Monday, August 12, 2013

So You Want to Write a Book...Finish What You Start (with a Little "Tough Love")

One of the most criminally underappreciated TV shows of the past decade is Party Down, a wonderful little gem of a show that initially aired on Starz. It followed a collection of aspiring actors, writers, and other entertainment professionals as they worked a side gig at a catering company.

One of the characters, a frustrated "hard sci-fi writer" named Roman, proudly proclaims at one point that he's written two books. Another character questions him on it, and he says "I've written four half-novels; two books."

I cringed as I laughed when I heard that line because it hit a bit too close to home. At the time, my fiction consisted of two or three "false starts" on novels, each probably about 8000 words or so, that I never followed through on.

It happens to all of us; at some point, we just stop. Either we get "blocked," or life otherwise intrudes and we never quite hit our stride again. Or (worst of all) something in our subconscious that simply won't let you finish the work.

This last possibility is the scariest one; if you truly, wholeheartedly, deep down don't believe your work is worth being viewed by others, then you'll never finish anything. It's a far more systemic problem than "I don't know what this character should say here" or "I spent the past week on vacation with my family." Those two setbacks have ready solutions.

The third one doesn't have an easy fix, though, outside of one, and I don't know if you're going to like it:

Keep writing and finishing your works until you have one that you think people will buy. Then show it to readers you trust before releasing it.

This is a dangerous solution in its own right; a lot of perfectionists out there might never be satisfied. That was nearly the case for me; after my first mega-book's lukewarm responses from its beta readers, I was more than a bit nervous about sending JWATT to them.
When I did, the response was overwhelming: they loved it. It was a lot better than the ponderous old tome I had originally written; much faster-paced, funnier, and even more thought-provoking than I thought possible.

Once you have that first book that draws readers in, once you publish it one way or another and people actually buy some copies of it, it gives you a confidence in your work that you simply can't know before it happens.

Suddenly, you'll thumb through your old stories, ones thought only weeks before to be "garbage," now coming to life with a fresh eye, looking for ways to salvage them, and make them better.
This method not only gives you a potential backlist should you actually go back and make the necessary changes, but it also gives you much-needed practice at your craft. You know how many times it takes writing "wretched" and have it corrected by beta readers to "retched" before the change takes in your brain? At least two dozen for me. Same with "make due" and "make do."

I've had beta readers point those out so many times that a funny thing happens: I start to know better. I pay attention to those phrases in other books that I read, which makes me pay more attention to the other writer's style, how they get from A to B to C, which in turn helps my own writing. I get better by knowing my flaws, documenting them, and consciously thinking about them.
You know how I find my flaws as a writer? BY FINISHING STORIES AND SHIPPING THEM OFF TO MY BETA READERS! If I don't do that, I don't learn a thing. Those early false starts that I never came back to might have helped me as a writer or might not have; I really have no idea.

I do know that I got immensely better as a writer between finishing that first unpublished book and JWATT, then between JWATT and Hack, and so on.

All because I finished that first manuscript, even if it wasn't published.

"But D.J., I'm really stuck. I just don't have the time to write anymore."

Then you don't want it badly enough.

"I just don't know what the main character should say next."

Do your best for now. Punch it up in your first or second read-through.

"I'm scared."
We all are. Hell, writing the sequel for JWATT right now, I'm scared that it won't be as good as the original. I worry it's not as funny, that the characters are off, all the damned time.
But you know what? I still work on it. Still move it forward. Still give it a shot and move on to the next scene.

As a writer, that's all you can control.

You can't control "goodness"--that's something that readers will decide for themselves.

What you can control? Effort. Finishing that manuscript off and sending it to beta readers. You can control how quickly you write, and your output.

If this sounds like "tough love," that's because it absolutely is. Stop moping, start writing, finish and ship.  Any questions? Leave them in the comments.

That's all for now. Next time: about those beta readers...

Previous Posts in this Series:

#1: Before You Start
#2: The Idea Hunt
#3: Tools of the Trade ("What You Need to Publish Your Indie Book for Cheap")
#4: Sit Down and Start Writing!
#5  How to Write More Words Per Day
#6  Indie vs. Traditional Publishing

D.J. Gelner is the Co-Founder and CEO of Hunt to Read. Contact him directly at

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