Recommended for Writers: “Finish” by Jon Acuff

We’ve all been there. Maybe you started #NaNoWriMo in a sprint. Maybe you awoke one morning full of inspiration for a new novel. Maybe you’re 25,000 words in, and the plot just isn’t working. No matter the start of a novel, we’ve all been ready to bury it before its time.

I was facing this dilemma not too long ago while working on my first middle grade manuscript. I had started it in a frenzy of inspiration. I had outlined the plot. I had written over half of it. And, then, I…stopped.

Through a stroke of luck, I stumbled across Jon Acuff’s delightful book FinishWhile the book isn’t specific to writing, it’ll have you glancing at your neglected work-in-progress with shame and, by the end, a second wind of motivation.

A fast read, it’s worth buying or checking out from your local library. To whet your book-appetite, here a few (among many) lessons I brought to my (now-finished) manuscript.

Expect the doldrums

If you have a manuscript (or three) languishing in the bowels of your hard drive, cast off any shame and know that this is normal.

We all start things we don’t finish. If you’ve ever made a New Year’s resolution, this probably isn’t news to you. I’ve been promising myself I’m going to start a garden next year for 8 years. Still, when a work-in-progress moves from inspired to abandoned, it can feel like a personal failure.

This is where knowledge is power. Like true love, the course of great achievement ne’er did run smooth. That your progress has stalled doesn’t mean your concept is flawed or you have some gene that makes you unfit for novel-writing. It means that you’re human.

And that you’re about halfway through book.

Your brain lies to you

If you are, in fact, human, you likely have a human brain. The thing about human brains is that they’re very good at making up stories and convincing you that they’re true. The story might be that cookies are an excellent breakfast or that everyone hates you…or that you should really be doing something other than finishing your book.

Your brain is going to find lots of really interesting things you should write RIGHT AT THIS VERY MOMENT. None of these things will be your book, and they will all seem to be the most brilliant thing you’ve ever thought of. In fact, you’ll probably win the Man Booker Prize if you just abandon your work-in-progress and embark on the new idea.

Unfortunately, this, like cookies-for-breakfast may taste good in the moment, but will leave you exhausted and unsatisfied later. Your new idea may indeed be brilliant, but if you embark on something new every time you hit a roadblock, you’ll never finish anything. And, that–to put it precisely–stinks.

Instead, do what Acuff tells you to do: write down your brilliant idea and promise yourself you can start on it as soon as you finish what you’re working on.

Find your hiding places

We’ve established that you will want to quit and that your brain will try to lure you into doing so, but what can we do to finish?

Acuff lays out a bunch of strategies in the book. I’m going to focus on the one that made the biggest difference for me: finding your hiding places. This doesn’t mean to build a pillow fort where you can hide from your kids (though that might help too). It means that you need to identify where and how you waste time and stop doing it.

If your brain can’t trick you into starting some new big endeavor, it’s going lead you to lots of tiny time-sucks instead. There are the obvious ones, like Facebook or TV binges. Blocking websites can help with these.

But then, there are less obvious ones–the ones you can justify to yourself as advancing you toward your goals. Perhaps, you’ve been tinkering with your author website for days on end, or posting on Twitter to build your following. Maybe you’re guest blogging. These things might seem like they aren’t hiding places because they’re writing-related, but are they truly getting you closer to your goals?

Acuff suggests asking yourself if you could explain to someone else how an activity gets you closer to your intended goal. If you can’t, it’s probably a hiding place.

For instance, it’s perhaps no surprise that I’m writing this post when I’m roughly 60% through my current work-in-progress…The struggle is real.

What books or tips have helped you finish your writing projects? Let me know in the comments!

 

 

 

How the Great British Baking Show Made Me a Better Writer

Who doesn’t love reality TV? Add in some tasty-looking bakes, delectable British accents, and splashes of dry humor, and the Great British Baking Show is a nearly irresistible Netflix binge.

