This past week, I had the honor of talking to numerous individuals with my same ideals and interests. One of these outstanding people happened to be a writer who was--and is--struggling to get his creativity onto paper. He explained that he had all of these ideas in his heart, but just couldn't get them into the open. When I told him that I understood his plight but had overcome this same issue some years back, he gave me the same gasp and wide-eyed look that I usually get from writers/creators who have yet to finish a single project.
This isn't unusual. Finishing a project is hard. I firmly believe that no one is a greater critic of good writing than the work's creator. I have several friends who are writers and all of them have poured their hearts into projects for months and even years only to leave them unfinished. It isn't easy to finish what you started, but why is that? There are actually several reasons, but I'm going to pick a few that I know have personally impacted me.
Why Finishing a Project Seems Impossible
The above quote from Ira Glass is perhaps the most prominent reason for my years spent on projects that I would immediately abandon. I cannot even remember how many books I wrote with vigor only to abandon them halfway through (or to abandon them after the first draft was completed). As we create--whether we're creating books, art, furniture, or anything else--we improve. We learn and grow. By the time the work is finished (or nearly finished) we look at it with disgust because we've improved in our craft throughout the project. So we either scrap the project entirely or we start over... again.
2) Distractions... of Our Own Creation
There will always be another idea in your head that distracts from your current project. It's part of the curse of being creative. This also ties into the first reason provided, because your creative mind will expand as you improve your ability as a creator. Writing one character's story will give you ideas for a spin-off, or ideas for a similar character. So you put down your current project and start up the new one that popped into your head.
I'm not good enough.
I don't even like this project.
No one will like this.
On and on. These thoughts are constantly festering in the back of your mind, even while you're in the middle of creating something. This can lead to losing all motivation you initially had. Before you know it, your typing slows down, your brush strokes become half-hearted, and you just don't care about the project anymore. You're so obsessed with the end result and what you (and others) will think of it that you can't get to the end at all. It doesn't seem worth it.
So How Do You Solve This?
Solutions will be different for everyone, but I hope that what worked for me will at least help you. Here are a few things I did that ultimately brought about How I Ruined My Life.
1) Finish Your Crappy Work
I don't remember who gave me this advice, but it essentially led to me spending a year of my life writing a story I knew I wasn't going to publish--or even attempt to publish. The goal was this: Write a story (or several stories) totaling at least 1,000,000 words. You'll improve so much during the writing process, even though you're going to hate everything you wrote by the time it's done.
Those million words were what made up the Overlord Saga, a terrible trilogy that was disjointed, made no sense, and that no one should ever read unless they really hate themselves. Halfway through the second book in the trilogy, I knew I was pouring my heart into a pile of hot garbage, but I powered through it. I needed to finish that pile of garbage, no matter how terrible and smelly it was.
The act of finishing The Overlord Saga led to writing a spin-off, standalone book called Of Elegance and Slaughter. I did try to get this one published and actually received a few requests for more of the work after my queries, but no one published it. After Of Elegance and Slaughter, I wrote a spin-off of that book, which was called Edwin. This is the story which received an Honorable Mention in the Writers of the Future competition, which brings us to the next thing you should do.
2) Receive Praise... from People Who Mean It
I am absolutely blessed to have close friends and family who supported me when I first started writing... several years ago. Meaning, as soon as I understood the concept of writing. Those first books were absolutely awful, but there was always something nice someone close to me could say about them.
But regular praise and support is a double-edged sword. I eventually came to depend and count on that praise and that support, so it became meaningless. I knew that whatever I handed to some of these people would receive a smile and a 'good work' remark.
So when I received an award from the Writers of the Future competition--a contest I had been entering for years only to receive email after email saying to try again--my heart swelled. I knew I'd done it. I had just received validation from professionals in the industry. That is when I started and finished How I Ruined My Life.
I'm not saying you need to get an award for your work in order to be a decent creator. However, you should seek validation and advice from knowledgeable professionals. When someone like that tells you that your work is good--or even just 'not terrible'--that can be the cracking whip that gets you started on something truly amazing.
Finishing your work is extremely difficult, but the primary reason for this is that you are improving in your craft as you work. So, rather than giving up on a project just because you've gotten better while working on it, finish that project and apply your newfound knowledge to the next one. Power through that disgusting meal you've been cooking. See what you can make of it before you start a new dish and, when you're pretty sure the dish won't leave an innocent person dead or questioning why they were given taste buds to begin with, have someone else try it out and provide honest feedback.
Okay. The analogy got away from me.