There are times, for all writers, when the idea of completion seems like an impossible dream. A book-length writing project is no small undertaking and completion takes determination, guts, persistence, passion, inspiration and simple hard work.
We can’t underestimate the importance of completion. If we don’t complete our writing projects, we can’t expect publishers to show interest in what we do. Especially in the world of fiction-writing (where it’s highly unusual for an incomplete book to be commissioned), an idea is just that – an idea. We need to prove to publishers – and to our ourselves – that we are finishers.
Of course, completion doesn’t just mean reaching the end of a first draft. That is a real achievement in itself – but it’s not the finish line. It is something to be celebrated. But it’s also a milestone, not the final destination. When we talk about completion, what we really mean is a revised, polished manuscript which has been through at least a couple of drafts and a proofread. Sometimes it means more than that. My most recent novel has reached what I thought was ‘final draft’ stage on three occasions! Only on the third ‘final draft’ – after I’d made extensive revisions based on the feedback of my agent and a novelist friend, did my agent and I agree that it really was publisher-ready.
As my own fourth novel goes out into the world – and as The Writing Coach’s new membership group The Completion Club launches on 1st June, it’s time for me to reflect on what it took to reach completion – and what I have learnt along the way – which is a lot! Indeed, I think I’ve had a steeper learning curve with this novel than any other and I’d like to think that I can use what I’ve learnt as I move into book number five and as I work with our members as they too work towards completion.
So here are a few points I’d like to share about completion – I do hope you find some of them useful as you work on your own writing projects.
- If you are at the beginning of a writing project – ask yourself whether this is something that you feel deeply passionate about and committed to. Are you writing this because the story fascinates you? Because you find the subject matter deeply intriguing? Because you are obsessed by a particular character? Because you have a structural idea that demands to be explored? Or are you writing this for reasons that aren’t entirely authentic? If you have doubts, stop and consider them thoroughly before continuing. It’s often best to shelve a project that you aren’t deeply engaged with, rather than forcing it through to completion. If you have doubts or lack passion, it’s going to take you a lot longer and it’s going to be difficult to keep returning to the work. When you are passionate, the blank page will draw you.
- Why not use the ‘Pomodoro Technique’ whereby you work with a 25-minute timer, just to get you going… You may argue that such ‘tricks’ are not conducive to serious writing, but for those who are procrastinating, they are simply triggers to get you into the work, to overcome creative block and to force you to create. If you’re not blocked and not having trouble committing to regular writing, you’re free to skip this advice. But if you’re not working at all, I’d say 25 minutes on your project is better than nothing at all… and often leads to a longer, more engaged writing stint. Regular work is the only thing that will, in the end, guarantee completion.
- Take yourself seriously as a writer. If you don’t take yourself seriously as a writer, no-one else will. If you are going to complete, you need to move from being someone who would like to be a writer to someone who is deeply engaged in a writing project. Consider yourself a professional from the beginning. What does this mean? It means that if you need to research, you book in a time to go to the library and really focus on getting that work done. At the same time, it is important that you don’t start to use research as a procrastination tool. Separate your writing and your research times and make sure you put time in the diary for both. Taking yourself seriously may also mean that you think about developing a web presence. You can build an audience, even as you work on your book. It is also vital to read widely and analytically. Consider reading Francine Prose’s book Reading Like a Writer: A Guide for People Who Love Books and for Those Who Want to Write Them. If you establish serious habits – both in your writing and your reading – then you will not only be more confident in what you will produce, but you can be more certain that the work you produce will be of a higher standard and that you will finish it.
- Remember that if you just keep putting one word in front of another you will finish. There is nothing ‘magical’ about finishing. But there is something powerful in learning that you are the kind of person who can commit to a longer work and keep going. I remember when I worked on my first novel, I began with a short story. I realised that the work was too complex for a short story however; it needed to be a novel and once I realised that and kept writing, I began to be empowered by the number of printed pages in my file. First it was twenty, then thirty, then one day it was fifty and I said to myself, ‘wow, if I keep going like this, I really am going to write a novel.’ In the end, that novel – though it was never published – secured me a place on the MA programme at UEA and got me my first agent. There is a very real argument for printing up your work and keeping it together in a single file. It looks much more impressive than a computer file and watching your work grow can encourage you to keep at it in the long run.
Seek support and community. Over the years, I have found the support of fellow writers invaluable in helping me to commit to the writing life and to finish projects. First, I had my co-students at UEA. Then, in later years, I joined a local writing group which still meets today on a fortnightly basis, a group of six women who meet regularly to discuss our writing work. When we began, only two of us had published fiction. In the ten years since we have been meeting, every member of the group has gone on to publish their work in book form. I think that says something about the doom-and-gloom statistics that are often quoted to us about the odds of getting published. Last year, I was privileged to witness the mutual supportiveness of members of The Completion Club, an online group which I created here at The Writing Coach. Each week, via our online accountability post, members encouraged one another to keep at it, producing regular work. Three members of that group went on to get literary agents during the course of the year and three had definite interest from publishers. As this year’s new Completion Club launches on 1st June, I’m really excited to think about the level of support that the group will give to one another and I’m getting my Completion Club Shelf ready for the books that the club members will produce! The club is open to new members at any time of the year, you can just jump in whenever you find us! Whether you choose to join our club or to seek support from a local creative writing group or a couple of writers that you already know, I do encourage you to find a writing community who will encourage you to grow and to be productive as a writer.
Most importantly of all, if you want to be one who finishes books, do think very seriously about committing to the writing process rather than concerning yourself too much with the marketplace at this early stage of your career. Whilst it is vital that you do keep an eye on what is being published and what publishers want, it is also key to develop your own voice as a writer. As Philip Pullman said at last year’s ‘Shakespeare and Co Literary Festival’ – “Before Harry Potter, nobody was saying ‘We’re looking for ‘the next Harry Potter'”. At the same time, JK Rowling knew what audience she was writing for – she understood her reader. It’s all about balance in the end – balancing originality with market-awareness and your own passionate interest. If you can do all this and put words on the page, day after day, Black on White, then you’re half way there…
Have you ever completed a writing project and if so, what can you share about what you have learnt? And if you want to complete but haven’t yet, what are the biggest challenges you face? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments section.