For the uninitiated, the show (known as the Great British Bake-Off, or GBBO, in the U.K.) features twelve amateur bakers competing against each other in a well-worn culinary reality show format: three challenges, two judges, and one eliminated contestant per episode.

What’s less familiar about the show is the warmth it brings to the messy process of creating, critiquing, and ranking creative products. As I indulged in (an undisclosed number of) episodes over Thanksgiving, I found striking parallels between the experience of the show’s bakers and my own experience as writer.

If you’re looking to justify your own GBBO addiction, look no further. Here’s what I found:

Creatives support creatives

Almost immediately after I started watching, I was struck by how often bakers helped each. This is a competition, right? Most reality shows play up competition, rather than compassion. But on GBBO, seeing one baker help another plate tortes in the waning minutes of a challenge is hardly rare.

This camaraderie between creatives reminded me of how often I see writers support each other, either online or in real life. As I’ve become increasingly serious in my writing, I’ve found writers eager to help—by giving critique or lending a listening ear or sharing tips of the trade—at every turn.

More often than not, I’ve seen creative types empathize, rather than compete, and give more than they take. Remembering that helps me feel safe in sharing my work with other writers and makes me feel all warm and gooey (not unlike a great pudding) about helping other writers.

Critique is kind

Speaking of sharing one’s work—critique is an intimidating process, and a huge part of GBBO and culinary reality TV in general. While I’ve gotten more comfortable with it over the years, I still don’t exactly savor the (very necessary) process of having my work’s ugly undersides pointed out.

Where GBBO differs from most shows of its kind is in the delivery of the critique. It’s not just that the judges tend to compliment sandwich (that is, burying the critique between layers of positives). It’s the dispassionate, clear-eyed objectivity they bring to the task. A baker’s torte citron is underdone, never “bad.” A bread is underproved, but perhaps still delicious. The judges key in on the exact areas for improvement, rarely describing a bake with an overarching adjective.

As a writer, I’ve often feared that critique would lead to a rendering of my work as being “bad”—as if a critiquer has a tiny gavel that will sound a final judgment. This, however, has never been my actual experience with critique. Instead I’ve learned that my meter is off here, that my plot lags there. This kind of critique is a gift (and the topic of my next blog post).

Faces tell stories

If I can read faces at all, I’m pretty sure the bakers of GBBO aren’t too keen on critique either. Like many reality shows, GBBO delights in tightly framing the contestants’ faces as they bake, encounter obstacles, and especially, wait for the judges to give feedback.

For a writer, this is an incredible opportunity to practice describing facial expressions. Is Luis chewing on his lip? Is Richard rocking back-and-forth between his heels and toes? Is Martha rubbing the cuffs of her shirt? Paying close attention to the bakers’ non-verbal cues helped me think through how I could describe characters’ emotional states through telling details.

Knowing when to press on and when to start again

Almost every episode features a dilemma familiar to every writer—what to do with a creation that isn’t turning out as hoped. Press on and hope for the best, or toss it in the trash and try again?

For the bakers, this decision is often based on the ever-limited time remaining in the challenge. For us writers, the decision can rest on the potential we see in our work. For both groups, starting over can be a heart-wrenching, but necessary, exercise to achieve the best product possible.

While the time lost on a first attempt can feel wasted, it is a natural part of the creative process. Businesses lose merchandise; we all lose socks in the laundry; no one is able to produce great work 100% of the time.

You are not your bake (or story)

Finally, remembering that we all have stumbles and duds helped me remember that I am not my writing.

Writing, like all creative pursuits, is a form of self-expression. This simple truth can be overextended into the (absolutely untrue) idea that we are what we create. On GBBO, bakers excel in one challenge to falter in the next or pull out a show-stopping finale to save themselves from elimination. Nothing about the bakers—certainly not their value as people or as creators—has changed from one challenge to the next.

An awful bake does not make an awful baker. A lousy story does not make a lousy writer. We are, and we do. These things are connected, but not the same.