The Magic Art of Finishing Up

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It’s super easy to start writing.  New ideas are shiny and exciting.  There are worlds to explore and characters to get to know.  You may plot, plan, research, outline, and even write a big part of your books. Only to get distracted when the next shiny, exciting idea comes along and seems SOOO much better than the current one.

If you’ve been a writer for any length of time, you have likely worked on a lot of projects.  How many of them have you finished?  Do you have an archive of half-finished manuscripts on your computer? A plethora of first drafts that have never been revised?

It’s easy to put away the old one, sure that the new one is going to be The One.

Until it’s not. It’s like being a serial dater, barely getting to know one book before moving on to the next.

Almost Finished Gets You Nothing And Nowhere

While it’s true that you’re a writer if you write, it’s also true that, if you have a goal to be a published writer (or, better yet, a self-supporting writer), you need to finish what you start.  You can’t send a half finished manuscript to an editor.  You can’t self-publish part of a story or, worse, a first draft.

So why do we do this?  There are a lot of reasons for starting something new before the old is finished.

  • You’re trying to avoid the previous project that has gotten “too hard.” Surely the next one will be easier!
  • You got bored with the last manuscript or felt like you’d been working on it forever. Surely the next one will go faster!
  • The old book was so flawed, you probably wouldn’t be able to fix it. So you’re not even going to try. Surely the next one will be better!
  • Finishing is scary. If your goal is publication, finishing means you have to submit it to an editor agent, or you have to hit “publish.” That’s a scary step that you never have to take if you never finish. Surely you’ll be ready after the next book!

If you’re on the Fail to Finish Team, one or more of those excuses probably sounds familiar.

The problem with all of that is, of course, that if you never finish, your career is over before it’s even begun.  There are thousands of would-be writers out there with unfinished manuscripts.  (How many times has someone said to you, upon hearing you’re a writer, “Oh, yeah! I started writing a book, too!”?)

But you want to be a real writer, a paid writer.  You don’t want to be a would-be writer saying to other “real” writers that you, too, have “started writing a book” at every cocktail party you attend for the rest of your life.

So How Do You Finish?

Once you’ve completed one book, you know you can do it again.  So how do you break this cycle of unfinished projects and get to the finish line?

  • Stop making excuses about why starting something else is the right thing to do. You don’t need to write book 2 in a series when you haven’t finished book 1.  The next book is not going to be easier that this one. They are all hard.
  • Be thoughtful about what you start. Just because you think of a fantastic idea doesn’t mean it’s the right idea for you. Or the right idea right now.  Keep a notebook when you think of something new.  It’ll be there when you finish the one you’re working on now.
  • Commit to the finish. Look at your current half-finished projects and pick one. Work through the hard part and complete it.
  • Don’t worry about perfection. That’s what revisions are for.
  • While you’re working, visualize what it will feel like to finish. A bit of future projecting can go a long way toward motivating yourself to proceed to the finish line.

What you’ll find when you’ve completed that first novel (or the second, or tenth) is a profound feeling of accomplishment.  Your confidence will grow with each finished project.

So pick a project and feel the magic of finishing.

“Whatever it takes to finish things, finish. You will learn more from a glorious failure than you ever will from something you never finished.” — Neil Gaiman

~ Shannon McKelden

Quitting 101 for Writers

quitProbably the biggest complaint I hear from writers is that they “don’t have enough time” to write.

This is usually followed, in the next breath, by listing all the things they’ve got going. All the social events, clubs, projects, volunteer activities, charity work, parental commitments, etc., they have been participating in.  And then how exhausted they are.  And how they can’t fit writing in anywhere.

Even though writing is supposedly a “priority.”

Even though publishing is “all they have ever dreamed of doing” with their lives.

The problem is, no matter how much of a priority something is, if you’re not making time for it, it really isn’t a priority. No matter how many times you call it that.

Actions speak louder than words. If you say writing is a priority, then take action to make it a priority!

So, how do you make time for writing? By quitting.

What?! “Quit,” you say? But winners never quit and quitters never win!

I beg to differ.

When is Quitting Okay?

How many of you struggle with quitting reading a book that you hate or that’s boring?  How many of you are still volunteering for something that no longer interests you or that you’ve come to dread?

Quitting, even something you’ve come to despise, can be really unpleasant for some folks.

But in order to make writing a priority, you can’t just talk about it.  You have to really make it one of the most important things in your life (maybe behind your kids, spouse, health . . . things like that). Remember this, again:  actions speak louder than words.

So, when is quitting okay?

