The Girl Who Couldn’t Finish

So remember how I started writing a novel a while back? Well, I have a problem. And, as I’m probably the first and only writer in the history of the world to ever have this problem, I am going to whine about it and blog about it and make a general nuisance of myself until I finally decide to pull it together.

The trouble, you see, is that I’m 100,000 words in and I can’t finish.


There are several reasons for this.

The first is that I don’t know where I’m going. My novel took on a complete life of its own once I got started. I had no idea where it was headed—literally no idea—but somehow it transformed from a bunch of semi-autobiographical nonsense (written, initially, to keep me from killing my undergraduate flat mates in London) into something much, much bigger. This is beauty of the creative process, but it is also the curse. In fact, I feel like I’ve done the literary equivalent of painting myself into a corner and even though I know what lies across the room, I don’t know how to get there.

Also, I suck at outlining. I’ve tried it: with sticky tabs, with graph paper, with markers and a white board, with all of the fancy gadgets available through Microsoft Word but my brain doesn’t work unless I’m writing. I write to figure out what I think; I write to figure out what I want to say; I write to figure out what is going to happen. I don’t know if this is normal or not. Actually, I don’t care if it is normal or not—everyone has their own process, right?—what I care about it whether or not this particular process is going to yield any actual results.

Next up, I think my writing is crap. I can point to plenty of nice little bylines and even a few decent paychecks as far as my non-fiction is concerned but fiction? I haven’t published a damn thing. I’ve won a few contests here and there, and I keep telling myself I need to frame the award certificates to cut down a bit on the self-loathing, but I keep forgetting to buy frames so naturally I spend most of my free time thinking, “Your writing is crap. You are crap. No one is ever going to want to read this.”

Furthermore, I lack discipline. I told myself no sex until my first draft was finished, but then my friend from college came to visit and well… I have discovered that it is much easier to deny other people sex than to deny yourself sex (especially when you’re going through a break up and haven’t had sex, decent or otherwise, in quite some time). So much for that.

Bottom line, I am not being professional. I am being artsy. And by “artsy” in this particular context, what I really mean is flakey. If this blog post had been written by somebody else, I would be full of good ideas and suggestions: set yourself some goals! Make a deadline and stick to it! Give yourself an incentive to finish!

But at the end of the day, it all comes down to professionalism. I wouldn’t run my dance company this way, skipping rehearsals whenever I felt like it or setting a new piece only if I was 100% sure it would be successful. I wouldn’t teach my college students in this way, showing up late to work or grading their papers only when I felt “inspired” enough to do so. I would lose my job. And my company would fall apart.

So maybe… yeah. I think I need to just stop blogging for today and get to it.

25 Responses to “The Girl Who Couldn’t Finish”

  1. Zak

    Here’s my suggestion:

    Do everything except focus on your novel for a few days. If you think about it, tell yourself “who cares” and go back to doing what you want at that moment. In a week, two, a month, you’ll either have your motivation to continue, or justification to scrap it or shelve it for now. But either way, you will stress a lot less about it.

  2. Landlord

    From what I have read, most writers do not know where their characters or story lines are going until they write, so it sounds like you need to forget being so “organized” about it, and just do what you do best…write when you feel compelled to do so, and let the story take care of itself. I just listened to a writer be interviewed on NPR, and he said basically, “I never know where I’m going to end up, sometimes it really surprises even me!”

  3. Heather

    When I got stuck on one of my stories, I actually went back and re-read some parts over a day, and there it was, the next scene. My brain hinted it through my fingers, I just didn’t pick up on it. So try that!

  4. Amanda

    I snort laughed most of the way through this post. You are totally, completely, and utterly normal. I can’t outline to save my life and my least favorite part of the entire submission process is writing the synopsis (particularly if I’m being forced to write the synopsis BEFORE I’m allowed to write the story). I jump from story to story (sometimes working on multiple stories at once) and it drives my critique partner nuts.

    I’ve got plenty of unfinished manuscripts that will remain that way, for a variety of reasons. Maybe I lost interest in the story, or maybe I couldn’t for the life of me figure out what the conflict should be. It bugs the crap out of me that I can’t finish them, but I’m learning to stop dwelling on them. If they get finished, great. If they don’t, well, there’s always the next idea 🙂

    • Kat Richter

      I totally feel you! I have about a gazillion half finished projects. And I definitely jump from one to the next as well. Happy writing!

  5. Jerseyite Lurker

    Here is a suggestion, writer to writer (but if you already have a strategy that you’re trying out now, then reading this post is purely optional).

    1. Brainstorm, in summary form, at least three but no more than five possible ways to wrap it up. Have at least one of them be totally safe and conservative, and have one of them be wild and over the top and totally ridiculous.

    2. As purely a writing exercise–or you could even call it a typing exercise–take one of those choices, probably not the wild one, and make an exercise out of hammering out a hypothetical conclusion, in the sheer spirit of “here is one possible way that the book could end.” Don’t even think about whether it’s any good or not.

