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Unpacking the fear of finishing

Late last year I finished doing the Masterclass.com course by best-selling writer, Neil Gaiman. In it, he discussed a variety of issues and concept for young writers.

Fun Fact 1: He called everyone starting out a young writer regardless of age, which frankly made this 46-year-old feel positively 18 again.

Amongst the lessons and anecdotes, he addressed his ‘best pieces of advice,’ for young writers. The one that sounded the most flippant also resonated with me in a way I wasn’t expecting. The piece of advice I’m referring to: Finish it.

I spent many decades never finishing any story, it’s true. Between carrying a full set of luxury neurotic baggage about being too gay, stupid, old, fat, (insert self-abasing insult here), I never managed to get past 25,000 words.

Until I quit drinking. When I was no longer shit-faced drunk by 3pm on a Saturday and Sunday or 7pm on a weeknight, I managed to find two pieces of the puzzle. The time to write, and the focus to follow a story from one end to the other. I’ve made no secret of the fact quitting alcohol was probably one of the single most significant wake-up moments of my life. Nor have I hidden how much damage I managed to do to myself when my whole life was spent watching the clock for the drinking hour to arrive.

For the first year of my sobriety, I didn’t really do a lot beyond work and eat. In October of 2017 – so 10 months into my sober journey – I began writing a fantasy adventure novel for middle-grade readers. It was about a young Australian boy, Aiden, and a wizard who’d turned himself into a dog, Steppes. I wrote it for a week or so, but like every previous attempt, it went into the ‘to-do tomorrow,’ pile.

Fun fact 2: That pile never found its tomorrow; until it did.

In February 2018 I pulled Aiden and Steppes out of purgatory and over the next year I worked on it on and off until I’d finished the first draft. 75,000 words. I’m not ashamed to admit when I wrote ‘the end,’ for the very first time on a novel I’d written, I promptly burst into tears. I also opened the file every day to remind myself I’d done it.

Then I moved on. Later that year, I did a picture book writing course that resulted in a story I loved, but no else except my mother did. It was about a little girl who discovers her Grandmother has a magical broom.

When I was told it wasn’t real-life enough for publishers who were looking for more realistic picture book ideas at the moment, I stewed on it for a day or so. I changed the focus, renamed the character, met a talking cat and a collection of aliens in my dreams and voila, Ruby Diamond Saves the World came into being.

And guess what? I finished that one too. All 58,000 words of first draft wonder.

Between Saving Santa: An Aiden and Steppes Adventure and Ruby Diamond Saves the World, there was a 15,000-word children’s chapter book called The Leaf of the Sugar Plum Tree. It’s the story of 2 elves who go on an adventure to find a replacement for Mrs Claus’ Sugar Plum Tree after Rudolph escapes the Reindeer barn and eats hers. I think I’ll finish editing it next. I’d like to see if I can get it published traditionally.

In November last year, 2019 for those who are counting and about 6 weeks shy of my 3rd soberversary, I wrote a novella called Confession. It’s a very different genre for me. It’s gory, it’s a ghost story, it’s a horror story, it’s about guilt and paying the ferryman, and it’s currently a 38,000-word novella. I wrote it after I finished the Neil Gaiman course with the express intention of finishing it. And I’ve been working on it solidly.

Now, here’s the thing. Finishing the first draft is safe. Because no one gets to read it and it’s just between you and the muse. Finishing it means others have to read it. It also means it will need extensive editing, internal monologues jam-packed with creative swearing and the feeling you’re rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic. All while being worried the iceberg won’t like your final result.

Today I’ve been editing a chapter, and it’s taken three hours to wade my way through three pages. Not because the text is awful, but because my brain is playing silly buggers. It’s refusing to focus. When I sat down, after berating myself for being a fool and thought about why today was a struggle, I realised something.

Finishing your story, releasing your story, giving your story out to the world means you can no longer control the way it is perceived. And for people who know me, I don’t like handing over control to anyone so that’s pushing an uncomfortable button. Over the last three years, I’ve reviewed what I mean by being a writer. Do I want to write, or do I want to be a published author? They’re two very different things.

I can be a writer without ever exposing my stories to a world that sees a finished product, but none of the effort that goes into it. I can write for myself, no rule says, “if you write it you must publish it.” But, is that enough for me? Do I want to write for my own entertainment, or do I want to write for the enjoyment of others?

Being a writer is one thing, and it’s a great thing. You can be creative, not worry about the rules, not worry about spelling or grammar or whether your story is clear, and your reader understands. Because you’re the reader and you know perfectly, probably better than you’ve managed to convey, what your story is about.

Being an author, particularly a self-published one, means you have to be aware that what you’re creating is, above all other things, a product. There are rules that go with it. Spelling, grammar, point of view. Then there’s the other side of the coin; selling, marketing, editing, social media. And all without a team to support you when some bugger leaves a 1-Star review calling your hard work absolute rubbish that reads like it was written by a high school student.

Fun Fact 3: I actually saw a review that said precisely that the other night on Amazon.

Finishing as a writer and finishing as an author are both different. I haven’t got a handle on whether or not I’m doing it correctly, but I know this. Writing just for me is not enough. It never has been. I write because I want to be read. I tell stories because stories were the only thing that kept me going when the world seemed lightless and cold.

The idea of meeting my goal of finishing Confession, so she’s ready for readers makes me both totally energised and cold to the bone. I hear the fear in my mind, the worry I’m making a fool of myself, or I’m not strong enough to stand people hating the book. I hear it. I acknowledge it. It’s the same voice that told me I’d never get sober, never write a full story, never be successful as a Conference Producer.

It’s a timid, shy little voice that’s worried I’ll be laughed at. And that’s okay. That voice has its place. I’m taking a significant risk, at least it is for me. It’s a risk worth taking though. I promised myself I’d finish Confession, and that means it needs to be ready for eyes other than my own.

When I first heard Neil Gaiman say, “finish it,” I thought the response was flippant. Now I have a deeper understanding of the fears and worries that have stopped me from finishing it for years. Finish It is probably the least flippant piece of advice a young writer could get. I know it’s changed my thinking when it comes to writing.

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