One of my favorite classes I teach is called “Write that Novel (and Finish it Too!)". It’s always been a strong belief of mine that the only books readers want to buy and read are the finished ones, and that probably holds true for agents and editors as well. But like many writers, I have to admit that not every one of my manuscripts is finished. And guess what? They’re the ones I haven’t sold.
The problem came home to me the other day when I was inventing excuses to explain my reluctance to work on the current WIP and wondering if I really had to write it (you mean I do have to figure out those old family connections and why my MC is so terrified of change and…?). Well, you get the picture. After the heady fun of first draft write-whatever-comes-to-mind, second drafts can feel like pure slog and I wasn’t in the mood for work.
While I was wishing the manuscript would write itself, I suddenly thought about my most embarrassing unfinished project to date; not a manuscript but a sweater. Some time before Christmas I started to knit for my husband a fairly simple (or so it seemed) pullover. And then some time before New Year’s I stopped; the reason being that I didn’t know how to begin decreasing for the sleeves. Every time I tried to read the instructions in the knitting manual the words just turned to squiggles and I couldn’t understand any of it. It was as if the entire pattern was written in secret code and I didn't have the code book.
Thinking I would return to it "later," I left it neatly folded on a chair. Except later never came and even with my husband making little jokes: “Is that a cat or a sweater on that chair?” (we don’t have a cat) I managed to avoid any knitting whatsoever until I got stuck on my manuscript.
Last Sunday while I was trying to decide what to do with 200 pages of what seemed like sheer drivel (throw it in the trash?) I thought I should take a look at the sweater—I was that desperate to avoid writing. I went to the chair where it had been folded for a good two months and discovered a spider had taken up where I had left off, weaving an incredibly complex and strong tubular web right across the entire top row. Fitting right in with the whole abandonment metaphor, the web was empty, the spider having moved on and by the dusty look of it, a while ago.
I stood there with what in truth was a very nice and neatly knitted piece of the back and decided that I simply had to find out what to do next. I thought if I began now I could have the sweater finished by the start of next winter, oh happy thought, or worse case scenario, next Christmas. Yes, I would do it.
It took a morning of bright light, strong coffee, and utter silence, but in the end I successfully deciphered the pattern and knitted to the point that my confidence returned and I was able to complete nearly six more inches. Strangely, my manuscript also became a lot more attractive to me. When I put my knitting down and returned to the computer, I was able to see a way out of my current chapter dilemma and how to get back on track.
Later that day I went to my writer’s group and on the way driving there I realized the main reason we leave things unfinished is because we don’t know what to do, and not knowing what to do leads to fear, mainly fear of failure. With that is the unreasonable notion that we’re supposed to figure it all out by ourselves or by magic, a kind of ta-dah moment when everything becomes clear with no effort or research on our part. To understand my knitting pattern I had to take the time to be quiet, read the directions, and experiment until I got it right. The same goes for my manuscript. It’s impossible to know whether Chapter Five should be Chapter Seventeen or vice versa if I don’t try putting those arrangements down on paper. And if I’m stuck or need help, all I need to do is ask—either a writer friend, or look up my question on-line or in one of the several great how-to books I own. There are no secret codes. All it takes is a little effort and a whole lot of willingness to be wrong for the answer to appear, usually right on the page in front of us.
Tip of the day: What creative project or manuscript have you left unfinished, and why? Go dig it out of its hiding place and resolve to make a fresh start. If you’re stuck, don’t be afraid to ask for help. Once you have some answers and solutions, dive back in as soon as you can.