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Fear of Finishing

Fear of Finishing

Back when I was writing my third practice novel – one of the three I’m intensely glad never saw the scorching light of publication – I found it next to impossible to write the words “The End” on the final draft. I procrastinated. I told myself that I’d sit myself down the next day, the next week. I had to deal with the kids, the husband, the housework. My 9-5 job was too exhausting. I assured myself that the end was within reach. Just out there. Tomorrow, I’d say.

But tomorrow turned into days, turned into weeks, turned into months, and the end of the novel still eluded me.

It wasn’t that I didn’t know how to end it. This was a Young Adult romance, after all, so what could be simpler than getting the two main characters together in a touching,  final scene? It was all there in my head, just waiting to be put down on the page.

So what, really, was stopping me?

This dilemma came up recently when a couple of my writing students admitted that they hadn’t completed their novel drafts yet. They’d gone off this summer full of ambition and verve, and came to class this fall bringing new work with them. The start of new novels. Funny, lovely, wonderful openings of brand new work.

“Did you finish the other novels?” I asked them.

No, came the answer. They didn’t say it in so many words, but I recognized the tone of voice, the averted looks. The fear of finishing had taken hold.

I know several other writers who are in the same place: either avoiding the revision process altogether, having moved on to something entirely new, or struggling to complete it.

There’s a passage from The World According to Garp in which John Irving grapples with this issue:

Unlike Alice, Garp was a real writer – not because he wrote more beautifully than she wrote but because he knew what every artist should know: as Garp put it “You only grow by coming to the end of something and by beginning something else.” Even if these so-called endings and beginnings were illusions. Garp did not write faster than anyone else or more; he simply always worked with the idea of completion in mind.

Looking back to my own fear, I have tremendous empathy for any writer who finds the idea of finishing unsettling. The need to slog through all those words, to make sure the flow is there, the characters are right, that the plot delivers upon its promise, can be a mind-numbing prospect. It’s hard enough to sit down at the screen every day; when it comes to revising and reworking, over and over, the same passages–the ones you thought yesterday you’d finally gotten right and then realize there’s still more work to do… well, sometimes you literally have to drag yourself to the seat. And yes, as it so often does, life gets in the way. We tell ourselves that we need a much larger chunk of time to sit down and really focus than we have right now, juggling so much.

Then, sometimes in the middle of revision, a new idea pops up, something so inviting, so irresistible that we don’t want to make it wait. After all, it’s much more fun to start fresh, to plumb new concepts, to embrace the most exciting part of the process anew. It’s why we all started writing in the first place, isn’t it?

And let’s say we do finish. What comes next is even more intimidating than the revision process. Any writer who has ambitions to publish – either traditionally or by doing it themselves – has a rough road ahead. Finding an agent or publisher requires tremendous patience and fortitude. Facing rejection can be frightening, undermining your self-esteem and your pride in your work. Persevering past the first dozen notes of “Sorry, I didn’t fall in love with it” is distressing, no matter how often you tell yourself that it’s not personal.

And self-publication can be an expensive, time-consuming process, with no assurances of success. We recently posted a self-publishing calculator on The Writers Circle’s Facebook page that shows just how much you have to invest—and that’s just money–if you want to present your work to the world in a professional package.

So, of course, it’s easier just to put off finishing. To stop worrying about getting it right, to avoid thinking about the next steps. But when you consider the time, effort, sweat and heart that you’ve already invested into the writing, you owe it to yourself to move past the fear.

We all know that there are no guarantees in publishing – but the last thing you want is to look back years later and blame yourself for never having the courage to actually type those words: “The End.”

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