Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Finishing the Book – Mental Blocks

Last time, I wrote about organizational problems that get in the way of finishing your writing. Mental blocks can be another major factor. In fact, it is the one I hear the most about from other offers.
Often, they are problems, such as looping and dithering, that can occur any time in the writing process, and I’ve offered tips on dealing with these throughout this blog.  Five challenges, however, seem to be the bane of those just trying to get finished, so I’ll offer suggestions on each.
Exhaustion. It is possible to get burned out on a story, or burned out on writing. The work can be all absorbing, demanding, and lonely. Or you can just become tired of the kind of writing you are doing. There are natural rhythms to scenes and segments, and you can get out of synch. And sometimes, everything becomes too familiar. You just want that voice in your head to shut up.
The first way to avoid exhaustion is to set your expectations correctly. It is much more likely that you will get tired of a work if you believe it should already be done. Books have their own lengths and gestation periods (which, admittedly, can be modified by a publishing deadline). I write out the hours (based on past experience) expect for phases of the project, and then I add 50%.
Exhaustion also tends to afflict pantsers more than plotters because they tend to write in surges. Steady pacing, with a consistent word count, can help you avoid physical and mental exhaustion. Don’t try to sprint in a marathon.
If you already are exhausted, cut down on your daily work count and do something entirely different. I switch to nonfiction, but, from what I see with other writers, music, drawing, and other creative endeavors seem to do that most to heal and revive.
No answers. Many writers feel that they’ve run out of ideas or painted themselves into a corner. It isn’t true. Your imagination has not died. Your muse has not abandoned you. As I simple test, I ask authors to provide ideas for other writers who are stuck, and they always come in a flood.
Seeing that creativity is alive and well is often enough, but, if not, ask different questions about the story. Rephrase. Zoom in (for a finer question). Zoom out (for a broader question). List ideas on paper or say them out loud. Stand up. Walk around when you look for answers.
Despair. This is usually expressed by the question, “Why did I start this stupid story in the first place?” Well, you did. And you are into it. And you are committed. And you are a professional. The finished work may be awful. So what? Finish anyway.
Leftovers. Those who hop around to write the luscious parts should not be surprised when all they are left with are those required transition scenes, the bits where clues must be planted, and blocks of narration.
First, reconsider whether these parts are definitely needed. Often the work succeeds without them. Elmore Leonard says, “Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip.” Maybe you did that automatically.
If that feels wrong, brainstorm how they might be made more interesting. Can you include emotional content? Surprises? Can you surprise yourself?
If neither of these help, lean on your professionalism. Set a word count goal and grind it out. As one writer delicately put it, sometimes you have to defecate masonry.
Fear of failure. Though often hidden, this may be the most important reason why books don’t get finished. A finished book can be judged. And, if it is first draft, the judgment will be harsh.
But you can’t fail. A finished book, even if it is lousy, is an achievement. It moves you further down the road as an author and an artist. It builds capability. And you never have to show it to anyone. Virtually every author I know has a completed manuscript that never will see the light of day. There is nothing wrong with that. It is not a failure.
There are other problems – literary promiscuity (the urge to take up with a new manuscript), distractions, and jealousy. I’ll go into these at another time since I need to finish this blog.


  1. Lists and jogging help me get back on track. I'm also finding that I now do better when I have a rough outline of the important turning points before I start writing. I used to resist that, but now I can't work well without one.

  2. Prevention is always the best approach. The sagging middle and getting finished are two of the greatest challenges. I expect them to hit me, so I have an array of helps and approaches to get me through them. Of course, nothing beats a deadline.