When you’re doing too much –We often do all the things, volunteer for everything, and accept every invitation because of FOMO (Fear of Missing Out).  But you can’t do everything, so it’s okay to be selective. There’s only so much time in a day, and spreading yourself thin can be hard on your health, family, and most definitely any chance you have of starting or maintaining a writing career.

When you’re doing things that aren’t yours to do – Are there things you’re doing that really should be the responsibility of someone else?  Or could they be someone else’s responsibility?  Delegating is a parent’s best friend. No one says you have to clean up after everyone or cook all the meals or drive all the carpools.  If a task can (or should) be done by someone else, hand them their responsibility and stop doing it all yourself.

When you’re only doing it out of habit — Just because you’ve been watching the same soap opera every day for the last ten years, doesn’t mean you have to keep watching it. If you’re only watching it out of habit and not really enjoying the rehashed plotlines, it’s time to quit.

When you’re only doing it because you spent money on it – This is a big one and really hard to get past for some people.  Even if you spent money on something, if it no longer brings you joy, quit. So what if you invested $1000 on piano lessons?  If practicing bores you to tears, you suck at it, and you don’t love it anymore, there’s no reason to keep pursuing it. You may have invested your money, but stop investing your time on something you dislike doing.

When you’re only doing it because someone else expects you to – Did you join a club because your friend begged you to, only to find that you no longer care?  Quit.  If your friend is a true friend, they will understand that you need to make writing a priority in your life.

When what you’re doing doesn’t support your goals — Don’t let saying “yes” become more important than reaching your own goals and dreams.   If the activity in question isn’t supportive of what you’re reaching for in your life, it’s time to quit.  If it doesn’t bring you joy, quit.

How (and What) to Quit

Once you’ve made the decision to quit those extraneous things in your life to make more time to write, how do you go about it?  How do you decide what has to stay and what can go?

Make a pros and cons list –  Not sure whether you still want to belong to the service club you’ve belonged to for ten years?  What do you like about it? What do you dislike about it? If there are any cons, consider quitting if there’s no passion left.

Ask for outside opinions from trusted friends or family – Is there anything in your life that they have been telling you to quit?  Ask for their honest thoughts . . . keeping in mind that if you’re trying to quit an activity that they are invested in, they might not be the right person to ask.

Figure out how much extra time you’ll gain by quitting –  How much time do you spend at each of your activities on a weekly basis?  Start by calculating the most time-consuming activity you participate in, and see if it still seems as appealing, if quitting it could give you back that equally large amount of writing time.

Finally, try applying the KonMari method – From the crazy popular book The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up by Marie Kondo, this is really meant to tidy up your life by getting rid of material things that no longer bring you joy.  Applying this same method to the activities you participate in, though, could have an amazing effect on the time you have available to write!

One thing Kondo suggests in the book is clearing out all at once, rather than little by little.  Throwing one thing out a day isn’t going to clean your house up fast. On the other hand, ridding your house, all at the same time, of every item of clothing that isn’t bringing you joy will feel so good, you will be less likely to “relapse” into bad habits or add more things to your wardrobe that leave you joy-less.

Same with that long list of activities you participate in!  Try listing all the things you do (aside from the necessary things, like feeding your kids and getting regular dental checkups) and then go through them one by one, all at the same time, and decide what really brings you joy.

“Start by discarding,” says Kondo. “Then organize your space, thoroughly, completely, in one go.” [Emphasis mine.]

And by “space,” in this instance, we’re talking about your writing “space” – the time you spend, or want to spend – pursuing your goals and dreams.

Once you know what brings you joy, you know what to keep.  Ditch the rest.  Be a quitter and make time for the writing that you love and want more time for!

Final Quitting Thoughts

Remember, nothing is permanent.  If you quit something and then later find you miss it too much, you can always go back. As long as you aren’t doing it to procrastinate from writing.

If the idea of the KonMari method and quitting things all at once is a bit too much, or if you’re just not sure you want to give up a particular thing yet, at least commit to checking in again in six months to see if you still feel the same about it.  Once you’ve got the idea in your head that you may want to quit this activity, you might find all kinds of reasons cropping up that support this.

Another thing to keep in mind is that we’re talking about quitting things that prevent you from writing — writing that you have determined is a priority for you.

Quitting 101 isn’t a primer on how to quit writing.  Writing is hard work and not always fun.  But there’s a huge difference between quitting something because it’s hard sometimes and quitting something because it leaves you no room for what’s really important in your life.

If you’ve committed to a writing career and decided it is your priority, then look for things to quit that don’t support this priority.

Being a quitter isn’t always bad. Quit the right things. For the right reasons.

And then go Rock Your Writing with all that free time you have.

