The Power of Finishing Things

Screen Shot 2014-10-16 at 10.57.58 AM
Look children, irony.

There is a power in finishing things.  Whether you’re a writer, an artist, a maker, or simply a person completing a task as part of your normal, everyday job, there’s an undeniable feeling of progression to bringing a particular project to a close.  It’s not just the satisfaction of having accomplished something, either–though that is certainly there.  Rather, it’s the sense that, by seeing something through to the end, you have added something to your world, and moved a bit further down the path of your life.  This is most tangible when the project in question is a significant one, of course.

The best sound-byte writing advice I’ve ever heard comes from Neil Gaiman: “Write.  Finish things.  Keep writing.”  It can be hard to start writing, but it’s much harder to continue writing.  It’s a great deal harder than that to finish writing.  Learning the art of finishing things is a lot like learning to run a marathon: you put one foot in front of the other until you’re done.  (If you’d like some more in-depth advice on writing, one of my colleagues at Evil Toad Press has a lot of good things to say on the subject.)

You’re a writer if you write, but you can’t be a professional writer unless you can finish things.  Part of the process of learning how to finish things is…to finish things.  Funny how that works, isn’t it?

One of the problems I had as a new writer, and with which I still struggle, is choosing what to write.  Many writers seem to have the opposite problem: one of the most common questions fielded to authors at conventions, usually by fans who are aspiring writers themselves, is “Where do you get your ideas?”  I have the opposite problem.  I’ve got ideas out the wazoo.  It’s picking one, and sticking with it long enough to produce a finished piece of work, that’s hard.

One of the toughest things to realize as a struggling writer is that no matter how brilliant you are, no one will ever know, or care, unless you can finish writing something.  You might have the best idea for a short story in the world, but if you never sit down and write it, that idea is essentially worthless.  And that brilliant novel you’re half-finished with, the one that’s sitting on your hard drive just screaming Pulitzer Prize?  Guess what.  That’s worthless too.  No matter how pretty the prose is, or how serious the themes, or how compelling the characters, if it’s not finished, it’s not a complete piece of art.  It’s worth nothing to the reader.  If I had to determine the comparative literary merits of the Fifty Shades trilogy and half of The Great Gatsby, I’d choose Fifty Shades.  Not because Fifty Shades of Grey is good enough to be mentioned in the same breath as anything written by F. Scott Fitzgerald, but because whatever its flaws, its a complete piece of work.  Whereas half of the greatest American novel of all time is just that: half a novel.

prisoner-awakeningBut wait, you say, hold on: there’s plenty of famous unfinished works of art.  Michelangelo’s unfinished sculptures, for example, or that portrait of Washington.  Those are accepted as works of art.  Sure, but first off, most of those examples are incomplete on purpose, which is a completion in and of itself.  Secondly, those pieces are arguably only famous because Michelangelo was already a known master of the art; they’re interesting precisely because we know how skilled he is, and unfinished pieces give us an insight into his process.  Moreover, this is Michelangelo we’re talking about.  When you’re a Renaissance Master, you can do whatever the hell you want, too.  The same holds true for literature: David Foster Wallace’s last novel was released in incomplete form, after his death.  But that’s only because he was already David Foster Wallace, the man who wrote Infinite Jest and “E Unibus Pluram.”  Nobody would give a damn about The Pale King if Wallace hadn’t lived, written, and finished things.  There are other examples, too: Steinbeck, Hemingway.  Hell, Tupac Shakur put out more records posthumously that while he was alive.  But none of that matters if these people hadn’t finished things first and gotten our attention.

So I suppose the punchline is: if you’re already famous, go ahead and through some half-finished crap out there.  Especially if you happen to be dead.  But for the rest of us, we need to focus on finishing what we’re working on before we can think about the praise that will be heaped upon us for its brilliance.

Finishing a book is like finishing a spell: it gives it power, makes it operable.  The act of completion kindles the spark of life inside it.  Until that happens, it’s just dead words on a page.

It seems almost axiomatic that the most common regret people have is not doing something; another common one, even more dangerous in its own way, is not finishing something.  We learn from the time we’re children that not finishing what you’ve started is a sin, but nobody ever really takes the time to explain why.  It’s because rather than simply commit a sin of omission, you’ve committed a sin of negligence, an act of apathy: you’ve created a monster, unfinished and powerless, a stillborn thing sitting out in the world waiting for its soul to descend.

Write things.  Do things.  Finish things.  You’ll be glad you did.

