Starting a story is hard. Getting past being all mouth and having the nerve to actually start putting down words is hard. But what’s harder still is finishing. It’s hard because it’s important. Finishing is truly what separates the writers from the wannabes. Not publication, because not everyone writes to be published. Not prizes, or acclaim or number of reviews. FINISHING.
There are plenty of non finishers out there, and I think they fall into two main camps.
The Perfect Chapter 1 camp
All this type of non-finisher ever writes is chapter 1. They have a perfectly fine idea for a novel, maybe even outline it, have loads of great stuff coming up later on. They write chapter 1 and they polish it. They give it to a critique group who give them ten different reasons why it’s all wrong (even if the group has fewer than ten members.) So the writer rewrites and polishes some more and takes it back to the group, and gets twenty new reasons why this version is also all wrong. So the writer goes back to rewrite it again. Evolving ideas for the rest of the story also demand changes to chapter 1. So they make those changes too.
Meanwhile the rest of the story is screaming to be written. But there’s only so long anything can scream before it’s exhausted. Eventually, after a couple of dozen rewrites of chapter 1, all enthusiasm for the story is dead and the writer gives up and writes chapter 1 of a new story – and so the cycle begins again.
This is not to say you can’t revise and edit as you go. Plenty of people do. But the key word there is GO! Write it, do your edits, and move on. That works for many people. However people who have twenty versions of chapter 1 of the same story would probably benefit from at least once doing a ‘write without looking back’ draft. (NaNoWriMo is made for these people, though they likely have to be dragged kicking and screaming into doing it and in extreme cases should have each day’s writing confiscated by a responsible adult until the end of the event.)
The Seven Chapter Itch camp
Okay, it’s not always seven chapters. It might not always be the same place every time even for the same writer. But it’s when the writer has made a pretty good start, has left Chapter 1 well behind, revelling in its imperfection. The inciting incident has happened. We’re well off and running for the middle of the book.
And then…and then it starts to feel a bit more like work. (In NaNoWriMo, this is the dreaded Week 2 Syndrome, when you come to believe the lights of the pub are sending you coded messages to get away from that terrible awful story and have some fun!) All the characters seem like dumbasses everyone will want to stab. The plot is thin, derivative and as full of holes as a crumpet. At this point the finishers gird their loins and carry on. They get past the wobble and buckle down to the work, knowing that good times are ahead. But others give up at this first sign of trouble. This story is No Good they decide. Why waste time on something doomed? Especially as there’s a gorgeous new idea they are flirting with, and they could run off with that instead. So they do.
Okay, some stories should be take out behind the barn and put out of their misery. When you’re first starting out it takes a while to learn which ideas really have the legs to make it to the finish line. But try to keep them to a minimum.
I’ve put stories on hiatus before, usually because I realised I’d started them too soon and there was still a vital spark missing. But I’ve gone back and finished later, because what I’ve written so far, even if not quite right, has given me valuable insight into how I continue after I’ve thought about it some more.
There’s no trick to overcoming the Seven Chapter Itch. The writer just has to tough it out and continue. Or they can wait a bit longer before they start at all. Finishing the story they are working on now will delay them working on the gorgeous new idea, and gives it more time to gestate. So when they do come to write it, they can finish that one too, because they gave time for the boys in the basement to work on it.
In the end the most important reason for finishing most of what you write is that finishing is the only way you learn to write the whole thing. A brilliant chapter 1 is worthless without the rest of the book. And no matter how polished it is, no matter how well it hooks the reader, writing fifty first chapters will not teach you how to write a novel. To learn that you have to write the middle and the end too. You have to learn how to weave subplots and character arcs through the story. How to pace it and keep the reader interested before bringing the whole thing to a satisfactory ending.
Finishing is how you learn to finish. Now get out there and get from Once upon a time to The End.