~  Shannon McKelden

How to Rock Your Resolutions

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Photo courtesy of https://www.flickr.com/photos/cydcor/

Every year millions of people make New Year’s resolutions on January first. And by January thirty-first have completely forgotten what those resolutions were.

I’ve been guilty of this.  As the new year rings in, I create this “wish list” of things I want, only to shamefully admit failure within a few weeks.

If I even remember what those resolutions were a few weeks later.

But why do we do this?  It’s estimated that somewhere between 80 and 90% of New Year’s resolutions are broken within a couple of months at the most.  I mean, if we want something badly enough to put it on a list of things we want (Lose weight!  Get more exercise!  Write a book!), why is it so hard to stick with it?

Here’s what I think:  when we come up with these resolutions, we don’t often give thought to whether we are willing to do what is necessary to accomplish them.

For example, I can say I want to lose 25 pounds and it sounds great!  Until I realize what I will have to do to lose those 25 pounds.  Dessert every night?  Nope.  Dinners out every Saturday at my favorite Mexican restaurant?  Nope.  The ability to binge eat through a Netflix marathon every weekend?  Nope.

Suddenly, I’m not nearly as motivated to lose weight as I was when I so naively added it to my list of resolutions.  Simply because I’m not willing to do what’s necessary to accomplish that 25 pounds of weight loss.

Writer’s Resolutions

Is one of your resolutions to write a book this year?  To be successful, you need to decide if you’re willing to do what’s needed to get that book written.

It might mean turning down social engagements on weekends, so that you can write, because you have a full-time job, a family with lots of activities, and don’t have time to write during the week.

It might mean that writing a chapter each week becomes more important than vegging in front of the TV every night.

It might mean choosing to write in your car during your lunch hour rather than going out with your coworkers every day (which might actually also help that 25-pound weight loss goal, coincidentally!).

What if your resolution is even loftier than one book?  What if you resolution is that you’re going to quit your day job and become a full-time writer by the end of this year?

Goals like this one, which are huge and life-changing, require even more thought and planning to ensure that you have even the slightest shot at success.  You’re going to have to know where your income will come from (the writing or somewhere else?), how much time you’ll devote to writing, whether you’ll solely write fiction, or will you write nonfiction or do some other kind of work to supplement your income?  But the #1 question is:  Am I willing to do what is necessary to fulfill this resolution?

Ask Yourself These Questions

So how can you tell if you are committed to doing what is necessary to accomplish the resolutions you make?  Ask  yourself the following questions…and be honest.  If you try to play Mr. or Ms. Committed when you really aren’t, the only person you’re hurting is yourself.

  • Is this resolution something I really want, or something I feel is expected of me? While your best writing friend may write full time, if you’re honest with yourself, you might find that you don’t really want to write full time.  Perhaps you love your day job or enjoy the social aspects of working outside the home.  Don’t make resolutions based on what others tell you you should want or what you think is expected of you.
  • Am I really willing to do what is required to accomplish this resolution? Starting a Twitter account and Facebook author page might be a great resolution if you’re working to build your tribe.  But if you don’t know a tweet from a hole in the ground and hate Facebook and aren’t willing to put in the time to maintain it and interact with others, they will just grow stagnant when you get tired of them.
  • What’s my motivation regarding this resolution? If you’re not “all-in” in terms of being driven to follow through with your writing resolution, you’re going to end up forgetting all about it within a month or so.  If your resolution is to write an erotic novel this year and your motivation is purely the idea that erotica sells, but you can’t stand the genre, you can almost guarantee your failure to keep this resolution.
  • Is the timing right for this resolution?  If you’re a tax accountant, setting a resolution on January 1 to complete a 100,000-word draft of your novel during the first quarter of the year might be really bad timing.  Think about your other commitments before rattling off resolutions that are destined to fail because you simply don’t have enough time in a day.
  • What am I willing to give up and not give up in order to accomplish this goal/resolution?  This one is pretty self explanatory.  Really consider what you might have to give up to be successful. You may run into something you’re not willing to give up that will make your particular resolution impossible.  Don’t set yourself up for failure.

By asking yourself  these questions and really being honest about the answers, you can vet those resolutions up front and have better chance of success by picking resolutions you are truly committed to.

What if You Already Made Resolutions This Year?

I get that it’s nearly mid-January already, and you could very well have named your obligatory resolutions a few weeks ago.  Are you still going strong?  Maybe these are the right resolutions for you.  Have they already started petering out like a forgotten gym membership?   Go through the above questions and see which resolutions might fit and be worth salvaging (or revamping) and which you just aren’t willing to do the work on.

