How do I complete this book and refocus with a plan that works?
May 12, 2017 2:05 PM   Subscribe

I've been writing a short story collection for 1 1/2 years and I'm flagging. I'm at the point of setting new goals for the project, with some helpful suggestions, or considering moving on. Help!

I started submitting short stories to be published after my university tutor said I should be - and, by a stroke of luck, I had two short stories published around the same time 4/5 years ago.

But my main projects were always going to be two novels that have been in my mind for years (I have written a chaper of one and several chapters of the second. I read one chapter recently at a writing festival to get used to the idea, but I was so nervous I thought I would be sick!).

Back to current project. I started writing a short story collection 1 1/2 years ago. It is dystopian, with each story connected together in some way. When I began writing I set a goal to finish it within a year - ha! Life got in the way, as it tends to, and here I am still not feeling a huge amount of progress.

I would say I have written around 22,000 words in total (amounting to 9/10 stories). A couple of the stories are basically finished, a few are close to being finished and the rest are flagging.

Here are my issues:-

- I am struggling to finish multiple short stories. It's as though I start out with heavy steam and then it runs out - this never used to happen.
- I will plan to finish a story within X amount of time and just don't seem able to. I can start writing something and not complete it until months later.
- I am concerned that I am only writing this collection as a form of avoid writing my novel!
- I am starting to feel that I will never write anything publishable again and may waste years on this.

Last week I submitted a short non-fiction piece to my favourite magazine and it was rejected today, which hasn't helped. The editor told me that while the writing/tone was good, with a strong beginning, he wants me to flesh out some other elements and consider re-submitting. I felt some disappointment about this but it's not hopeless either.

Can you help me hit the reset button on this project so to speak? How can I get my focus back with a new plan that works?
posted by Kat_Dubs to Writing & Language (5 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
What is your goal? To write and publish novels traditionally for a living? (What market?) To publish short stories? To finish novels and to be happy having done them?

Your stories might be petering out because they were stillborn. It happens. But they might be petering out because persevering and finishing are often not as much fun as beginning/conceptualizing.

Based on the critique that you got from the professional on your non-fiction, it sounds like you really enjoy the exposition/world building/playing part of writing but lose steam and will to continue once you get down to the grind of the work of writing and finishing. Unfortunately, the only way to fix this is to make yourself.

You have to get the words on the page. Then you have to revise the words on the page. You're teaching yourself to write great beginnings, but you're not teaching yourself to write great middles or great ends. There's no big secret or trick to it: you figure out a schedule that works for you, and you stick to it.

This is true regardless of what your ultimate goal might be. However, if your goal is to write and publish novels traditionally, then I would tell you to quit working on this short story collection.

Short story collections don't tend to sell until you already have an established body of work, and if you feel you're 9/10 complete at 22,000 words, that only reaches SFWA novella length, which are even less likely to be published by anyone beside the author (until or unless they are famous and/or have a won a very prestigious award.)

You're unlikely to get an agent with a short story collection, because they can't sell them. Your tutor told you to work on a collection. I'm telling you as a working, published author, to work on your novel. Create a schedule, make yourself stick to it, in whatever way makes you stick to it, and get to the end-- even if you don't feel like it.

Then revise, revise, revise. And write another novel, and start moving forward.
posted by headspace at 4:12 PM on May 12, 2017 [2 favorites]

(You know what makes me stick to it? Using Dr. Wicked's Write or Die on Kamikaze Mode. It forces me to write words when I don't want to. I like the stick; if you like the carrot, you might want to find an incentive instead.)
posted by headspace at 4:16 PM on May 12, 2017

I'm an indie author.

I agree with a lot of what headspace says (especially "But they might be petering out because persevering and finishing are often not as much fun as beginning/conceptualizing." SO TRUE.), but I might suggest finishing the short story collection first, before moving on to your first novel, for a couple of reasons and with a couple of caveats.

A) You're close! Finishing a project feels awesome! The motivation boost from finishing my first novel (which took 4 years to write) helped me launch into writing my second novel (which took 4 months to write). But I'm the kind of person that's motivated by crossing things off my list. If that's not you, and you don't think it'll help you get motivated to write your novel, then listen to headspace.

B) On the other side of the coin, quitting is demoralizing (for me). I think I'd have a harder time working on a new project if I didn't finish the previous one. That's not always true - I've started things, thought "meh," and moved on - but because you're so close, quitting now to work on something else might also feel demoralizing.

