The Writer’s Guide to Never Finishing a Project

Welcome back! If you were here last week, you have already read my foolproof guide to letting your authorial ambitions completely wreck your finances. Excellent! You are now on the path to burning away all of your money and finding yourself broke and destitute.

Today, we focus on advice for “being an author”, as opposed to actually being an author (trust me, those quotation marks were intentional). Finishing a book can be a total drag. It means subjecting yourself to the trials and tribulations of queries, editing, and rejection letters. If you are published, you’re throwing your book out there to face reviewers and the general public. If you choose to self-publish, you then have to deal with the difficult and time-consuming worlds of formatting, marketing, and promoting. We absolutely cannot have that, of course. It’s much safer to focus on doing work that seems productive and gives you a feeling of pride and accomplishment – without ever actually finishing anything. Ever.

Ok, I want to step out of sarcasm mode for a moment before I really get into this. Worldbuilding, outlining, and revision are all useful and effective tools, when used in the right proportions. Worldbuilding can make your story feel more grounded, Outlining can cut down on how much your first draft meanders, and revising insures that when you do publish, you have the absolute best version of your story. The point I’m trying to make, in a very tongue in cheek approach, is that it’s very each to get caught up in any of these steps, and find yourself spending way too much time on any of them. I’ve seen a lot of authors never make much headway because they’re still trying to perfect chapter one.

1) Engage in Excessive Worldbuilding

One of the most fun activities to engage in, as a writer, is worldbuilding. Worldbuilding is an important part of any writing, since it will give your story an organic feel and a verisimilitude that makes readers fall in love with your world, characters, and story because it completely immerses them. Or at least, it would if they could read your story. But our goal is to make sure we don’t finish, ever. So let’s crank that worldbuilding up to eleven!

worldbuilding.jpg
This nowhere near enough detail. Don’t even think of stopping here.

If you’re writing fantasy, make sure you detail every nook and cranny of your world. The history of every brook, hill, tree, and squirrel should be exhaustively detailed to the point of pedantry, where you could write an entire fictional wiki for your story’s universe that rivals the real world Wikipedia, and maps so detailed that you could insert them into Google Maps and have real-world resolution available. Create a history for every culture in your world (even ones that don’t actually appear in your story), going back at least ten thousand years. Every race should be able to trace their evolutionary path all the way down to the unicellular organisms that first crawled out of the primordial soup – or if they were created by gods, you’d better have a lot of prehistory-I want to know what those gods ate for breakfast the day before they first started thinking that maybe they’d like to create life someday.

Writing Science Fiction? Even better! You can do the same thing for every planet in your story, which allows you to increase your workload for each planet you add. But don’t stop there! What about the individual continents on those planets? The nations and cities on those continents? Are there people living under the ocean? Because there should be. If it’s all set on Earth but in the future, don’t worry. Make sure you map out what happens in every year of your fictional timeline, starting from present day. Again, don’t forget to do this for every single one of the world’s nations (and the people under the ocean), even ones you have no intention of ever visiting!

If you don’t write genre fiction, you might be thinking that this point doesn’t apply to you, but I promise that you can absolutely go overboard with the worldbuilding even if you are writing things set in the world we all know and love. Just set your story in a fictional town or block of a major city, and/or take the time to meticulously detail the entire family history of every single family in the city. Readers might never need to know that Jane Smith’s Great-Great-Great-Great-Great Grandfather came to America with Columbus, but you do, and that’s what really matters.

2) Practice Extreme Outlining

Okay, so you’ve detailed your world to the point of insane minutia, putting more work into it than Tolkien did with Middle Earth. Now you probably should start actually writing the story! But wait…if you start writing, you might finish, and we are avoiding that at all costs. Instead, go ahead and start outlining your story. Then outline some more. And then some more. And then take some time to really polish your outline. You see, like worldbuilding, outlining is a useful tool that is a vital part of any writer’s kit. However, we want to avoid the hassle of actually finishing and having to think about the next step, so let’s take this up to 11, and then add a few more numbers in for good measure.

Outline
This guy gets bonus points for buying into the multitasking myth.

Start outlining your story. Write out each event in excruciating detail, to the point where your outline is almost the length of a novel itself. However, and this is critical, write the whole thing in an incomprehensible shorthand so you have to rewrite everything when it’s time to turn it into a full story. An outline that contains any language that can actually be used in the first draft is a total failure. Anyway, be sure to plot out every single twist and turn your story might take, building an insanely complicated jenga tower of a story. If you do this step right, then any time you change a single plot detail, your outline should collapse in a scattered heap of wooden blocks words, causing you to start from scratch. Don’t worry about the end result being an overly complex story that will just confuse readers – that would only be a problem if you finished writing, and we’re making sure that doesn’t happen!

Don’t forget to occasionally decide that the outline is terrible and delete the entire thing. It’s a great idea to let frustrations and momentary whims rule you, since it prevents you from finishing. The best time to evaluate your outline is at the end of the worst day ever. Also, don’t forget to constantly go over your obsessive worldbuilding notes from the last step and insert world details into the plot wherever you can, even if it doesn’t make sense. (Bonus points if you get so enthralled with your worldbuilding notes that you ignore the outline for days or weeks at a stretch.) After all, you did all that hard work worldbuilding, so now is the time to show it all off. Never fear: readers always love long stretches of details with absolutely no plot movement.

3) Never Stop Revising

You might reach the point where you find that despite your best efforts, your outline has turned itself into a complete story, or is close enough to it where you kind of have to write a first draft. Don’t worry! That doesn’t mean you’re done. In fact, some authors – myself included – think the first draft is the easiest part of the writing process, even if you follow the overly convoluted steps above. Now it’s time to edit, and there’s plenty of opportunity to waste time here!

Revision.jpg
If all else fails, set it on fire and start again! 

Start with obsessing over every single detail of each individual sentence. You might think you would want to start the revision process by looking over the broad strokes of the story and trying to find weak scenes that need to be cut or reworked, but that will get you closer to being done much quicker. Instead, do a line by line edit, fiddling with individual words to make sure each sentences is perfect and flows together with a beauty that will leave readers weeping. We’re going to ignore the fact that a story where every sentence carries that much emotional impact would leave the reader drained and exhausted, and that variety in your sentence structure can help set the tone and pace for what you’re writing. No, every sentence must be beautiful, which mandates complex sentences, and the best five dollar words money can buy. Make sure every dialogue tag is something other than “said,” even if it becomes annoying, pretentious, and downright difficult. Obsess over every. Single. Word. The average novel runs between 70,000 – 100,000 words, so if you spend a minute on every word, you’ll have 1100-1500 hours before you have to worry about being done..and then you can rewrite major sections so you can double back and repeat the process.

It’s even better if you can start this process while you write. Don’t even think about moving on to chapter two until chapter one is absolute genius. Momentum is overrated.

Now, it’s possible that in spite of all this, you will eventually finish your project, or maybe you already have a finished project. That’s totally all right. Next week, we’re going to cover how to make sure that, when you do eventually publish your work, you can make absolutely sure you don’t sell a single copy! Trust me, it’s easier than it sounds.

Anything else prevent you from finishing? Enjoying the snarky commentary? Let me know in the comments below.

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