September 11th 2008
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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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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