So, back on Monday, I was all thou shalt not be a dude who learns to play the opening of Stairway to Heaven. Go forth and finish your shit. That was in response to Elizabeth’s suggested topic for the 2016 Dancing Monkey series. Today we look at that idea in more detail, courtesy of a request from the inimitable Lois Spangler.
Her requested topic: Finishing a thing (project, story, etc.)
Right then, let’s get into the guts of it, and talk about actually finishing things.
ONE: DEFINE “FINISHED”
Not a facetious question, and I’m not trying to be cute. If you’re struggling to get things finished, perhaps it’s time to sit down and figure out what finished really means in this context. More importantly, whether your concept of “finished” is getting in your way.
Here is the thing about creative-types: we have this tendency to take something minor that needs to be done, then subconsciously extrapolate outwards to a point of failure. There’s this circuit in the back of your mind where I should sit down and write becomes I should finish this story which becomes I should submit this somewhere which becomes oh god, the rejections which becomes oh god, I’m a failure which becomes fuck it, I’m going to eat this tub of cookie dough ice-cream and binge-watch shit on netflix.
This is not surprising. Success is uncertain in any creative enterprise, and the default narrative you pick up from the culture around you is basically you want to create art? You poor, sweet, broke-as-fuck simpleton, you. Couple that with the fact that there are no hard edges to creative work, letting you know when you’re done, and it’s a recipe for all sorts of psychological mind-games your own subconscious unleashes upon you.
Then there is the fact that what we call “finishing” is frequently a succession of processes with different tasks.
Here is what’s actually involved in “finishing” a short-story:
write the initial draft; do the redraft; proof the draft; send it out to beta-readers; take onboard the notes the beta-readers have given me; do final draft; make a list of markets; submit the short story; keep submitting the short-story if it gets rejected; research new markets if I run out of the first; review contracts, when the story finally get accepted; sign contracts and annotate rights tracking document; track the date of payment and make sure that it actually comes in; deal with page-proofs sent through by the magazine; blog about the story on its eventual release.
That’s a whole of things for your brain to keep track of, and a whole lot of chances for your subconscious to insert a point of failure. My brain frizzes whenever I try to focus on big-picture goals, and so I rarely finish stories these days – when they appear on my to-do list, it’s almost always listed as achieving the next step in that chain.
Define success. Write it down. Define the hard edge that you want to reach and give you brain a simple goal where you will stop and reassess.
TWO: DEFINE YOUR CREATIVE CHALLENGES
I’m stealing this bit from The Accidental Creative, largely because it’s possibly the most useful thing I picked up from a book full of useful things. When you start a project – or when you’ve stalled out – sit down and create a list of four to six of the problems you’ve got to solve in order to get things moving.
Challenges should be phrased as questions that cannot be answered with a yes or no, and they serve to focus your attention on the issues that are a priority at the moment. This doesn’t take long, once you get into the habit.
To give an example, say I got an invite to submit to an anthology about Supernatural Lemurs with a May deadline. My initial challenge list would be something like the following:
- What do I need to know about lemurs in order to write an interesting story about them?
- What are the obvious story ideas this theme lends itself too and how can I avoid them?
- When can I make time in my schedule to give this story focus?
- What will make my supernatural lemur story appealing to my usual readers?
This gives me a series of concrete problems that needs to be solved, which is important for my process. My natural tendency is to rebel against any kind of routine or system, but there is something about solving problems that fires up my creative instincts and gets me working (it’s telling that most of my really successful stories have been written in response to challenges laid down by other people).
Once I put a project on my agenda, I tend to go through this process weekly. Sometimes I will carry challenges over from a previous week, other times I will have a whole new set of challenges to meet. Either way, it keeps me focused on the tasks that really matter.
THREE: FOCUS ON THE NEXT ACTION
Step two came from The Accidental Creative. This one comes from David Allen’s Getting Things Done, and once again it’s the most useful thing that I’ve drawn out of the book.
All points out in his book that you can’t “do” a project, you can simply sit down and do all the physical actions that lead to a project’s resolution. Writing a book is large and amorphous; open my document and write fifty words is something that can actually be done.