    3. Now, you have two choices. Either you can say you’re done, or at least that you have a first draft you can show your inner circle, or you can try it again. If you take the latter choice, study what you wrote in this exercise, and think about why you do or don’t like it.

    And now, here is another suggestion that may come before, after, in tandem with, or completely in place of anything I’ve said so far. Go to the spot in your current manuscript file that you’re the most happy with, the spot where you felt most inspired when you were writing it. Connect with that. This will reinforce your sense of identity as a writer who can do it, and it may take you by surprise by generating an idea.

    Good luck, Kat.

    • Kat Richter

      Hmmm… this is actually a really good suggestion! I like to think I’m a fairly intelligent human being but it had never occurred to me to try out a few “trial” endings. Will give it a go! Thanks 🙂

  6. Wilma

    I have a very similar problem. I was going to turn my blog into a book. I’m not 237 posts in at approximately 1200 words a piece and no end in sight. I’ve essentially already written the “War and Peace” of dating. Do you subscribe to “Writer Unboxed”? I recently started receiving their daily emails. They write a lot about process, and there may be something there you can use.

    • Kat Richter

      Hahah! Yes you have! As for Writer Unboxed, I can’t say that I’ve ever heard of it (mainly because I’m always about 5 years behind on such things and spend way too much time inside my own head, lol!). I’ll check it out though, thanks for the suggestion!

  7. Laurie

    This is my field, since I specialize in writer’s block, so here are my two cents (apologies for the length)

    That is what makes it a fun, creative process. If you knew where you were going it would feel like you were writing a research report, not a novel. And even a research report, if done well enough, will surprise you. Embrace the fact that you don’t know where it’s going (yet). The unknown may be scary, but it’s actually your friend. This, by the way, is also true about life.

    Not everyone needs to outline. I suggest that, as part of a revision process, you make a time-line, or multiple time-lines if you have more than one story-line. You can do this on a wall or along a hallway, or in a notebook. Another revision technique is to title the chapters or pages so that you can check for the flow from one thing to the next. (In a shorter piece, you can even title the paragraphs.) In-other-words, outline in retrospect as you look over your work, not in advance.

    This is every writer’s dilemma, and I believe that writing on the computer heightens the problem. So, as daring as this suggestion may be, try writing by hand. Slow the process down and don’t go for speed. When you pause, as all writers do thinking of what comes next, keep the pen or pencil moving on the page. I use a piece of scrap paper that I keep next to me, or the back page of the notebook I am writing in. Write out the alphabet or draw tight spirals or doodle. This distracts you and keeps you out of your head until the next idea (maybe even a surprising or unexpected idea) comes to you. Try this! It works and keeps the editorial, critical voice away.

    Here’s why the computer heightens the problem. When you pause, instead of doodling you will look at what you have written. And you will ask yourself if it’s good, and, since you are human, you will say “if course not!” and then the delete button will beckon, and you will no longer be in the creative state, but in the editorial state much too soon. the advice of putting your work away before revising or editing is a good one. I suggest putting it away for at least three days,sometimes a week. You will see it with fresh eyes.

    Ha ha. That’s how you got to 100,000 words. If that’s a lack of discipline, I want some of it. You just have your own style of discipline, probably called drive, and it’s obviously a good thing.

    As for behaving professionally, it is well worth noting that every professional has help – meaning proof-readers, editors, and friend who give feedback. An audience is necessary to understand the effect of the work. No play ever made it to Broadway, or even off-off Broadway, without going through a whole lot of audience feedback.

    Let me know if I can help.

    • Kat Richter

      No apologies necessary, Laurie– that was brilliant!!! I actually almost teared up a little reading it 🙂 I used to always write long hand. Maybe I should in fact go back to it for a change. Thanks for all of the suggestions!

      • Laurie

        I’m so glad you found this helpful! There are a lot of reasons why writing in longhand is special. Writing is about imagery, and the shapes we create by forming letters inspire images in our mind. The brain has the opposite (dulled) response to the exact same click for each letter on the keyboard. I like to use a felt tip that is softer rather than hard. Flair pens are good, and so are brush-style pens. Lynda Barry once suggested that the slowest way of writing by hand would be to do it in frosting. Think of using a giant piping bag full of rich frosting to write! That’s what led her to use brush and ink for her books – perhaps the most ancient form of writing, still widely used by Chinese traditionalists.

        • Wilma

          Thank you, Laurie. I found your suggestions helpful too. I especially like the idea of writing longhand, because I do exactly what you described in editing my work too soon.

        • Wilma

          Thank you, Laurie. I found your suggestions helpful too, especially the part about writing longhand. I do exactly what you described in editing my work too soon and losing the creative flow.

  8. becky119

    So you need to finish your book because I really want to read it. And don’t feel bad about getting stuck at 100K. I got stuck at 30K. I think I should try that whole sit down and write thing instead of just catching snippets of time when I can.

    • Kat Richter

      I’ve been meaning to email you and another of my Philly writer friends about this actually… once house buying whirlwind settles down for me and engagement whirlwind settles down for you, let’s make it happen!


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