Saturday, April 6, 2013

Escaping the "I Can't Finish" Trap

I have a problem. It's a problem lots of people have, lots of writers have, and it's not one that has been easy for me to address:

I don't finish things.

Since this is my writing blog, and since I do like to consider myself of the literary persuasion, this post is going to focus on my inability to finish writing projects. My problem has extended into other life facets, but they don't matter here. I'm going to go a little into the history of my problem and some techniques I've discovered to get me out of it.

I've been writing since at least 7th grade, which put me at about 11 or 12 years old. I don't remember tons of the stuff I did back then, but I remember the titles of some of the stuff I wrote then, and they were completed. The Kung-Fu Cockroaches (yes, a Ninja Turtles spoof), My Best Friend Exploded Last Week (which is exactly what it sounds like), and The Krakenobo (which is posted here September 2011) are some of those early projects of mine. Like I said, they were all finished, even if they were shoddy beginner's work and I don't have all the files anymore. We all have to start somewhere.

What happened to my inability to finish things? I got older, and I started thinking. I'm an overthinker, and my brain gets in my way a lot. I mean a lot.

I first noticed my lack of finishing things in college. Early college. I really can't go into a lot of high school; I was in band, and it consumed my life. In college, I was studying music theory and composition, but reading and writing were what I did in my off time. In the year between high school and college, I started writing a book that would eventually lead to a series. The first book was called T.A.C.U.S. and was a sci-fi book about a boy who accidentally was turned into a cyborg-like creature. I eventually planned for 4 other books.

In my first year of college, when I was nearly done writing my first draft of T.A.C.U.S., I started over writing it. It was not going the way I wanted, especially for the sequels to work out the way they should. I hadn't even touched the sequels yet. I never got past the first book. By the time I was in my third or fourth year of college, I had scrapped the project completely and moved on to another: The Grass Diamond series.

The Grass Diamond was again undertaken with lofty expectations. I planned 5 books again, and this one I was working on with my best friend. I was the one doing the writing, but we planned things together. I even finished the first draft of the first two books and was working on book three when I got stuck and the best friend refused to work on it with me anymore. She stopped working with me because I got too far ahead of her, and she didn't know what was going on in the series. I was stuck in a rut, and in the long run, it too was scrapped completely. I actually still have all the files from this project. I don't know if I/we will ever start it up again. Who knows.

If you look in my saved files, there are tons of novels and short fiction that has been started and not finished. I'm good at starting things, like so many are. I had fallen into the trap of "starting is fun, but executing is boring". Finishing things is hard, so why not do what's fun and start something new? That's a terrible mindset, and I couldn't figure out how to get out of it.

The first tiny mind-switch came near the end of my undergrad career. On a whim, I attended a lecture about handwriting analysis. It was entertaining, and at the end of the seminar, the guest host offered to do a little one-on-one with anyone to look at their handwriting. Just a little 2-minute at-a-glance analysis.

She had two things to say about my handwriting. I was obviously very intelligent (how she could tell that by the fact that I cross my 7's and Z's I don't know) and I don't finish what I start. She could tell that by how I crossed my T's, particularly the lower-case ones. The cross started strong but barely made it all the way through the letter itself. I didn't want to spend my life being a starter, not a finisher, so I decided to take her analysis at face value. I started making a point of really crossing my T's when I wrote by hand, even when I was in a hurry.

It was shortly after that when I finished writing the first draft of Sunset's Dawn, the first book of The Grass Diamond. It was a small thing, but it was a start in the right direction. This is about 2006, just to give some time frame.

The second thing that helped me on my path to finishing things was NaNoWriMo. I know there are a lot of people on both sides of the fence about NaNo. While NaNoWriMo is a great event, a great tool, it wasn't the driving force of my finishing anything. It sparked my use of another tool I had always avoided: outlining. I discovered NaNoWriMo mid-September 2009. I had six weeks to prepare, and I wanted to do it right. I wanted to win. I'd never really paid attention to word count before, but this focused on it. I wanted to do it, and knowing the nature of NaNo, my normal writing habits would make me fail. Miserably.

I don't like failing.

For the first time, I outlined my novel. By the time NaNo started in November, I knew exactly how many chapters my story would be. I knew my characters, I knew the big events of each chapter. It was weird, since I'd never had all this information at my fingertips before. Writing this book was easy. I crossed the 50,000-word mark on November 15th. Yes, my first NaNo was completed in 15 days. And I didn't write anything for 6 of them. The result was my first self-published novel, Empeddigo. Of course, now I realize it's more of a novella, but I'll take it.

I outline all my longer works now. And I'm a detailed outliner. But that'll be another blog post. Maybe next month.

So now we've reached this year, 2013. I'm serious as a heart attack, this most recent breakthrough happened maybe a month ago. A little bit of history, though. I've been an outliner for three years or so now, and I've put out Empeddigo, epic poem The Trials of Hallac, and Mere Acquaintances (posted here in its completion starting in January 2010). I've got a trilogy the best friend and I have been working on for 5 years that is nearing completion of its first draft (thank God). I've got several other projects in various stages of completion. I recently got promoted to a job that doesn't require me to be on the phones all the time, and I can listen to my iPod while I work. As a result, I've been thrust into the world of podcasting. What a blessing. But that's yet another blog post.

Outlining functions as a first draft for me. It's not quite prose, but it's detailed. And so often, I start a project with the big climax in mind, and I get to that climax point, and...


To use a biking analogy, I get all the way up that big hill at the end of the neighborhood, and then I can't make myself take the trip down. I can't figure out the ending, much less how to get there. And eventually, a new idea comes along, and I find myself in the "starting is fun, but executing is boring" trap again. I have so many two-thirds-finished outlines it isn't funny. But I just had so much trouble getting started down that hill.

Anyway, because of my new appreciation for the podosphere, I have finally joined Twitter. And thanks to Twitter, I saw a link to Pixar's 22 Rules of Storytelling. Find it here:

Right now, I'm preparing to pitch a story idea on The Roundtable Podcast ( It's a story I've been working on since 2011. It was actually my NaNo project for that year. I had more than enough outline finished to get me to 50,000 words, and I made it. I haven't written any since. Heck, that 50k is about Act I. My outline ended at the end of Act II... the climax.

So how did Pixar help me? #9. Write down what doesn't happen next. It seems so simple. Why hadn't I thought of that? I had my doubts on whether it would work, but I was so stuck, I decided to give it a try on my story. And it worked. I kid you not, in 5 minutes, I had my answer. It wasn't an end-all-be-all solution that would take me all the way to the end of the story, but it got me out of my rut, out of the dead-end I'd been in for over a year. Yes, I had to scrap some outline and back up a few chapters, but I am so much closer to finishing now that I'm afraid there won't be anything left to go over on the podcast! Kidding. There's tons.

It worked again on a short story I was writing a few weeks ago. I had a great opening, and then what the heck happened? Again, five minutes, and boom. I finished the story the next day. What an amazing tool! Just writing down what won't happen, seeing those possibilities that are out of the question, clears the clouds in my head and lets the light shine through.

So up until now, that's my journey against the "I Can't Finish" Trap in writing. I'm sure it's a journey that isn't finished, but so far, I think I'm winning.

I'll let you know when The Roundtable Podcast with me in it happens. Until then, go listen to what's up already. It's an amazing podcast, fun for writers and non-writers alike!

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