Don’t worry if you discover that you’ve made a  mistake with a few of your resolutions (or all of them!).  You’re armed now with more knowledge about what makes resolutions worthy of your time and efforts! As far as I’m concerned, resolutions aren’t just for January 1. A good resolution works any time of year.

So, readers, are your resolutions rockin’? Or do they need some revisions?  Let us know in your comments!

Rock Your Writing!

~Shannon McKelden

5 questions to ask yourself when writing your novel.

I’m sure a lot of people are plunging into novel-writing… it’s January, after all.  Resolution season.  “This is the year I (finish the novel, start the novel, write another novel)…”

You get the picture.

This often also leads to pulling out whatever notes they might have, opening up a document, and diving in, whether that’s outlining or leaping into the draft itself.

But whether you’re plotting beforehand or doing a discovery draft, you might find yourself getting stuck. 

Here are five questions that can help give you some traction and forward momentum — and, if nothing else, will test the underlying bones of your novel.

Note:  because I primarily work with genre fiction, and because it’s my first passion, these questions apply to traditional three-act structured genre novels.

1.  What does your protagonist want?

This is a test for goal.

If your protagonist doesn’t want something, but is simply bouncing off of events and external characters’ actions like a pinball, then you may have a lot of episodes, but you’re going to have trouble creating a through-line.  Readers want protagonists with a clear, urgent desire, even if they don’t agree with the goal.  If you can’t tell me what your protagonist wants, then you’re going to wind up stuck somewhere around the middle of your novel.

You want the goal to be something tangible.  This is the external goal, the story driver.  So to clarify even further, a secondary question would be:  how will your protagonist know when he/she has it?

2.  What happens if your protagonist doesn’t get what he/she wants?

This is a test for motivation and stakes.

If your protagonist “will be unhappy” or “feel disappointed,” then your goal isn’t strong enough.  You want the protagonist to have a clear consequence if the goal isn’t achieved.  It will be more than just upsetting.  It needs to create a problem of some sort.  Preferably with a clear pain attached.

As a secondary check, you might see if the pain can be escalated.  If the protagonist is going for a job, say, the consequence may be that if he doesn’t get the job, he won’t be able to afford the house his family needs.  It can then be escalated if he loses his current job, or if his wife threatens to leave him if he doesn’t get it, or they lose their current housing.  Check for the possibilities of making the stakes higher and the motivation stronger.

3.  What’s standing in his/her way?

This is a test for conflict.

If your conflict is “he’s not sure if he really wants it” or “she keeps getting distracted” then you don’t have conflict, and your motivation is weak.  A character who is truly driven towards a goal won’t waffle about it, which means you’ve got to throw some fairly solid, and escalating, conflict in the way or you’re going to have a very short and unsatisfying novel.

Using the above example, escalating conflict is more than just “he has to go on a series of interviews” with more interviews being added.  It can be his car being repossessed, which makes getting to the job site more difficult.  It can be the introduction of an antagonist, a rival for the job.  It can be a “final jeopardy” interview which requires him to sell a million dollars worth of widgets in a one-week period.  It can mean moving to Antarctica (and away from his family/new house) for a year.  Again, think in terms of “how can I make this worse?”

4.  How is your protagonist different at the end of the book?

This is a test for story arc.  To be a true protagonist, your character needs to develop as a result of facing the challenges of the novel.  If you’re wondering about “how should I end this story?” this question is usually the key to the resolution.

This means more than “your protagonist has faced the challenge and won.”  He or she needs to have grown, in a visible way.

5.  Why does your reader care?

Note that I didn’t say “the reader.”  This is your Right Reader.  I get clients who ask “but don’t readers want more action?  More suspense?  A likeable protagonist?”  The result is usually a hodge-podge of humor, thrilling chases or superfluous murder, with a pandering “he may be a bastard, but he rescues puppies” scene shoehorned in.

Don’t do that.

Look at your character.  Will your audience understand his/her goal, and the motivation behind it?  Will they be able to relate, even if it isn’t a goal they’d particularly want?  Is your character compelling enough to keep the reader along for the ride?  Characters don’t have to be “likable.”  They can’t be boring, though.  Avoid generic.

Pull out these questions whenever you get off track.

Nine times out of ten, when I’m working with an author who is stuck, it’s because they’ve strayed from one or more of the above five questions.  Just asking themselves these questions usually gets them unstuck in a hurry.

Last ten days for editing special.

I’m running my editing special for the month of January.  It’s the only one I run all year.  If you need someone to look through your novel and help you with the structure, flow, and characterization, then now’s the perfect time.  If your novel’s not quite ready, you can reserve the rate for use on any single 500 page or less project through 2014.  Click here for more details.

