The Power of Finishing Things

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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.