Today’s a big day in the world of SFF, so I’m going to write about…something else.
I did a Reddit AMA last month, and as is often the case with such things, I missed a late question, which was a pretty good one. And since it’s way too late to answer it there, I’ll answer it here.
Q: What skills, apart from writing, are required to finish a book?
(Yes, I editorialized a bit there, and added “finish.” Because that’s really what the question is about.)
A: I’ve written Chapter 1 of thousands of books throughout my life. I’ve rewritten them and turned them upside down and tried them from different points of view and chewed on them until they were tasteless pulp, at which point I abandoned them out of boredom.
What I was doing in those cases was not finishing a book. What I was doing in those cases was practicing and refining the art of writing, which is a fine pursuit in and of itself, but is not the same thing. The world is littered with beautiful writers who’ve never finished anything.
To be clear, though: in my opinion, there’s nothing wrong with this. Sometimes the purpose of writing is creative expression, full stop. Sometimes the satisfaction is in Chapter 1, or that one scene or bit of dialogue or character sketch. Art for art’s sake is a real thing.
But if you want a whole book out of it, there’s more to it than that. And it takes more than just the ability to prettily string together words.
Step 1: Finish the book
Learning to do this was far and away the hardest part of the process, and I strongly suspect there’s no single method that works for every writer.
For me, the key was NaNoWriMo. It’s a cliché, but in my case, it really worked.
Of course, I have some tendencies that work in my favor. For one thing, I write long. I can spew out 2,000 words without too much trouble. Most of them will die a fiery death in editing, but writing them in the first place? Easy. So when I did my first NaNo back in 2010, it felt like a bit of a cheat.
But about three weeks into it, a pep talk arrived over email with an interesting piece of advice: if your story isn’t nearing the end, stop right now and write the ending. Then choose a handful of scenes between where you are now and the end, and write those.
I was reluctant to try this. I’d been writing sequentially, and it had been going pretty well. But I was only halfway through the story, and there was no way the rest was going to happen in a week. So I figured what the heck? I participated in NaNo to try something new. If I got stuck and didn’t hit 50K, who would care?
For me, this turned out to be phenomenal advice, and every book I’ve written since has been done this way.
Writing the end, and two or three Big Bang scenes, works for me like sending out flares. When I’m lost in the weeds or wondering how a scene is supposed to end – or if it should even exist – I can see my destination clearly, and I can see some interim landmarks. That vision clears my head and gives me purpose, and I can move forward again.
What’s implicit in this, of course, is that I don’t do much editing when getting the story down. That’s changing a little as I learn my own methods. But I don’t tend to see what the whole story is about until I’ve written it out completely. Going back and editing before I understand what I’m trying to say is a waste of time.
I’m told this isn’t true of everyone. Some people must go back and edit each chapter as it comes out. Some people outline the entire book in great detail before writing a single word. So there are different methods that work for different people.
Maybe it’s better to phrase it like this:
Step 1: Figure out what you need to do to finish a book, and do that.
Step 2: Learn how to edit.
…Yeah, not so much. Because in order to edit properly – whether you’re making your own changes, or evaluating changes suggested by someone else – you need to have a level of objectivity about your own work. And that’s neither an easy thing to acquire, or to recognize once you have it.
This is some of what’s behind the exhortation that writers must read. Other people’s writing gives us examples of sentence structure, rhythm, story structure, and workable rule-breaking. Internalizing what’s already out there can help get the words on the page the right way. Even work we dislike can help – everyone’s read something that’s made them think how did this end up in public? While some of that is simply taste, understanding what does and doesn’t work for us as a reader can inform our own writing.
But at some point…you’re going to have to show it to someone else.
This is a chicken-egg problem, really. Because you need to be able to trust your own judgement before you process feedback from a critic, or a beta reader, or an editor. You need to understand what you want the story to be before you can listen to what other people think is wrong. It’s very common, especially when dealing with a large number of readers, to find two people identifying completely opposite problems.
And especially when you’re dealing with people who aren’t professional editors, you’re going to find people making suggestions on how you should fix the problem, rather than identifying what the problem is. The suggestion in these cases is often entirely wrong, but you can’t wholesale dismiss the problem just because the offered solution doesn’t work.
If a reader trips on something, that’s real. Whether or not you fix it – whether or not you decide it’s a quirk of that particular reader – that’s their for-real experience with your prose.
“But they don’t get my character!”
Is your character fully on the page?
“But I explained this already!”
Has the explanation been lost in the interim?
“But I like the thing that annoys them!”
…Well, okay. I’ve ignored critiques for this very reason. Sometimes you look at a reader’s objection, and you think “Okay, I see that, and I understand where they’re coming from. And I’m going to make a conscious decision not to do anything about that, because it works for the story as I am choosing to tell it, and I do this aware that it might lose me readers similar to this one.”
Which leads us back to the beginning: you’ve got to have some level of objectivity about your own stuff. Every reader’s experience is true, because every reader brings themselves to a reading. But if you take it as gospel that everything they point out Must Be Fixed As They Tell You It Must, you’re going to end up with a contradictory mess of edits on your hands. At some point someone has to choose, and guess what? That’s you.
And you may be wrong. But you are still where the buck stops, and unless you keep working and keep taking the risk, you’re never going to get to the point where you’re right.
The fun part about all this advice is that it doesn’t get any easier. I’m in the middle of a first draft right now, and it’s giving me headaches. I still hit analysis paralysis, fear of first drafts, terror that if it’s not Exactly Right as soon as my fingers hit the keyboard that it’s hopeless and it’ll fall apart.
The only difference now is that I’ve been through this before. I’ve had all of these feelings already, for other books that are actually done now. So something happens that makes it all work, even if right now I can’t remember what it is. If I focus on what’s in front of me, take it step by step instead of trying to imagine the finished whole, somehow I get there.
Step 3: Don’t procrastinate by writing blog posts.