of the first draft "for yourself", and until recently they were powering along, longing to reach the end and get stuck into the second draft "for your reader" - and from thence into the third draft "for your agent". And yet day after day they're procrastinating, dodging, fiddling, doing anything rather than actually getting to the end of the story. I've blogged a lot about procrastination, but this is a very particular case, so I thought I'd unpick it a bit.
At heart, I'd suggest, the problem is that however hard you've worked, however much you've succeeded in fulfilling your hopes for the piece, however sick you are of the sight of it and longing for the sight of your family or the outside world... finishing a story or personal essay is a frightening situation.
I think the fears come under various headings:
Finishing. When we say "finishing a piece of creative work ", what we really mean is "declaring a piece of creative work finished". And when you declare something finished you are nailing your colours to the mast:
- "This is what I do" - and so in some sense "this is what I am". You are, by implication, saying "Here I stand; I can do no other." Martin Luther had to go into hiding after he said that - and many of us would be tempted.
- "This is as good as I can do" - and so extension "this is as good as I am". Even finishing shitty first drafts can be frightening in this way, even though "you can change everything" later, because in brutal creative fact you can't print what isn't in the negative: from now on all revisions will be working from something that exists.
- Soon it'll be out there, being judged. A first draft, as Churchill said of the D-Day landings, may not be the beginning of the end, but it is unquestionably the end of the beginning - and the rest will follow.
The reasons that people become course junkies and so never have to say to themselves and the world, "I have finished training: this is everything I am", are very similar, so you might want to bob over and look at that post too.
Judging. We all know that most writing goes on in the re-writing. Paradoxically, the more you have succeeded in setting aside judgment while you write the first draft - which in the general way is a very good idea - the more daunting it can be to realise that when you finish the draft and go back to the beginning, you might find that
- I won't be able to tell what's wrong, and end up just fiddling with commas
- the core idea or story is bad - and the project therefore incurable
- it'll need so much work that I'll drown in revisions
- it's terrible and I won't know how to make it better
- it's terrible and I'll realise I'm a terrible writer
- it's really rather good, for a first draft, but I'll make it worse or not know when to stop
- it's not good enough
- it's not saleable enough
- it's the wrong sort of good-enough, or a kind of saleable-enough I don't it to want to be
- if it succeeds, I'll be Being Published - and have to go public and be judged in a million ways.
So what can you do about these two? Clearly they're closely linked. Nailing your colours to the mast is frightening, unless you know you can handle - perhaps with support, or chocolate - whatever any enemy fleet including your own Inner Critic might fire at you.
I suggest that, chiefly, you need to tackle it as you would tackle anything else where your Inner Critic is having a field day:
- Tackle the feeling-judged problem, with the help of Wait But Why's insight into why we're wired, for extremely good evolutionary reasons, to be anxious about the rest of our tribe judging us and our actions to be inadequate.
- Know that there's lots help for how to revise, including here on the Itch
- If you're anxious that you'll sense something's not working but not know what to do about it, don't forget the Fiction Editor's Pharmacopoeia can help you diagnose and cure many ailments
- Try a beta-reader but don't just accept what they say without your own critical judgement: learn to deal with feedback. Personally, I would always take a project as far as I can before I look for feedback, as I'll then have a stronger sense of what this project needs to be - but I know many writers want an earlier check-in with how it's working. If this is an early draft, take particular care to find a fellow writer or editor who is experienced at giving feedback on messy drafts and won't, say, fuss about punctuation, but be able to read for the big bones of the thing, and the overall effectiveness of your narrative, prose and dialogue.
- Know that editing won't make it worse, or "lose the freshness" if you tackle it the right way.
- As for being able to trust that you'll know when to stop, try this
So far, so practical. But there's very possibly something else going on as well.
Fearing the not-writing. To write, you have to focus on the work, whether it's sophisticated sentence-and-argument wrangling, or the world inside yourself and the characters you live with in there. Plus, we all know that writing takes amazing amounts of energy, persistence, and keeping the seat of your pants (other lower-half coverings are available) glued to the seat of your chair (standing desks are available). It's also something that lots of people admire, even if they are fed up because yet again you can't come to the pub - and that admiration, too, helps to keep you glued.
But when, next week, you stop writing, even if only for a few weeks' drawer-time for the book, and your head comes up and you look round at brute reality... what will you see? The appalling state of the garden, or the dog, or your child's (lack of) times tables? The ethical and moral obligations that you can't put off any longer? The readout on the scales, your (lack of) puff as you walk up the hill? The dreariness of the day job? The void where other people have a social life, or a family, or a partner?
The only advice I have for this problem (if you know a cure, can you let me know?) is to start by turning your anti-Inner-Critic guns onto your feeling-judged panics in these matters too. Then make lots of lists to cut them down to size, prioritise ruthlessly and don't succumb to perfectionism, remember to refuel, and to encourage yourself with low-hanging fruit jobs, while chipping away at the harder things.
Grieving. Most writers, having reached the end of a draft or sent off the second proof-read, feel huge relief that it's done, at least for now. But many writers, even when they're not got down by the state of the bins or the world, also feel low, depressed, sad, emotionally shaky or even tearful. And so avoiding finishing may also be an unconscious effort to escape the grief that comes with endings. But it's fiction. Even if it's non-fiction, all this has, by definition, already happened. So what's going on?
For years, I thought the writers who spoke of characters taking over were talking arty-farty tosh, till it began to happen to me. To get readers to read our stories as if they really happened, we have to imagine them as if they really happened - and then embody that happening in writing which evokes it. As we imagine these people moving through time, they can't help but change and grow, and that is one definition of a living thing.
Deciding that your characters' story has resolved puts a stop to that process of change, and writing your way to the end of a first draft closes off a future that, until now, was still open and possible. Whatever you do with the story next, in a very real sense - to the writer, at least - you have seen your people breathe their last.
But think of it this way: there is now a stack of paper on your desk that you can put your hand on and say "This is the story I wrote". That's surely a good sign: all living things must die and so your grief tells you that what you wrote was alive - and will come alive again in your reader's mind.
And, finally, if things are persistently, really, not okay, try my first-aid post - and don't be afraid to get professional help if things continue to be dark.