Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Finishing the Book (Article, Chapter, Scene)

It is a lot easier for me to get started than it is for me to get finished. Piles and files of bits and pieces testify to this. Some of the work is experimental or done before I got more methodical, but I still find that, when a work is 80-90 percent done, barriers appear. Some of these are physical (hard disk crashes, corrupt files). Some are environmental -- life events and illness. Some are creative or conceptual, such as painting myself into a corner. Most are in my control and could be considered organizational or psychological.

Yesterday's barrier was definitely an organizational problem. I had set myself the task of rethinking the structure of my current novel. This required inserting scenes and mostly complete scenes that were sitting in an auxiliary file, as well as reordering for effectiveness, tension, and stakes. This was an ambitious goal, but I was working against a timer not a word count goal or even a requirement to complete the to-do list. This usually reduces stress, but not yesterday.

The starting point didn't feel right. I had a list of scenes, in full sentences, ready for shuffling. My intent was to cut-and-past until the flow felt right. With over 30 scenes to reorder, the list looked too big. This was especially true since a few remained to be written. I stopped my timer and paced.

Moving around helps me to think. I have another work that exists as an outline of Post-Its. Was that a good option? I looked over a blank Blake Snyder Beat Sheet. Would filling that in get me going? By the time I was finished pacing, I had decided to put all the scenes onto index card. It was a gut decision that forced me to write out each scene sentence, but it worked. Something about the tactile experience of lining up, shuffling, and reshuffling those cards, made a difference for me. Scenes found new places. A few scenes were cut. Some holes were visible, and I created new cards for those.

I did one more thing. I marked each card to indicate the level of completeness. Scenes to be written got empty circles. Scenes partly written got checks. Completed scenes got Xs.

I'm on my way now, with a quick check (and a few changes) after sleeping on the new structure. I've added reminders on emotions, as well as some ideas on what might happen.  Now I'm methodically going through adding text to incomplete scenes and writing the new scenes, all in sequence. 

Usually, I dodge organizational problems by following my processes (collected in my process diary). Common organizational problems include:
  • Not knowing what your next step is. When the time dedicating to writing comes up, this can freeze you in your tracks. Which project? Which scene? Compose? Fill a hole? Rewrite? Since I always have too many ideas (especially for new projects), this one was the bane of my existence. That's why I always decide what I will write the day before, not minutes before, my next writing session.
  • Not having an approach for the next piece of work. As a writer, I'm always learning. I find new ways to look at my material, and this sometimes demands that I find or develop a new process. For instance, it was years before I had a file of "junk words" I could use to methodically polish my text. (And I am experimenting now with using AutoCrit Editing Wizard to help me with this job.) Right now, the biggest target I have is building a tool box for improving emotional content in my work. I have a few techniques, but I'm trying to develop more.
  • Having too many options for the next step. In a way, this was what got me dithering yesterday. I knew there were other options for working on my structure. If I'd only had one technique, I would have pushed forward with it.
  • Having the wrong approach or doing it out of sequence. My process diary is a graveyard of approaches that did not work well for me and ended up being rejected (or severely modified). Someone else's favorite approach may not work for you. And some approaches do not work for all material or for you whole writing career. And, at times, material that will ultimately be improved with a process, is not ready for it when you think it is. Often this is because another step was not executed correctly, but sometimes it is just a quirk driven by story, character, or circumstances. I often find jumping back to an earlier process or forward to the next process in my journal can be the answer.
  • Having an approach that is not detailed enough or too ambitious. I am a big believer in divide and conquer. In particular, I found that process steps for short stories needed to be looked at more closely and better defined when I began to work on novels. And with more ambitious works, a process step may require more from me than has ever been the case. In those instances, I have had to scale back a day's work so that the step got the attention it needed.
I would have made progress if I had gone with my original plan, but I had time yesterday to reconsider and follow my gut. If I had not had that time, I would have moved forward, but not as productively. Process is a tool, but the writer's instinct is valid. As long as the instinct is not an excuse for procrastination, it can help you work more efficiently.

Psychological barriers are the other main reasons for not finishing a work. I'll discuss them in my next post.

What stops you from finishing a work?

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