Starting, Motivating, and Finishing
April 6, 2021 - 5:45 PM
The bulk of this post is about writing, but I want to pose some questions first to get you thinking.
How many times have you started writing a book? How many times have you started a workout regime? How many times have you started scheduling dates with your daughters?
How many times have you started these things only to stop them when they become inconvenient or expensive or boring?
I know I’ve started and stopped more times than I can count. Starting, motivating, finishing. Over the past year, I’ve learned so much more about these three facets of a project, and I’ve learned different ways of navigating each stage. I think this is a big pain point for a lot of people, so I’m sharing here some of the things I know.
When it comes to starting, you’ll find that the beginning is a time for precise, careful steps, but it’s also a time of possibility, a time of potential. You approach each new beginning with a magnificent sense of awe and wonder. It’s a time of vision, when you’re dreaming up all the big things that your project will be able to do to change your own life and the lives of others.
You can already imagine talking to your publisher and seeing your book on the shelf. You can already imagine your story being shown on the big screen to thousands of people all over the world. Dreams of stardom and status and money flood your mind. Perhaps more precious than all of that, the idea that you’ll be able to craft something so special that it impacts another person’s life (or perhaps the lives of many others) keeps you up all night.
All of these things coalesce. They congeal until you’ve got yourself a giant heap of hopes and dreams, and nothing is going to deter you from reaching your goal.
One problem is that many people don’t ever figure out or define their goal. They only have a beginning. They have all these feelings, but they don’t know where they’re going. If you don’t have a goal, you’ll never reach your goal.
To put it another way, imagine getting in your car and driving someplace that you’ve never been to before. How do you get there? Perhaps you could call someone for directions. Perhaps you could put the address in your GPS. But how can you put the address in if you don’t have an address? And if you don’t know when you’ll arrive, how do you know you’ll have enough gas? How do you know the destination will be worth the drive?
To summarize, I believe the most important thing when it comes to starting a writing project is having a goal. Goals should be specific, measurable, attainable, results-driven, and time-bound (SMART).
Specify exactly what you want to do. Don’t say, “I want to write because it’s fun.” Say, “I want to write a novel. I want to self-publish it. I want to sell enough copies of my book to sustain my family and me.”
Writing a book is certainly measurable. You can use your word count. There are plenty of articles online that tell you what an admirable, appropriate word count for your work would be.
Writing a novel is attainable; I’ll tell you that right now. Nearly anybody can do it (but the major consideration here is that many people won’t do it, even though they can).
That piece about selling enough copies to support your family? That’s the portion of your goal that is results-driven. You’re pursuing this goal because you want results. You’re not doing it for some vague reason; you are driving toward something. It doesn’t have to be money or sales; it can be any result, but it should ideally be something that will improve your life in some way.
Finally, the time-bound piece. This is where I struggle the most. Set a deadline and try to attain your goal by that deadline. “I want to finish my novel in one year.”
A year later, you should be done with that novel.
What about motivation? After you’ve started, how do you keep going? As I said earlier, I’ve had trouble motivating myself to stick to finishing some novels (along with work-out regimes and even dates with my precious children). One thing I can say is that I've managed to finish two novels in my life, and I think that’s distinguishing to some degree. I think it gives me license to talk a little bit about what it means to push through the process. Sometimes that’s what it takes. Pushing through. Writing isn't always you sitting there engaged in lightning-fast bout in which ideas descend from the ether to flow through your fingertips into the pages of your book. Sometimes, writing is a slog.
How do you push through it?
The way I did it was by visualizing the results of attaining my goal. I used every tool at my disposal to help myself see what it would look like to have my book finished. I created mock-ups using templates I found on the internet, and I had those finished long before I had my novel finished. I used those images to remind myself that one day, the pages of my book would be filled. I've already done this for the whole series. While I’ve only written the first novel in my series, I have the other five book covers already placed on mock-ups. I could already show somebody what I expect the six-book series to look like in the end.
Somewhere along the line, I decided to abandon my original designs in search of designs done by an actual artist (and I pray my book sales will reflect the benefits of this decision), but still, I have those covers to remind me that one day, I’ll have a six-book series.
I visualized it. I was able to “see” what the future would hold for me if I could just get through the slog. Obstacles blocked me every step of the way. There was always a television show to watch. There was always a notification on my phone. There was always the opportunity to lay around and sleep or eat or read other authors’ finished novels, but I pushed on.
I ignored many obstacles in pursuit of my one goal. I chased it down the way I might chase down somebody who had stolen something precious from me (although my metaphorical self would be able to run a lot faster and with a lot more ardor than my physical self; I’ll certainly need to take my own advice when it comes to the hard work of making my body healthier).
If somebody picked up your dream and ran off with it, what would you push out of the way to pursue him or her? Because I can see my dream so clearly, I know its value. I know it's worth pushing aside certain things to achieve it (and there’s a whole other discussion about what you shouldn’t be pushing aside in pursuit of your dreams, too, and I plan to discuss that more in another blog post).
So, we can start, we can motivate ourselves, but can we finish?
This is undoubtedly the most important step in the process. Without finishing, you’ve done nothing but start. People tell themselves that all the time they spend writing is practice, it's all time well spent because it teaches them more about their craft. While there is some merit to these thoughts, understand this: this kind of thinking is not an excuse to quit a novel in pursuit of a different project.
If you set out a year ago to start writing a novel, you should not deviate from that goal until you have that novel in your hands. Abandoning a goal is the cardinal sin, the ultimate folly of man. On this day, I decree it: do not abandon your goal.
Of course, it’s rarely so easy. I understand. I’ve abandoned many goals. Far too many. But I didn’t abandon my goal of writing my novel, and I haven’t yet abandoned my goal of writing a six-book series. Since I’ve made progress toward that goal (and I’m about to have one book out of the way), I don’t see any reason that quitting is on the horizon for me.
Finishing is the differentiator. It is the thing the separates the authors from the philosophers, the pundits, the procrastinators. All those people spewing advice about what they’ve learned from the fifteen novels they’ve started and abandoned don’t know a single thing about the one thing that you want to do: finish your book.
I hate to be harsh here, but it’s the truth. Finishing your novel is what takes you to a completely new level as an author.
I mean, this distinction is significant. It’s like the difference between somebody who self-publishes an unedited mess of misspelled words and plot holes and somebody who puts themselves through the brutal gamut of querying and getting rejected and editing and meeting deadlines and receiving advances and finally seeing their novel published by a traditional publishing company. There is a level of respect attributed to the latter, but the former is something anybody can do.
Finishing is something that brings prestige. Starting is something anybody can do, and billions do it every day. Be a finisher. Be somebody who pushes through. Don’t be one of the billions of people who do nothing but start.
When it comes to finishing, you have to treat the process with respect. Approach it with as much revelry as you do the process of starting. There’s just as much potential in finishing a book as there is in starting one, if not much more so. In fact, there’s a lot of truth to that tired cliché about how each ending is a new beginning. Once you actually finish your novel, you can start the next one, or you can jump into a different project. But if you never finish anything, you can never proclaim to the world those golden words: “It is finished. It is done. I have accomplished what I set out to do.”
Believe me. Take it from somebody who, if nothing else, has finished two novels (the first of which, by the way, was an unedited mess of misspelled words and plot holes): finishing a project and knowing that you did it well is one of the greatest feelings ever. It beats starting in a million ways.
I highly recommend it.