Finish it!

A couple of days ago Amanda mentioned what is possibly the single best reason for finishing what you’re working on: if you don’t finish, you have nothing to sell.

Now, it hasn’t always been quite that way. Back when traditional publishing was the only game in town, a lot of books got sold on the three-chapters-and-synopsis system: you submit the first three chapters and a synopsis of the rest of the story, and if the publisher likes it and trusts you to finish the work, you get a contract and an advance; usually half on signing and half when you submit the completed manuscript and they find it acceptable. Naturally there were a few writers who got book contracts on this basis and then couldn’t deliver. But there were very few who got a second book contract after failing to deliver on the first. And so the system staggered along… and to tell the truth, I liked it just fine. The prospect of investing all that work in a book and then discovering that nobody would buy it gave me hives. I felt a lot more financially secure with that steady stream of book contracts and staggered completion dates.

But after a while, editors started complaining that an unusual number of new writers were able to write a gripping opening but lacked the skills to carry the story through to the end. Well, what did they expect? They were selecting for the ability to grab the reader in those first chapters. That wasn’t exactly a mistake – very few readers will plod on to Chapter Four of a book that hasn’t already engaged their interest – but at the same time, these editors were failing to select for follow-through. They trained a generation of writers to pour all their attention into those opening chapters and if what came afterwards wasn’t quite so gripping, well, you had this contract. Unless the finished book was absolutely abysmal, the publisher would accept it. Things would work out. Sort of. For a time.

And that, you see, brings up another reason for finishing a work. If you put all your time and energy into making the first two or three chapters brilliant, and you keep dropping projects at that point and starting new ones, you are training your brain into self-destructive habits. The more projects you leave to die when the middle of the book starts to sag, the more you’ll believe that you had no alternative and the more likely you are to drop the next book at the trouble point.

Now, there are books whose initial concept is so terrible that the partial manuscripts really ought to be put out of the writer’s misery. It’s not always true that the best thing you can do is to slog on and finish what you now recognize to be a really, really awful book. So? If I had a dollar for every piece of writing advice I’d seen that was universally true, I wouldn’t be one cent richer than I am today.

Say you’ve got the writing time and energy to produce, oh, 140,000 words a year. And say you tend to have book ideas that work out to 70,000 words. You can spend the next year writing Book 1 and Book 2, and at the end of the year you will have two completed works. Now, it’s just possible that neither book will be perfect. I’ll even go out on a limb and say it’s unlikely. But they will be complete projects. You can look at each book as a whole, you can get beta readers to help you see what needs work, you can edit and polish. And you’ll have gained valuable experience in a whole slew of writerly skills: how to make the story snap again when it mysteriously sags in the middle, how to negotiate with those obstreperous characters who refuse to do what your plot needs them to do, how to bring the initial problem to a satisfying conclusion, how to pace your story so the reader is neither exhausted by nonstop action nor rendered comatose by loving descriptions of the exact shape of the ripples on the river which your protagonist needs to cross some day.

I don’t know about you, but I was, tragically, not born with any of those skills already built into my brain. I had to work through book after book after book. Heck, I’m still working on them. I expect I always will be.

Or you can be a perpetual beginner. Maybe you refuse to go on with a book if the first few chapters aren’t perfect, right off the bat, first draft. Or you promise yourself that you will continue…. Just as soon as you’ve polished the bejasus out of those opening chapters. Or you lose all interest in that old book because you want to dive into the new and thrilling conception that occurred to you at three a.m. last night.

So, being dedicated and hard-working, you still produce those 140,000 words in a year of writing. But what do you have at the end of the year? You have the first 20,000 words of each of seven different books. You have a lot of practice in writing beginnings, and have built absolutely none of the other skills you need to produce a finished and satisfying book.

And you certainly don’t have anything to sell.

So if at all possible, stick with that first project. Fight your way through the lurking obstacles. If the finished product is truly, awesomely bad, there’s no law you have to publish it; you can file it in the folder of inactive projects and lousy ideas. But at least you’ll have had some practice in writing a whole book. And you may have begun training your treacherous, whiny mind to understand that it doesn’t get to give up and run away when the going gets sticky. That in itself is worth a lot.

And, of course, if the book is actually good, you have something to sell.


  1. If you put all your time and energy into making the first two or three chapters brilliant

    I resemble that remark. Does “waiting for NaNo” count as procrastinating?</rhetorical question>

  2. Oh, yes. _Finishing_ is hard. And harder when you’ve let the idea get stale. Mind you, there’s no such thing as too stale. I’ve pulled out story starts ten years old, attached the battery charger and zapped them back to life.

    1. Heck, I had a couple of historicals a third written, or half written and set aside because I wanted to pull ahead on another. (I am usually writing two at a time, on the grounds that when I get bored, or hit a snag on one, I can work on the other. ) Eventually finished them all, but one was on the back burner for about three years.

  3. Now, there are books whose initial concept is so terrible that the partial manuscripts really ought to be put out of the writer’s misery.

    I can tell that WIP’s concept has some issues. I’m pretty sick of the unfinished projects. As long as I don’t kill myself trying to finish this project, finishing will be a net win. I will be better equipped to do a good job finishing the next project.

  4. Eh, by the time I was writing, it was known that a publisher wouldn’t give a newbie a contract on three-chapters-and-outline without the whole thing being written.

    But the BIG reason to get it finished is to go back and revise the beginning for story structure. (In musicals, it’s proverbial that you write the opening number last, because then you know what you are opening.)

    1. Oh, yes! That’s why I’m so impatient with the attitude “I won’t start the second chapter until the first is perfect.” Setting, infodumps, characters’ backstory and so forth – I tend to throw everything I know about the setup into that beginning as it occurs to me. Then once the book is finished I can go back and decide what information really has to be up front from the start, what can be hinted at, what can be casually dropped into later chapters, and what the reader never really needs to be told at all.

      One of the great joys of word processing, for me, was no longer having to make major revisions to Chapter 1 without being careful that it still came out to exactly 31 pages so that I wouldn’t have to physically renumber the entire rest of the manuscript.

  5. I do have trouble with endings. The characters like to keep having their parties and such at the end of the book, so it does tend to keep going and going.

    But then I bribe them with another book, and they all grumble and finally go to bed. ~:D

    1. Well, the reader likes to see a bit of a party after the return from Mordor, let the characters wind down, let the emotional resolution sink in. At least, this reader does.

      1. You know, I’ve always wanted that battle at the gates to have been fought with proper weapons and air support. And orbital strikes. And a Bolo. Facing Mordor, there should have been at least a Mk. XXIV Stupendous. Or a whole squadron of them. Makes me tear up just thinking about it. (I’m a little weird.)

        So in MY book, when the plucky thief and the warrior princess faced off with the Ultimate Evil demon sorcerer, some serious shit went down. >:)

        After which they had a really fun party.

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