What are the most common reasons why writers don’t finish their books —and how can you overcome them in order to finish yours this year? Roz Morris gives practical writing and mindset tips.
In the intro, Spotify promo codes [FindawayVoices]; Rachael Herron’s money episode [How Do You Write?]; Changes at Amazon [Kris Writes, BBC]; AI as a writing co-pilot [Stark Reflections]; Hindenburg Narrator for audiobook mastering; Pilgrimage audiobook chapters [Books and Travel].
Today’s show is sponsored by Ingram Spark, which I use to print and distribute my print-on-demand books to 40,000 retailers including independent bookstores, schools and universities, libraries, and more. It’s your content—do more with it through IngramSpark.com.
Roz Morris is a best-selling author as a ghostwriter and an award-nominated author with her own literary novels. She writes writing craft books for authors under the Nail Your Novel brand, and is also an editor, speaker and writing coach.
You can listen above or on your favorite podcast app or read the notes and links below. Here are the highlights and the full transcript is below.
- The most common reasons that writers abandon books
- Creating a system for your creative process
- Finding the motivation to finish your book even when it gets tough
- The importance of research to help you keep going
- How to commit to finishing one project when you have multiple started
- Staying confident when you start doubting your book
- Knowing when to park a project
You can find Roz at RozMorris.org
Transcript of Interview with Roz Morris
Joanna: Roz Morris is a best-selling author as a ghostwriter and an award nominated author with her own literary novels. She writes writing craft books for authors under the Nail Your Novel brand, and is also an editor, speaker and writing coach.
Today, we’re talking about why writers abandon books and how you can draft, fix and finish with confidence. And we’ll have tips for both fiction and nonfiction authors. So welcome back to the show, Roz.
Roz: Thank you, Joanna. It’s so nice to be here again.
Joanna: And this is your sixth time on the show which is amazing. It’s probably been like a decade now since you’ve been coming on the show.
Roz: Yes, it has. I was a listener from the early days, and when you contacted me and said, “do come on my show,” I thought, oh, that’s brilliant because I’ve been listening for ages.
Joanna: And over the years, we’ve become friends, and we’ve both written lots of books, and we’ve had a journey. But what’s great is that you have so many books to help authors, and you’re very wise, which is why I like talking to you.
We’re not going to get into your background because we’ve done it many times before. Let’s get into the topic itself and start with a bit of an overview.
What are the most common reasons that writers abandon books? Why doesn’t every author just finish every book?
Roz: Well, we always start on a blaze of enthusiasm and inspiration. You get terribly excited, can’t wait to get to the keyboard, hammer loads of words down, and then we lose enthusiasm. And then what might happen is we grind on anyway.
For most people, that’s quite hard because they don’t know how to do it and how to do it productively. Or we get interested in something else and start another book, and off we go again.
Or we’ve run out of material, or we don’t have enough time to actually do justice to the book and make enough regular appointments with ourselves to write it because it does take a while to write a whole book.
Or we read something else and think, “oh, someone else has done it better, what’s the point?” That’s really why most books get abandoned.
Joanna: And I wondered, because I did a survey on The Creative Penn Podcast last year, well, this year as we’re recording this, last year as this goes out. And it was kind of stunning to me that this was one of the most common questions.
So I did just want to ask you because you wrote this particular book about why writers abandoned books and how to sort it out. How did you know that not finishing was one of the most common issues?
Roz: Maybe from talking to writers, meeting them, and they would say, “oh, well, how do you get to the end of a book?”
So they’d all been able to start, and then it just failed them in some way. But I’d got quite a lot of books under my belt by that time as a ghostwriter because I used to do a lot of ghostwriting fiction. So I realized I developed a method for doing all the work necessary to go from that big bang of inspiration to start with and then finally end up with a book that was not only finished, but presentable.
And I thought, I have obviously developed a system that gets me to the end and gets me through all the bad bits, because there are bad bits. And I thought, well I’ll write a book about how I do that. And then it turned out that quite a lot of people found it helpful.
Joanna: It is a very good book. And we’re going to get into some of those things that you gave as an overview. But it’s so interesting because you just mentioned there words like ‘system’ and ‘method’ and ‘process’.
And I mean, I’m a discovery writer, but also you do take a long time to write your literary novels, in particular. And they do meander in a lot of ways and your process is very creative.
How can you both have a system and a method and a process, but also be imaginative and lean into creativity?
Roz: Well, I have the process to help me do worthwhile things with the more creative ideas that I have. So the process will be ways of getting the work done, ways of getting myself back on track if I’ve got distracted, ways of allowing myself to go down new creative avenues if I think, oh, this book needs a bit more of this kind of excitement, or I need to research something.
The process gives me a kind of big framework that will allow me to control my creative urges and put them to good use.
That probably sounds quite woolly. But I have ways in which I think, well, how am I going to use this? Where does it belong in the book? Does it belong in the book?
Something I do is write lists of reasons to have something in the book or reasons not to have it in the book. So I think what my process does is it imposes discipline on the creativity aspect of it.