Daylight’s burning, peeps.  Let’s write some stories. 🙂

Torture for Fun and Profit

As part of both my coaching service and my critique service, I get to see the framework of a lot of stories in progress.  When it comes to conflict in general, and Black Moments in particular, there’s one thing I’ve noticed over and over.

People pull their punches.

They get to the Black Moment, and it’s really more of a Light Gray Moment.  What happens is… unpleasant.  Possibly even upsetting.

As a reader, I don’t want unpleasant or upsetting.  I want soul-crushing*.  I want to be tied up in knots.  I want to stay up until three a.m., wondering how this character is going to get out of this predicament.

*And if you think this doesn’t apply because you’re writing comedy, you are so very, very wrong.  I direct you to THE HANGOVER, which is a funny gross-out movie, a perfect mystery, and a great example of how to raise stakes.

How to crush a soul (successfully.)

There are four questions you have to answer for your reader before you can have a true soul-crushing Black Moment:

1.  “Why do I care about this character?”

Usually, this is interpreted as: is my character sympathetic? Can the reader relate to the character?  Because relating to a character means your reader can imagine herself in the same situation.  She would care if it was happening to her.  That’s one step closer to caring about the character.  Bottom line: your character needs to be interesting, in an intriguing situation.  The situation will carry you until we learn more about the character. (One further note: she doesn’t need to completely empathize.  I love the show Dexter, and I can’t imagine chopping people up.  That said, I relate to his misguided sense of justice… and I look at the building conflict and go, Wow, how would I get out of that?)

2.  “What am I rooting for?”

Once you’ve managed to create a character readers can care about, you’ve got to go to the next step.  Readers need a clear and tangible outcome to root for.  Like any good goal, you need to know when you’ve achieved it.  Be crystal clear.

3.  “What happens if the character doesn’t get it?”

This is what’s known as creating high stakes.  If the answer to your character not getting what she wants is “she’ll be unhappy” then you do not have stakes. You’ve got a tangible outcome, right? You need a tangible consequence for failure.  If the ending means the character doesn’t achieve her goal, but there’s still a happy ending because she realizes that she didn’t need it, this still applies.  She has to feel shattered and hit rock bottom before realizing that.  She can’t simply have “an awakening.”  (See point 4.)

4.  “What’s stopping the character from getting it?”

This is the whole shebang:  conflict.  What’s standing in the way of success?  It not only needs to be sizable enough to require a lot of ingenuity and effort, it needs to escalate… like climbing a mountain, you’d better make sure every step gets harder. Oh, and be wary of internal conflict.  If your character has a goal of, say, getting married, and she’s got a proposal and everything but her conflict is her abandonment issues, if you’re able to solve it by saying “she decided her abandonment issues didn’t matter” then I have news for you:  YOU DO NOT HAVE CONFLICT.

Once you’ve got these four elements, you’re ready to craft a truly soul-crushing Black Moment.

The soul-crush.

Take your goal.  Look at precisely what your character wants, and why she wants it.

Next, write down a list of the ten worst things that could happen in terms of those characteristics.  For example, let’s say you’ve got a character who wants to get married by the time she’s thirty.  The reason why:  she’ll inherit a billion dollars… and she’s been struggling financially, trying to make ends meet to cover the expenses of a demanding and dysfunctional family as well as pay for school.

From a Black Moment standpoint, it has to look like she is not going to get the money, because she’s not going to get married.  To really make it worse, she’d get kicked out of school and disowned.  See?  No punches pulled there.  And say she fell in love with someone who doesn’t believe in marriage, and she was going to married some other guy just to get the money.  Bam!  She loses the guy she’s in love with, too!

At that point, she could also get hit by a truck.  Or maybe learn an asteroid is heading toward her home town.  Those are, admittedly, Very Bad Things.  However, they don’t really tie to the goal and motivation, so they don’t really apply.  The Black Moment must be in terms of what your goal and motivation have set up.

Donald Maass suggests a great trick:  write down at least twenty possibilities for scenarios where this could go.  The first ten will probably be stereotypical, complete cliches — what the reader’s expecting.  The next ten is where the juice is.  Stretch yourself.

Where the torture comes in.

You might think that the torture in the title means torturing your protagonist.  That’s true, to a certain extent.  More importantly, you need to torture your readers.  You’re putting someone they care about in gradually increasing pain.  Worse, you’re making them watch!

The really amazing thing?

They’ll thank you for it.  Pay you for it.  And keep coming back for more.