Don’t let Writing get in the way of writing

That may sound counterintuitive, but I don’t believe that it is. We all get in our own way sometimes. One form of this is unfinished project syndrome. You’ve got a book or story that’s almost complete, or that just needs one final polish before you send it off, and you are by damn going to finish it if it kills you. This can manifest as an explicit refusal to let yourself start another project till the last one is done. Or it could be less deliberate, something like, every time you try to work on something else you feel guilty about the unfinished project. In either case, the end result is not that the unfinished project gets done, it’s that nothing else does.

Don’t do this.

Yes, you have to finish what you start and send it out if you want to get anywhere in this business. But you don’t have to finish everything that you start. Everybody has unfinished projects. I personally have hundreds. Literally, I was just looking through my unfinished story files.

One of the foundational myths of writing is that the pros always finish what they start. We finish a lot a of it, and probably more than most, but a good bit of that is because we start more than most. The important thing is to write, to continue to write, to finish some of what you start and to send what gets finished out.

It is not important that you finish this project and send it out. It is important that you write, and that as part of writing you finish some projects and submit them. Not all projects. Not this project. Some projects. Even, any projects. The only exception to this is contracted works. Those you do have to finish.

But for the rest? Don’t let the stuff you feel you have to do get in the way of writing other stuff. Write what makes you want to write. If that means picking up a new novel and running with it for a while. Do that. The unfinished project will still be there after you finish the next project, and your skills will be improved, making it that much easier to complete if that’s what you want to do.

Finishing things is important, but it’s not nearly as important as doing things that keep you writing. If you’re stuck, let your sense of wonder wander. It’ll drag you out of your funk, and getting to a place where you’re having fun writing is much more likely to result in you wanting to go and finish the unfinished project than forcing yourself to do it ever could.

This is one of those things that I don’t think gets said nearly enough. I don’t think there’s a writer out there who doesn’t have unfinished projects tucked away.

Some of them will never be finished, and that’s okay. Some of them can only be finished when the writer reaches the right point. This is true for the rawest amateur and the most seasoned and popular pro.

Case in point, at the Fantasy Matters conference last fall Neil Gaiman talked about a novel he was just then finishing, a novel that he started twenty-some years ago.

If you need an outside authority to release you from the geas of the unfinished project, I volunteer:

You don’t have to finish it.

There. When your conscience needles you about it, tell it Kelly said it was okay.

Comments? Questions? Requests for unfinished project absolution?

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  1. 1. Natania

    Kelly – great advice. I think a great deal of writers adhere to a certain philosophy of preciousness when it comes to their writing. It’s like they can’t let go, can’t put it away, can’t come back later. It’s a hard habit to break, because we all believe (even if just a little) that we, and by extension what we write, are special. Precious. But there is nothing wrong with unfinished business. If you let it control you, you’re right, you won’t write. And you won’t improve if you don’t write… so that’s a bit of a conundrum, isn’t it?

  2. 2. Laura

    That’s a relief to know. :)

  3. 3. Karen Wester Newton

    I see it as a variation on the AA prayer—God, give us grace to accept the things that cannot be changed, courage to change the things that should be changed, and the wisdom to distinguish the one from the other.

    For writers I guess that boils down to—God, give us courage to finish those projects that are clear in our heads (or those for which we have a contract!), the strength to put aside those stories that aren’t ready to be finished, and the wisdom (or maybe it’s just experience?) to know the difference between the two.

  4. 4. Kelly McCullough

    Natania, thanks! Absolutely, it’s hard to let go especially if you’re the least bit stubborn and I’ve never met a serious writer who wasn’t deadly stubborn.

    Laura, glad to be of service. That relief is what drove this post. A while back one my writing proteges was talking in very defeatist tones about a short story that he just couldn’t seem to finish and something he said made me realize that he thought if he didn’t finish it would somehow make him less professional. So I popped open my fragments folder and totted up my many many unfinished projects–far more than I’ve finished–and showed him the number. When I saw how relieved he felt I made a mental note to be sure to talk about the unfinished stuff more often.

    Karen, that’s another good way of expressing it. It gets an amen out of this old Taoist.

  5. 5. Joe Iriarte

    Good post. You know, there was something I wanted to bring up in connection with thi

  6. 6. Adam Heine

    Good post, Kelly. And timely. I have a short story that’s hurting me everytime I try to go back to it, and it’s keeping the next novel (which I am excited about) from getting worked on.

    I think this advice should be taken with caution, however, for those writers who have nothing but unfinished projects. I know for myself, before I finished my first novel, I was just starting things but then quitting and starting something else when it got hard. Consequently, I never finished anything.

    I guess it’s a call for moderation between the two extremes: you must finish something, but you don’t have to finish everything.

  7. 7. Kelly McCullough

    Thanks Joe, I hope that cutoff there was just a misbutton and not zombies coming and hauling you away mid-sentence.

    Adam, true dat. If you don’t finish anything you don’t get anywhere. But I don’t think that message is one that is underserved in the writing world. It’s been my experience as someone who mentors writers and occasionally teaches writing that most people understand they do have to finish things if they’re going to get anywhere. In general the writers I’ve encountered who haven’t finished anything are aware they’ve got a problem and are often taking classes expressly to address that problem. But I’ve been truly surprised at how many beginning writers have assumed that because I’m a pro I’ve finished everything I’ve started. Heck I’ve met people who assumed that because I write professionally I sell everything I write. One of the other great learning moments I have in classes is when I bring in my 400+ page stack of rejection letter and drop it on the table with a deadly thump.

  8. 8. Will Humphreys

    Great post! I’m feeling better already.

  9. 9. Grant Stone

    Thank you! I’ve got a couple of stories that cause me grief every time I try and restart them. I want to finish them, but they’re getting in the way and slowing me down. Started something fresh a couple of days ago and your post confirms I did the right thing.

Author Information

Kelly McCullough

Kelly McCullough is a fantasy and science fiction author. He lives in Wisconsin with his physics professor wife and a small herd of cats. His novels include the WebMage and Fallen Blade series—Penguin/ACE. His short fiction has appeared in numerous venues including Writers of the Future and Weird Tales. He also dabbles in science fiction as science education with The Chronicles of the Wandering Star—part of an NSF-funded science curriculum—and the science comic Hanny & the Mystery of the Voorwerp, which he co-authored and co-edited—funding provided by NASA and the Hubble Space Telescope. Visit site.

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