Crossing the Line: Why Feeding the Trolls Can Turn You Into Something Even Worse

Screen Shot 2014-10-18 at 3.17.21 PMThe Internet is abuzz with conversation today about an article published in The Guardian yesterday by young adult author Kathleen Hale entitled “‘Am I being catfished?’ An author confronts her number one online critic.”   The article, which is the story of how Hale attempted to confront in person the author of an extremely negative review of her debut novel No One Else Can Have You, is a surprisingly gripping read, and I’m not surprised that it’s spurred the amount of debate (on Twitter and elsewhere) that it has.

At its heart the debate is merely one of choosing sides: who was the greater sinner, here–Hale, or the person behind the Internet persona/catfish who identified herself as “Blythe Harris” (a faker sounding name, I’ve never heard, incidentally)?

Immediately after finishing the article, my sympathies were, for the most part, for Ms. Hale: while I don’t approve of her decision to confront the woman in the way that she did, I do understand, as a writer, the desire to do so.  Ms. “Harris” posted a review on a popular, powerful review website (Goodreads) that was both aggressively negative and, from Hale’s perspective, also inaccurate.  Stepping back from the situation though, I realized that my own biases as an author were probably getting in the way of recognizing the fundamentally immature and inappropriate nature of her response to the situation.  Looking on Twitter to find many people supporting the catfish over the author, I found my own internal compass jerking sharply from one side to another before landing, uncomfortably, in the middle.

Continue reading

The Pizza Hut Salad Bar Experience That Is Ello

optimizedSo I’m on Ello now.  A Twitter acquaintance had a spare invite and sent it my way.  The experience to this point has been kind of dull, aside from the general excitement inherent in trying out a new app.  I sent an invite, in turn, to another Twitter friend of mine, who used Ello for a few days before asking me what I thought of it.  I said I thought it was barely functional and thus not terribly useful at the moment.  He didn’t find the user experience very intuitive, and then had this to say:

[tweet 518611894975094784 hide_thread=’true’ align=’center’] [tweet 518613727348666370 hide_thread=’true’ align=’center’] [tweet 518615554366504960 hide_thread=’true’ align=’center’]

You can find me on Ello at Ello.com/jamescormier.  I’ve got a couple of invites left.  If anyone’s interested, let me know in the comments.

The Road Goes Ever On

howe_gandalf

I always think of Tolkien in the fall.  It is a season for adventure, a season with brisk air and beautiful landscapes–perfect walking weather.  The time of year that you venture out with a sweater on and walk for hours through the fields, knowing all the while that the chill of the dew on the grass and the crisp autumn winds will be mitigated by the fire back home and a cup of something warm.  It’s the season when both Bilbo and Frodo set out on their respective adventures, the season when even the homeliest of hobbits feels the gentle heat of longing in their blood.

I most often reread The Lord of the Rings during the fall for this reason.  In that spirit, and in the spirit of romantic adventurers everywhere, one of my favorite of Tolkien’s poems/songs* to whet your appetite for the ever-moving road:

Roads go ever ever on,
Over rock and under tree,
By caves where never sun has shone,
By streams that never find the sea;
Over snow by winter sown,
And through the merry flowers of June,
Over grass and over stone,
And under mountains in the moon.

Roads go ever ever on,
Under cloud and under star.
Yet feet that wandering have gone
Turn at last to home afar.
Eyes that fire and sword have seen,
And horror in the halls of stone
Look at last on meadows green,
And trees and hills they long have known.

The Road goes ever on and on
Down from the door where it began.
Now far ahead the Road has gone,
And I must follow, if I can,
Pursuing it with eager feet,
Until it joins some larger way,
Where many paths and errands meet.

The Road goes ever on and on
Down from the door where it began.
Now far ahead the Road has gone,
And I must follow, if I can,
Pursuing it with weary feet,
Until it joins some larger way,
Where many paths and errands meet.
And whither then? I cannot say.

The Road goes ever on and on
Out from the door where it began.
Now far ahead the Road has gone.
Let others follow, if they can!
Let them a journey new begin.
But I at last with weary feet
Will turn towards the lighted inn,
My evening-rest and sleep to meet.

Still ’round the corner there may wait
A new road or secret gate;
And though I oft have passed them by,
A day will come at last when I
Shall take the hidden paths that run
West of the Moon, East of the Sun.

a_hobbit_dwelling

* This is a synthesis of several different versions and stanzas of the song, which is sung by various characters at various times throughout both The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings.  Like the Road itself, the song changes, depending upon who’s doing the singing, and where they are when they’re singing it.  After all, “[i]t’s a dangerous business…going out your door. You step onto the road, and if you don’t keep your feet, there’s no knowing where you might be swept off to.”