A) You must be able to turn off your internal editor. Finishing the short story collection means having a completed draft of each story in the collection, not a fully edited, fully revised, ready-to-publish collection. It means you can say "I wrote a short story collection!!" and move on to write other things, knowing you'll come back to edit as part of the submission (if you're going the traditional publishing route) or production (if you're going the indie publishing route) process. No spending years tweaking little details. Write it, pat yourself on the back, move on. Because headspace is right - a short story collection doesn't generally do you much good till you're an established author. It's *awesome*, though, to have stuff in your pocket - drafted, unedited stuff - you can pull out later, polish up, and submit/publish. Especially in the indie market, time between publication of one book and the next seems to be a *huge* factor in moving up the Amazon charts, and therefore having success, and having a backlog you can draw from between new drafts is great.

B) You need external support if you don't have any already. This might be a writer's group in your area (RWA tends to be pretty friendly to newbies even if you don't write strict romance), or critique partners, or beta readers, or whomever. You need someone who's just *waiting* to read the next thing you write, because that helps you stick to your deadlines. Ideally, they'll also provide good feedback/call you on it when you're procrastinating.

MeMail me if you want to talk more. I'm also happy to be an external support to some extent - I don't have the bandwidth to read or critique right now, but I can certainly send you an email every Friday asking for a progress report, if that would be motivating!

Good luck!
posted by bananacabana at 4:34 PM on May 12, 2017 [2 favorites]

I'm a traditionally published author. I endorse the great advice you got from Headspace and Bananacabana. A few additional thoughts:

• Like Headspace says, your short story collection is unlikely to get published or to get you an agent. However, one day when you've finished your novel, you'll find it easier to get agents and publishers to consider it if you've had individual short stories published in respected magazines. (At least in the markets I work in-- I'm not directly familiar with SF. If you get contradictory advice from somebody who knows the SF market specifically, listen to them instead of me.)

Also, even if your short stories never get published, you may learn something from the process. If, as Headspace says, you've taught yourself to write great beginnings, but not great middles or ends... Well, finishing individual short stories might be a way to practice middles and ends.

So, if you're like Bananacabana, and finishing a draft of the short story collection will help give you momentum for your novel, then finish it. If you think you might learn something from finishing individual short stories, then finish them, and keep finishing them until you feel you've learned all you can from them and then stop (whether or not you have a complete collection.)

Otherwise, you might still think about whether any individual stories are nearly ready for submission, and spend a few weeks polishing them. Then you can start sending them out while you're working on your novel.

• Often the thing that stops me from finishing a first draft is my slowly dawning awareness that it isn't as good on paper as it was in my head. I want to tell you that's normal. I also want to tell you that my first drafts suck. I've learned from long experience that I just need to get a crappy first draft on paper as fast as I can, so that I can turn it into a mediocre second draft, an OK third draft, and a pretty good fourth draft.

• I personally find that a goal like "Finish this draft in six months" is not helpful. I need to break it down into concrete daily and hourly steps. Depending on where I am in the process, these might be focused on the input (time spent at my computer) or the output (words on paper). If I am writing a first draft, my goal doesn't include anything about the quality of those words. For me personally, 1000 crappy awkward stupid words on paper are more useful than 30 perfect words and lots of blank space. You can't revise blank pages.

• I know it's discouraging but getting a note from the editor of your favorite magazine praising your writing and encouraging you to revise and resubmit is actually fantastic news. That is not something editors do lightly. Personally, I would make revising and resubmitting it my top priority.

• I had a similar experience to you, where one of my very first short story submissions was published, and then I struggled for years to make my next sale. I don't have any great advice for dealing with this, except to tell you that it happens, and it doesn't mean you've lost whatever talent you had when two of your stories were published close to each other. Getting published involves skill and hard work, but it also involves a huge amount of luck. A story has to land on an editor's desk at exactly the right time to fit their specific editorial needs in that moment. The only way to make that happen is to keep writing, keep revising, and keep submitting. After 25 years of writing, I get about ten rejections for every one acceptance, and when I started, it was probably more like 100 rejections. It's a numbers game, and you just have to keep rolling the dice.
posted by yankeefog at 2:36 AM on May 13, 2017 [2 favorites]

I agree! Clarify your goals so that you have something that truly motivates you.

I read Virginia Woolf's diary, and I always assumed that her work just flowed out of her like a beautiful effortless stream - but according to the diary, it really did not. Her method:

She would set a deadline for each of the following phases and stick to her plans more or less.

- Spend most of her hours each day alternating between reading, thinking, and writing
- Write the first draft by hand
- Take two-month long break (only then would she like really socialise and meet her friends)
- Rewrite the second draft from scratch using a typewriter
- Take another long break
- Revise the second draft

I think if you allocate many hours and take this more windy (sometimes I assume boring) path, you will end up with something perhaps not perfect, but quite good. This is especially the case if you spend a lot of time reading.

So maybe you can set a deadline for finishing your first draft, and put together a reading list for the days when you will be writing. Then you will have permission to write a bad first draft, because you will have opportunities to re-phrase and revise later on.
posted by Crookshanks_Meow at 3:30 AM on May 15, 2017 [1 favorite]

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