How to Finish A Novel (Or Anything Big).
I've been in a weird season of my life. If I could start with this time last year, and walk you moment by moment to today, I think the conversation would end with your jaw wide open. Seriously. The ups and downs have knocked me around so much that at times, I didn't think I would be able to get up off the floor. But sometimes faith is just that. It's getting up. Again and again and again.
I made no resolutions for 2016. I didn't promise myself to finish the novel I've been working on. (I'd promised myself that in 2013, 2014, and 2015—by this year, I'd learned my lesson.) If it finished, it finished. If it kept festering and growing and changing, well then, so be it.
I didn't plan. That was hard for me. I'm a planner. I like to know what's coming. Better yet, I like to construct what's coming. But the back-half of 2015 taught me that nothing is in my control. So without a plan, I started 2016, and quickly, all of my fears were realized. Things fell apart. Emotions I'd buried deep under the surface came to the surface. With no tasks to complete or boxes to check or doctors to visit, all I had left was me and my straight-up confused mind to contend with. What I had left was grief.
I don't know how other people finish novels. I've heard of people "sitting in a chair" at 9 a.m. every day with a word count goal in mind. I've heard of people breaking up the story into small, manageable assignments. I've heard of an author that put on mechanic's jumpsuit everyday to remind himself that he, too was a tradesman. I've heard of people renting out hotel rooms or cabins in the woods to crank out drafts. None of that worked for me. (Although, to be fair, I never tried the jumpsuit.)
To finish the novel, I had to do two things: (1) accept incoming encouragement and (2) face my own grief. Maybe it's presumptuous. But I think those two pillars are the foundation of any big creative endeavor.
Accepting encouragement is not easy to do. First, it requires that you share your work. That means at some point you have to click save, export the file, attach it to an email, press send, and then proceed to freak out. Are they reading it right now? What do they think? If they're not reading it, they probably never will. People are too busy these days to read rusty manuscripts anyway. Why did I even send it? They probably hate it, and if they hate it, it's going to put them in such an awkward position. What do you say to a friend who has worked on something for three years, only to find out that it sucks? It is at about this point that I start wishing Gmail had an "unsend" button. But it doesn't. Thank God.
When encouragement comes, you have to believe that the encourager is telling the truth. This is hard. We live in a society that believes that white lies are acceptable. Knowing I live in that kind of society makes me think twice when you say you liked my novel. Telling me you loved my manuscript is the equivalent of saying, 'No way! You definitely don't look fat in that dress.' I want to believe you, but I'm just not so sure I've put you in a position to be honest with me. Lie and say you love it, and I'll think you're lying. Honestly say you love it, and I'll think you're lying, too. Sure, I'm probably right half the time, but I get no further in the draft. And that's the whole point... to get further on in the journey.
Here's what I've learned: you need two groups of encouragers. First: people who haven't been afraid to correct you on your shit in the past because you know they aren't afraid to hurt you. Second: people who don't really know you and have no "dog in the hunt" so to speak. Those two groups are GREAT for encouragement. But the middle group: acquaintances, fellow writers, neighbors, friends who are really nice... those are the people that you might as well not even share your work with. Not yet anyway. They probably don't feel free to give you honest feedback, and you won't believe what they have to say anyway. Send to your work to these people, and you'll just have wasted everyone's time.
But real encouragement filled with some ideas for improvement is like medicine to a writer's soul. It makes the writing worth it. It makes the process far less painful. And speaking of pain...
To finish something great, you must face your grief. The world is full of distractions that seek to pull us out of our pain into comfort. But unfortunately, as mentioned above, meaningful work is painful. It's toil. It's training. It's sweat and tears. It's the montage that most movies pass over quickly and add inspiring music to, because if they were to show the REAL slog, the movie would take too long and people would walk out.
Us creative-types try to tackle the pain of our work while simultaneously avoiding the pain of our past. Hear me on this. THAT. DOES. NOT. WORK.
During that time between the starting and the finishing, any unaddressed pain from the past will come to the surface. It just will. And suddenly, giving into comfort becomes the only way to survive. The pain (of our work) goes untouched. The pain (of our past) is ignored. And meanwhile, we push fragments of glass pieces around on the table, imagining that we're making progress, while we indulge in wine, alcohol, shopping, or any other addiction to pass the time. I say this with kindness. It's not inherently wrong to find comfort, but comfort is the enemy of progress and growth. And if you want to finish a novel, you're not going to do it at the mall.
But while you're at the mall... or while you're pouring that drink... you might as well think about why you're there. (This, as it turns out, is the progress.) What is the pain that you haven't addressed? What grief or sorrow or shattered dream haven't you looked at in the face? If we aren't able to weep over the difficult things of our own lives, we won't adequately connect or inspire others as they muddle through theirs.
For me, facing my own grief has meant a lot of tears. A lot of counseling. A lot of time with people that have a lot of patience for me. It also has meant having very hard conversations with the people I love (and hurt) the most. It's meant taking my hurt and pain to God and asking what he wants to give me instead. It's releasing that pain so that I can re-engage with the pain of work, without feeling overwhelmed.
So there you have it. To finish any big work of art... hear encouragement, face your own grief in the face, and then sit down and get to work.
Good luck. Grab the tissues. You can do it.