This is actually incredibly useful advice for hacking your process, if you know how to apply it. The problem most people experience when doing so is that they skip ahead. Ask most writers in the grip of a non-writing period what their next action is, and they’ll tell you it’s sitting down and writing.
Honestly, they’re half-right.
But their real next action is sitting down and booting up the file with their work in it/opening up their notebook.
Sitting down to write moves you into extrapolate-towards-failure territory, which generates a kind of subconscious resistance to advancing your project. Sitting down and opening the file? That’s a hard edge for you to measure your success or failure against.
Cut your daily progress goal back to the leanest, most low-stakes action you can think of and you’d be surprised how much further you’ll advance in your project.
FOUR: FUCK “TIME”
There is this idea that you need hours of uninterrupted time to write. This idea is bullshit.
Don’t get me wrong – uninterrupted hours are great – but the world is unlikely to give them too you and you are unlikely to make the most of them, especially if you’re trapped in a cycle of not doing a damn thing on your project. Time, in this instance, just becomes a convenient excuse.
It takes me eight minutes, on average, to fill a notebook page with handwriting. This timeframe is pretty consistent, whether I’m dashing off a page before catching a train in the morning or sitting down to write for three uninterrupted hours at a write club. I may get more pages done, during the latter, but each page is about eight minutes of effort.
I do not need “time” to write. I need five or six eight-minute segments, every day, where I can get the words down. Half the reason I love notebooks so much is their ability to capitalize on those little micro-bursts of writing that get fit in between meetings and lunch breaks.
There will always be time when you do need uninterrupted blocks to progress your work – there are certain phases of the editorial process where I need it badly – but the way I stay productive on work-days is generally embracing how much I can do with a few free minutes.
FIVE: RECRUIT YOUR CREATIVE TEAM
They say that writing is a solitary art, but I tend to call bullshit on that, too. For the entirety of my creative career, I’ve been surrounded by communities of writers and fellow artists who have been enormously encouraging and supportive of my career. I’m not saying you can’t be a solitary hermit toiling away in solitude, if that’s your desire, but it’s harder than you think.
Among those creative communities, there have always been a handful of people whom I truly admired and respected. Folks who, if I said yeah, I’ll do this thing, I actually felt accountable enough that I’d actually sit down and do that thing. Folks whom, if you sit down to talk about your project, you come away energised and ready to work.
When you find those folks, recruit them as best you can. Make them part of your creative team. Half the value of my weekly write-clubs isn’t making the time to write, but making time to talk about writing with people whose opinions I respect.
SIX: INVOKE THE KRESS PROTOCOL
If the problem isn’t I can’t get started on this project, but rather I’m stuck on this project, it may be time to bite the bullet and invoke the Kress Protocol. I’ve talked about this, and other means of re-engaging with a story that ran out of steam, in a dancing monkey post from previous years.
SEVEN: KNOW WHAT HAPPENS AFTER YOUR DONE
You know what makes it way easier to extrapolate to a point of failure? Not knowing what it would look like to extrapolate towards a point of success.
For years, I was not a short story writer. I had the desire, and I’d write one from time to time, but I’d rarely finish the rough draft and had little motivation to do so. I knew, at the time, what I wanted from writing, and there were only two markets for SF stories that I was aware of (one of which really, really didn’t like my style of writing).
Basically, in terms of getting what I wanted from writing, short stories where an inferior choice to writing RPG products and finishing my PhD.
Thank fuck for the internet, Clarion South, and Ralan.com, which basically taught me there were dozens of markets for short fiction that paid pretty well and published exactly the kind of shit I tended to write.
My approach to writing was transformed. Within a year, I had given RPG design the flick and dove head-first into publishing short fiction.
What had changed wasn’t just the knowledge that markets was out there – although, that was huge – but also the awareness of how those markets could lead me to bigger opportunities that fit in with my goals.
Sometimes the motivation to finishing a project comes down to knowing there is something to do with it, once it’s actually done.