5 ideas to help you finish a piece of writing

While reading the Gillian Mear’s biography a few months back I discovered that when The Mint Lawn was reissued she had the opportunity to make a few changes.  Yet she more or less left it how it was. Perhaps she simply didn’t have it in her to go back to that book. It was so much in the past, so much something she had completed and let go of, that when she had the opportunity to rewrite it she barely touched it. And also, there’s the fact that when something is published it’s done. Opening up the document and editing it past that point is like serving up dinner and then randomly clearing the plates half-way through the meal and putting everything back in the oven.

So how do you get to that glittering point? Here are some things I learned about actually finishing a project, which is a little harder than starting a shiny new one. If you are daunted by a piece of writing, or a bit bamboozled but also hopeful and definitely too far in to give up – which is where I am right now – here are some questions to ask and things to try that have worked for me.  

Is the project alive?

If a story doesn’t come to life at some point, doesn’t have that feeling of hidden rooms and unwritten scenes that are half-there in your head, with actual characters that are as vivid to you as the books you have read and loved, then you need to decide if you need to start something new. It’s painful, but not as painful as trying to resuscitate something that has died on the page. Think of that feeling you have when you’re a third of the way into an excellent book and you’re sort of rushing through everything with a brisker-than-usual efficiency, counting down the tasks and directives until you can say right I’m going to bed and get back to it.

To me this feeling of it being alive is far more important than whether it’s objectively good or bad, which is impossible to judge at close range and too mood-dependent, so not worth worrying about.

Sprint, rest

If you have a holiday planned, or some kind of external deadline, use this date as a point to work towards, and push your writing and yourself as far as you can until you reach it, then have a rest. The picture above was taken at the Katharine Susannah Prichard Writer’s Centre in the Perth Hills, where I booked myself in for a weekend. I only ended up staying one night, but I managed 6,000 new words of my manuscript in that time, because it was uninterrupted and there was an end point to sprint towards.

Should you get a publishing deal, these deadlines and times away from the manuscript are imposed on you by the formal editing process – it goes to the editor, then back with comments, then a few more rounds, then a copyedit, and a proofread. I found the times when The Night Village was in someone else’s hands useful as resting periods, when I could just daydream about the story without actively working on it.

Even though I don’t have a publishing contract for my current project I gave myself a break from it while my kids were off school for the summer. I’ve now come back to it and have re-read it and started writing new scenes, and have also written out the scenes, in order, to work out what I need to add in.

Being away from a work gives you greater ease in spotting the gaps and flaws. It now feels like a half-unpacked house but I know that if I add new material, and then sort it out sentence by sentence, I will be that much closer to it feeling complete.

On that note, one thing that’s great to do when you come back is a writing workshop. The Australian Society of Authors offers discounted courses as part of your membership. They are often online, run like absolute clockwork, and are a great way to pick up some new idea or strategy you’ve never thought of, because everyone writes differently. Recently I did one with Kathryn Heyman and it was excellent – one of her suggestions, to make a big mess – was exactly what I needed to hear. You always, always get something that helps you, and most writing workshops include writing exercises that can generate some new material on the spot you wouldn’t have written otherwise.

Be as decisive as you can

When The Night Village came out I had officially finished it. Yes, even after publication I was tempted to ask the publisher if I could possibly make a few teensy changes, although thankfully some more sensible part of my brain knew that was impossible. Because on some level I knew that the lesson I’d learned – that you have to do the very best you can in that time of writing and editing, and then let it go – was not to be messed with if I wanted to write another book.

I would always want a few more weeks to work on it, but that time had passed. The book was printed and my time to change anything about it was up.

When there is an official publication date, at some point the manuscript more or less gets politely taken off you and that’s that. After all, technically you’ve sold it, – it’s not yours anymore – and meeting your deadline means other people can get on with selling it on, so to speak. Even if you don’t have a deadline you can fake that mindset when writing to make key decisions rather than postponing them for some more optimal moment.

Pay attention to your manuscript when you’re not working on it

As you work through the draft on screen, as you read other books, as you walk, as you do anything, keep an ear out for your story and note down your thoughts. Sometimes you’ll be doing something completely different and a useful thought about your manuscript will randomly fire up. Same when you are reading it through – make notes somewhere else about what needs to happen next, what you need to include, what you need to research, what you’ve missed and suddenly realise you need.

Sometimes, you’ll work out exactly what you’re trying to do while you’re doing something else, and I know from bitter experience that if you don’t record it on paper it fades like a dream. Ideally, your MS will at all times be hanging around like a messy, dog-eared, stained and scribbled-on little terrier, patiently waiting for you to give it some attention.

Clean as you go

Usually I start at the beginning of the manuscript for a writing session. As time goes on I’m mostly skimming through the first pages, because they are fairly well-edited at that point. If I’m going to change them, it is more likely to be moving them somewhere else and adding whole new lines or paragraphs or getting rid of them altogether, rather than tweaking sentences or punctuation.

And then I get to the new handwritten stuff – usually added in from my notebook – and that’s it. This way, the project stays in control, it doesn’t get too messy and I catch problems and missing sentences and gaps as they appear rather than thinking, oh, I’ll sort that out later. Once I get to the end, I go back to the start again. Right now, I’m embarking on draft three of my current project and I have no idea of how many more drafts there will be until it’s done, but I can trust that the basic process of going back to the start each time, adding new things as I need to, will get me there eventually.

I actually learned this working at Maccas as a teenager (the job I had that most impresses my children) when we were constantly drilled about the importance of CAYG or Cleaning as You Go. You are more likely to spot errors and problems if your MS is fairly clean than if it’s a gigantic mess. You’re less likely to feel daunted if you see reasonably well-edited pages when you open it up again. And you’re more likely to see new possibilities on a clean page. As will others.

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