Getting a Grip on Completing Unfinished Writing

Disclaimer: the following writing advice is based on the author’s personal experience of writing fiction and does not represent any hard or fast rules. Your mileage may vary.

One charm of both growing older and practicing writing craft for many years has been gaining the skills for dealing with my more annoying writing proclivities. The bad habits that hold me back. That hold many a writer back, in fact. Specifically, in this case, the vicious cycle of starting a project, then jumping to a new project before finishing because the new idea looks both shinier and easier than the current one. 

I enjoy a challenge, but only to a certain point, so if a task feels beyond my skills to overcome, I will simply walk away. This habit comes from playing puzzle-based video games when I was a kid. I found that instead of bashing my head against a room I couldn’t solve, I could put the controller down, do something else, and chew on the problem in the background. Once I returned, often the answer came to me immediately. So when I run up against a plot problem, I tend to do the same thing. 

Only there’s always a new idea bubbling in the back of my brain, ready to pounce the second I look away from that original project. I’ll work on this instead. I’m sure I’ll finish this one. 

On and on. 

For the chronic noncompletionist, I’ve come up with a process for getting those old pieces finished. Instead of starting on something new when I need to walk away from a gnarly problem, I pick up another piece I put down previously. But to ensure progress continues to some degree, I specifically start working on whatever is next closest to done

(This process, of course, excludes deadlines. When you’re under deadline, that’s the project you’re writing next, whether you like it or you’re holding a scream inside. I’m not talking to you deadline people. This post is for the writers motivated only by ego and stubbornness.)

To those of you writers capable of powering through one project from beginning to end, this must sound excruciating. Working on multiple projects like this makes all the projects involved take forever to finish. Yes, I know. But I’m working within my brain’s operating parameters instead of against them by guiding this inevitable event in a productive direction. There will come moments when I have to stop. I cannot prevent this, only redirect it. 

Oh, but what about those shiny new ideas? We can’t just let them fall to the wayside, can we? Writers always talk about how they lost a really good story because they told themselves they’d remember and didn’t write it down. So we must avoid that fate and take notes on that new idea instead of starting the project next closest to being done, shouldn’t we? 

Maggie Stiefvater once ran a workshop on the disposability of ideas. (I could not attend, but I wish I could have.) My main takeaway was the importance of not being precious about every little idea that comes your way. Of being willing to discard any that aren’t working in service to the narrative. She started the workshop by having participants write their story ideas on a cardboard box and ended by having them throw their boxes onto a communal bonfire. 

Because other ideas will come. 

As far as I’m concerned, the flip side of this exercise involves recognizing that some ideas are trash. Just because you have an idea doesn’t make that idea worth keeping. Worth expanding. Worth your time. 

I may have mentioned this before, but I have lived on the poverty line more than I haven’t. Broke but free. Whatever. This makes grocery shopping on a tight budget an exercise in prioritizing. 

Not that I never let myself have something I wanted over something I needed, though. And room in the budget for a little treat occasionally popped up. But I developed this neat trick for when I pick up an item in the store that I think I can’t live without: I just walk around the store with it in my hand. More often than not, by the end of the shopping trip, excited monkey brain has had time to calm down about the shiny and I realize this thing is, in fact, meaningless trash. So I put it back. 

This trick applies to new story ideas, too. 

Time is your budget in the case of choosing what ideas merit writing out. You only get so many life minutes to build a masterpiece. So every time a new idea hits you—tempts you to blow your budget for rent and utilities on this very cool mini toolkit or whatever—before making that purchase with your life minutes, just hold that idea in your hand. Make sure it has legs before you run away with it. If the idea dies in your grip instead of struggling to free itself, then it wasn’t worth pursuing. 

An example of this: my first thought this morning was to write a Christmas movie script that upends every Christmas movie trope—even though I don’t write screenplays, watch Christmas movies, or enjoy Christmas. I didn’t bother looking up scriptwriting format or opening my notes app to jot this thought down; I just waited. And the idea died before even taking a proper breath. 

And I was free to not chase it. 

On the other hand, while on a six-hour drive this weekend, an idea for a post soft-apocalypse robot detective western kicked and bit its way free of my fingers, demanding life, freedom, and justice the whole way. 

When this happens, after you’ve held the idea for a while, you know you’ve found one worth pursuing. Only now it’s the farthest from being done of all your projects, so put it at the back of the line, and maybe just daydream about it for now, while you get onto the next most completed piece.

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