One of the most common mistakes made by inexperienced creators is putting too much material in one work. No one is immune to this problem. Later in life, Beethoven himself ruefully remarked that his Symphony No. 1 had enough musical ideas crammed into it to make several symphonies. Having too much going on in a project will make it unnecessarily complex, large, and unwieldy. For those who lack experience, this puts them at serious risk of not finishing the work. They have unwittingly bitten off more than they can chew.
Unless you are the Roman god Atlas, too much material in your work could put you at risk of not finishing it. (Image credit: public domain)
Luckily, there are remedies. Once creators have an idea in mind for a project, they can take steps to keep things at a manageable scale. Here are a few of those steps specifically aimed at writers. The technique essentially generates a simple outline.
The first thing to deal with is what you want to say. Draw up a list of points you want to make in the work. These might be social commentary, philosophy, insights into human nature, and so on. If you study the list, you will recognize your theme. Prioritize your entries so you can easily scratch less important items once you have some sense of how much writing it takes to get material into your work.
Make a list of important personality traits for every character in the work. In other words, design your characters. Once you have decided what you want to say, it becomes obvious what kind of characters you will need. Do not worry about them being “cookie cutter.” Characters have an almost uncanny way of developing as you work with them.
Create a list of incidents with which to illustrate the points you want to make and the character traits you want to portray. This list will give you a crude starter-set of scenes. Remember that a long scene may fill an entire chapter and no chapter needs more than two or three shorter scenes. Chapters usually range in length from six or seven pages to fourteen or fifteen, but there are no rigid rules here. Setting a rough page limit for the book is an excellent idea. Thinking about size and length is a great way to keep the work at a manageable scale that can be brought to completion.
With your starter-set of scenes in mind, list your plot developments (steps along the way to the work’s climax) and any twists that occur to you as you lay things out. Once you have drawn it up, it is vital that you to stick to your plan. Nothing generates complicated revisions and huge rewrites the way plot changes do, so take some time over this step.
Once you have begun the actual writing, keep asking yourself what you are trying to accomplish with this scene, this chapter, with the work as a whole. The questioning will prevent you from wandering off course. In the event that you get a brilliant new plot idea halfway through the writing process save it for your next project.
Finally, realize that the moment you put down the first item in the first list you are on your way. Here is some simple inspiration from Canadian painter, Emily Carr. She wrote this in her journal on New Year’s Eve, 1933:
“I have done; I will do – no – I am doing!”
3 thoughts on “How to Ensure You Finish Your Writing Project”
Good post, Thomas. These are excellent ideas and if I get stuck, I’ll be sure to review these. I’d like to add that sometimes its just best to stop a manuscript. I recently put down a novel I had worked on for almost a year. I realized it was just way to big for me at where I am as a writer and in life in general. I still think about it and miss it. Maybe when I have more experience, I’ll be able to come back to it. Great post!
Dan, I can relate to that sidelined novel and how you feel about it. I tried writing my first fantasy novel extempore, realized I was incapable of working that way, and set it aside. Like you, I felt the loss and still harbour hopes of fixing it up someday. My second fantasy was based on an outline, and quite a decent one at that. But I had loaded the book with far too much philosophizing and lacked the experience needed to integrate the story with so much message. Again, I set the book aside. However, this time I was sure I would eventually return to finish it. I got it right with my third fantasy. (Is this starting to sound like Goldilocks and the Three Bears?). The outline was solid and by using some of the ideas in this post, I had learned to keep the philosophizing within reason. I hope to put this one out fairly soon.