Do you have a bunch of first chapters tucked away in a drawer – for seven different novels? Is there a folder full of abandoned short stories on your computer? Have you left a trail of abandoned blogs around the internet? Did your ebook fizzle out after a few pages? Most writers have been there … again, and again, and again. When I began writing, I spent plenty of time starting stories. The problem was, I pretty much never finished them.
Maybe it’s the same for you. You’ve got plenty of great ideas, and you just can’t resist throwing yourself into them. Unfortunately, your motivation seems to vanish … and you’re left with a bunch of notes, outlines and first drafts that aren’t going anywhere.
No-one’s going to buy a half-written novel. No-one’s going to read a blog post that stops short after two paragraphs. So whether your writing aspirations involve hitting the New York Times bestseller list or living from the passive income from your ebooks, you need to finish what you start.
Step #1: Stop Starting New Projects
Believe me, I know how tempting it is to grab that new idea and run with it. But now’s the time to stop. Resist the urge to begin anything new – however cool it sounds right now. After a few days or weeks, that shiny new project is going to lose its appeal and end up in the unfinished heap along with everything else.
Decide, right now, that you won’t start anything new until you’ve finished something off. Find a notebook, or create a document on your computer, to store any awesome ideas that crop up – you can always come back to them in the future.
Step #2: Assess Your Current Projects
Take a long, hard look at all your current works-in-progress. If your writing life looks anything like mine, you might well need to grab a sheet of paper and make a list – you may even want to hunt through your desk drawers or your computer’s folders.
Is there anything that’s just not worth completing? Maybe the novel you started ten years ago isn’t the one you want to write now. Maybe that blog post draft was never going to go anywhere. Rather than keeping old projects hanging around, ditch any that have died on you:
As with all dead things, holding onto it won’t keep it alive or change the fact that it’s useful time has come and gone. Hanging onto dead stuff has a higher psychic cost than most of us realize; in time, dead stuff does what trash and dead things do – it stinks. ~ Charlie Gilkey
Make three lists:
Active projects that still excite you and have a purpose
Dead projects that you’re ready to let go (even if you feel a little bit reluctant)
Dormant projects that you might come back to in the future
Step #3: Choose One Project to Focus On
Now it’s time to pick one project. Just one. Because, when it comes to down to it, something has to be your priority. This doesn’t mean that you can’t work on anything else. It just means that this particular project – whether it’s a blog or an ebook or a newsletter or a novel or a poetry collection – is the one that’s going to win out if you’re short on time and energy.
So what should you choose? You might like to start with: Your smallest project: aim to finish that 2,000 word short story, not that 100,000 word novel.
The project that you’ve put the most time into: it’s probably getting close to finished.
The project that will have the biggest impact for you: if selling an ebook means you can cut down your hours at your day job, that might be a higher priority than getting a brand-new blog off the ground.
Choose a single project as your priority – one thing that you’re going to see through to finished. (And tell us about it in the comments.)
Step #4: Decide What “Finished” Will Look Like
How will you know when your project is done? This might seem like a rather stupid question – but it’s worth thinking about. Many writing projects don’t have a totally clear end point. If you’re working on an ebook, for instance, “finished” might mean that you’re ready to launch after:
You’ve written an ebook that has a start, middle and end
You’ve written an ebook that’s 50 pages long, and you’ve proof-read it
You’ve got feedback on your ebook and revised it
Without a clear definition of “finished”, you risk your project dragging on … and on … and on …
Write down, clearly, what needs to happen in order for you to check off your project as “finished”. Feel free to share this with us in the comments.
Step #5: Set Some Milestones (And Start Hitting Them)
Some small writing projects don’t need milestones: write a blog post, for instance, is something that you could realistically accomplish during one or two writing sessions.
Most projects, though – especially ones that have been hanging around unfinished for ages – are more complex. You won’t be able to finish them in a day, in a weekend, or even in a week. You’ll want to set some milestones to keep you on track.
Good milestones could be:
Completing a major section of a novel
Completing the first draft of a short story
Getting the outline for your ebook finished off
Writing a certain number of posts before your blog launch
I’d suggest having between two and ten milestones for your project (though you can break these down further if you want). It’s often useful to set a deadline for the nearest milestone, too, and hold yourself accountable.
Write down several milestones that will get you from where you are currently to the finished project. Give yourself a deadline for your next milestone – e.g. “Finish first draft of ebook within the next three weeks.”