Failure is simply the opportunity to begin again, this time more intelligently.
That’s the total number of unfinished manuscripts I have in my desk drawer.
Each one started with as much anticipation as any other I’ve written, each one started with an air of excitement and trepidation.
But each one remains unfinished.
Destined never to see the light of day.
Unloved. Unwanted. Unreadable.
Sad, isn’t it?
The Harsh Reality
Two years ago I began sorting through my desk ready to move into my new writing cabin at the bottom of the garden.
I came across a box file containing the notes, plans and manuscripts of all the stories I’d started, but never finished.
As I sifted through the pile, I couldn’t believe how much stuff I’d researched and written about. The trips I’d taken to possible settings. The mounds of notes I’d made after spending hours on Google. Various profiles I’d created after successfully ‘interviewing’ my characters.
I shook my head in disbelief at all the hard work that had seemingly gone to waste.
Last week I was looking for a document on my computer when I found a manuscript that I’d started towards the end of last year. I’d forgotten about it completely!
I stared dumbfounded at the screen, feeling like a prize idiot.
A World of Ideas
Now I know that authors have tons of ideas – we all have that trusty notebook filled with quick notes when we see something that could be turned into a story.
But to have unfinished manuscripts lying around? Particularly ones you’d forgotten you’d started?
Sounds crazy to me.
So I started to think about why these unfinished manuscripts existed in the first place and what I could do to stop the pattern repeating itself.
Could the stories even be saved? Could the ideas I had actually become something after all?
It required me to take a long, hard look at both myself and my writing habits.
Let’s Start with Why
As a writer, I really suffer from comparisonitis. When I’m writing my first drafts, I seem to compare myself to published writers, most of whom will have seen only their tenth draft considered for publication.
But instead of remembering this, I let the writing gremlin have his say and convince me that there’s no point in continuing as what I’m writing is utter shite. The internal dialogue goes into overdrive and I end up talking my way out of writing anything at all.
Now I’m not saying this is the case for all writers with unfinished manuscripts. But it’s certainly the case for me.
I also give up too easily. I stop when I get to the ‘difficult middle part’ as it can feel like wading through treacle. Instead of letting the story move forward, reminding myself that ‘I can’t edit a blank page’, I lose momentum until I finally come to a grinding halt.
I never look at the manuscript again.
When the tough gets going, I simply walk away and try to start something new.
Basically, I’m a wuss.
After realising my biggest writing weaknesses, I decided to do something about it. I’m not going to be an author who never accomplishes anything. I’m not going to have piles of unfinished manuscripts littering the place. Yes, I’ve written three non-fiction books but they are in an area of expertise. Writing them was relatively simple.
Writing fiction, for me, is not.
So in the quest for a ‘way forward’, I came up with these solutions and used them to write the first draft of my children’s novel.
1. Use an Outline
Pantsers, put away your pitchforks! For some writers, the thought of using an outline makes them feel as nauseous as a pregnant woman in her first trimester. For others, they couldn’t imagine writing without one. Now is not the time to get into THAT discussion!
I don’t use an in-depth outline, but I decided to try the process by using something quite basic. I used the information I’d read in this article about scene structure by Randy Ingermanson and created my own outline document.
It enabled me to make sure that each scene had a purpose and that it followed the plot, but that it wasn’t so prescriptive that I felt constrained.
Each morning, as I sat down to write, I could glance at the outline and see roughly what the scene was supposed to be about. I didn’t feel as though I couldn’t change it if I wanted to and there were occasions when I did just that. It just gave me the safety net I needed, particularly as I’m in the early stages of my fiction writing career.
2. Have a Daily Word Count Target
Instead of thinking of the book as a whole, I found it useful to think of it as small chunks each day. I set myself a target of 2000 words per day and that enabled me just to focus on those words, rather than feeling overwhelmed at writing a full novel.
I noted down the number of words I wrote each day and kept a log. This gave me a boost after each session as I added to my overall word count and saw it rising and rising! This was enough to give me the motivation to continue and to avoid adding further work to the pile of unfinished manuscripts.
Each morning I visualised another day of successful writing completed. This kept me feeling positive and gave me the confidence to keep going, even when I was in the hideous middle bit. I reminded myself of what I was trying to achieve and pictured myself with my finished first draft.
For more information on visualisation and how it impacts positively on my writing, please read this post.
4. Just Write Something!
This might sound simple and silly, but it worked! Prior to this piece of work, I would get to a tricky bit or to a part of the story that I couldn’t write very well and get stressed. I would assume I couldn’t do it and just give up.
During this first draft, when I got to these points in the story, I decided to just write something. Anything at all. I gave myself the reminder that this was just the first draft and that most of these words would never see the light of day. No one would read them other than me.
With that in mind, I continued. There were times when I positively cringed when I wrote some dialogue or description, but I stopped being so hard on myself. Yes, some of it was awful, but actually, I needed something on the paper to improve in later edits. Again, I reminded myself that I couldn’t edit a blank page.
5. Enjoy the Process
I vowed to enjoy the process as I wrote this first draft. I normally worry a lot and so this time I decided to try and smile more! When things got difficult, I brain-stormed possible solutions in my notebook and realised that this ensured the characters kept me on my toes.
Sometimes things would come to me that I wasn’t expecting, so I just went with it. Some of it worked, some of it didn’t. Instead of worrying about it, I just smiled and turned up again the next day. It took the pressure off my shoulders brilliantly.
Using this process has given me greater confidence that my pile of unfinished manuscripts won’t be growing bigger any time soon. There will still be tough times along the way, but I am glad that I’ve found strategies that work for me. Now that I’ve completed one first draft, I can use that to boost my confidence when I start the next one!
So what works for you when writing your first draft? How do you avoid the curse of the unfinished manuscripts? Comment below and share your wisdom!