You’ve read them here before.
They are my favorite four words of writing advice.
They also haunt me.
“Finish the damn book.”
Go to the website of author Laura Lippman. The words are right there in bold type, in the “Self Help” and “Son of Self Help: The Sequel” areas, under the “Letters” menu heading. Lippman (right) is the Baltimore-based, Edgar Award-winning, New York Times-bestselling crime novelist who writes a series about private eye Tess Monaghan as well as acclaimed stand-alone titles including, most recently, And When She Was Good. On February 14, 2014, After I’m Gone, another stand-alone, will be published by William Morrow. It is Lippman’s 20th book, the first of which was published in 1997.
I’ve been trying to meet Lippman’s charge for a long time.
At this point, I have written a long first draft of what I call a literary tough-guy novel. I have read most of the chapters in critique workshops over the years, and I’ve revised much of what I’ve written. That, however, isn’t the same as reimagining and rewriting the parts that need it. I still wrestle with the plot and the characters’ motivations. Also, I need to strengthen existing scenes and add missing ones in the domestic subplot, which I find hard to do. (Who would have guessed? I’m a guy, after all.) And at one point or another, I’ve fallen victim to almost every one of the following 10 reasons I’ve come up with for why aspiring fiction writers don’t finish the damn book.
2. Fear—of the book being too lousy; too self-revealing; too offensive to family, friends or an interest group; etc.;
3. Paralysis by analysis because the novice novelist studies too many craft books and feels his/her story misses too many beats of the prescribed story-structure formula;
4. Failure of imagination in coming up with an ending that meets the ideal, that it be both surprising and inevitable;
5. Losing one’s way in the story;
7. Inability to stop doing research;
8. Self-inflicted internet interruptions;
9. Lack of compelling need or desire to finish;
10. “Not enough time.”
At this point, while I can see a path toward the finish line, I seem to lack the confidence that I can invent what it will take to get there.
There seemed to be one thing left to do to try to overcome the dilemma: Reach out to Laura Lippman for her insight behind those four words.
When an initial email to Lippman came back as undeliverable, I contacted Joe Meyers, the Ellery Queen Award-winning book critique at the Connecticut Post, who had just seen Lippman at the Bouchercon mystery writing conference in Albany, N.Y., where the above photo of the author was shot. He suggested I contact Sharyn Rosenblum, the ace publicist at HarperCollins, of which William Morrow, Lippman’s publisher, is an imprint. Rosenblum forwarded my general query to Lippman, which I planned to follow up with a more detailed message. Before I could do that, Lippman wrote me back with answers that anticipated everything I planned ask her. Here is what she said:
“People don’t finish for a lot of reasons. Some don’t finish because a book is like a marriage or a new relationship. There’s a lot of giddy excitement in the early going, but then it requires work and patience and good habits and showing up—if not every day, pretty regularly. You can’t neglect it. Some people just don’t know what they’re getting into. It’s not hard, relative to a lot of jobs, but it’s harder than it looks.
“People also don’t finish because of fear. What if it’s not good? What if I don’t get published? What if I get published and people say it’s not good. A lot of perfectionism—the tendency to rework the same pages over and over—is a way of masking those fears. There’s a line in the musical ‘Company,’ about marriage/relationships: ‘Don’t be afraid that it won’t be perfect. Be afraid that it won’t be.’
“Every external dream we have about publishing has the nutritional value of cotton candy. I’ve been lucky enough to see some big dreams come true—prizes, making The New York Times list, having one of my books adapted for film. And that’s nice and that’s lovely and I tried to enjoy those moments, but they were moments and they didn’t really feed me.
“The work is what feeds us. So when you’re down in the dumps and trying to finish, imagining money or red carpets or even the Nobel Prize ceremony isn’t going to take you there. Because none of those things can nourish you.
“You try to make the book better. The book tries to make you better. Together, you struggle toward the finish line. Sometimes, the book will be urging you on, pacing itself. Sometimes it will be the other way around. The book wants to quit and you have to do whatever you can to keep it going. There are lots and lots of tricks. Have a character write you a letter. If you know the end of the book, start writing it and work backward, see if you can make it connect to what’s already written. Rewrite what you have until your characters do what you need them to do. (I had to rewrite a book three times or so before I could get the characters to go to Delaware for the climax.)
“The reward for finishing is finishing.”
Those six words are my new second-favorite piece of writing advice.
My thanks to Laura Lippman.—Alex McNab