So I’m very creative. I want to find the best way of using an idea. I want to find the most original way to use an idea. I want to find the deep meanings that I feel in are in an idea, which is why I take so long to write a book.
Then what I also want to do is impose discipline on it so that the book is not just a sprawling mess of absolutely everything I’ve ever thought of.
It’s got purpose and a clear vision and themes and story. And my process allows me to pull everything together so that I can be creative and also create a coherent work that other people can enjoy.
Joanna: So, let’s get into one of the things. I mean, you mentioned starting with the blaze of enthusiasm, which then grinds to a halt.
And this word ‘grinds’, I think is really interesting. I feel like there’s a bit of a myth that every moment of writing a book is just going to be amazing, and we’re in flow, and it’s like, wow, just all of this is amazing. But it feels like maybe some people lose enthusiasm, and they think that’s the end of it.
How does it feel when that first flush of romance is gone from a book? How do we approach that ‘grind’?
Roz: That is so wise, what you’ve just said there. That other people think they’re doing it wrong if they’re not inspired all the time.
But most of writing is work.
It’s like a diet is probably work as well. At first, you’re thinking, I’m going to really get myself into the shape I want to, and I had this vision of what it will be like, and I will not be diverted from my course. And to begin with a book is like that.
And then there will be bits that aren’t as easy as you thought they were going to be. And very soon, that’s when it’s sort of like work.
So what I do, is I have various ways to remind myself of the original burst of inspiration.
So what I do now when I begin a book is I write myself notes that capture the particular things about the idea that gave me joy. And then I can look at them again later and think, “Oh, that is still giving me joy when I read it. How can I get back to that? Do I want to revise it?” But the joy is still there, you’ve captured it. It’s really important to do that.
Also, I build soundtracks that give me feelings that I want to put into the book.
And quite a lot of those are pieces of music that just make me think my book could be this. And when I play them again, it starts that feeling again. And I also have other books that I collect, or movies that I collect, that are touchstones for the initial inspiration.
So I think it’s very important to keep things, you know, it’s like mementos of the first moments of a romance. This is when it was a really good idea.
So there’s that. But then also, I think what you have to do some actual work, which may not sound very creative, but it will get you to the end.
There comes a point where you can’t just sit there making things up. You need to know where you’re going.
And most of us, I find, can hold a beginning in our heads and just write from that and blaze onwards. But after a while, we kind of run out of impetus.
We’re inventing stuff, and inventing stuff and inventing stuff. And then after a while, we realize it’s not really going anywhere, is it? It’s quite random. And unless you’re very experienced, you won’t then know what to do next.
And that’s usually the point where most writers think, oh, this isn’t as easy as I thought it was gonna be. The inspiration has deserted me or I can’t do this.
What a lot of writers don’t realize, especially when they start out, is that a satisfying story has actually got a lot going on under the words. Under the moment by moment of each chapter, there’s actually a pattern being built, and expectations being built for the reader, and seeds being planted, and things brought in that will be much more important later. And all that is really almost impossible to do unless you’ve planned it.
So if you make a plan, you will then know how to make the best use of all the ideas you’ve had, whether to immediately write a scene where something amazing happens, or whether to keep it for much later because actually it belongs later in the book.
And if you start thinking in terms of making a plan of how the whole book will go, you are much more likely to make the best use of your inspirations and get all the way to the end.
Joanna: And as a discovery writer, I do find — like I write out of order anyway for both fiction and nonfiction. But there always comes a point where I just go, as you said, like, “I don’t know what’s happening here, and I don’t know where this is going.”
Like right now I have a short story, and the ending, I still don’t know the ending. I’ve written an ending, but it’s not the ending. So I’m on my third printout and reread and re-edit.
And with my nonfiction, what I find is when I print things out and read them, and this normally happens to me in a full-length book at around, let’s say, 30,000 words.
I’ll end up printing out what I have, and only by sort of printing it out, because that’s how I edit, I kind of look at it from that higher level, that structural viewpoint, and then I can make a plan. And a plan can just be a few bullet points, like it doesn’t have to be a spreadsheet, right?
I mean, from reading your books, I know you’re both unstructured and structured in your planning. But you can do this plan later on in the process.
And it may be that for people who have blazed their first 20,000 words, or 40,000 words, that’s when you can then take a look at it and make a plan. Now, I always want to be the person who plans, it just doesn’t work for my creative process. So I do it a bit differently.
There always comes a point where you have to figure out what the hell’s happening with the book.
Roz: Yes, absolutely. And the planning can come at whatever stage suits you.
Most writers develop their own process. And everyone probably does the same elements, but probably at different points, depending on what suits them.
I do give an example in Nail Your Novel, actually, of how I wrote 60,000 words having a really lovely time inventing stuff. And then I realized one day, I really really don’t know what I’m doing with this. I don’t know where it’s going. So I thought, okay, the time is right to really think about everything.
It might be that that’s what you need to do. Or it might be that you’re better if you know what the last line is going to be. The children’s writer Alan Garner, does that. He always says, “a year of planning for every book.” And then he gets the last line and he knows exactly where he’s going with everything.
Everyone has their own method.
You find what you need, but what you generally need to do is at some point to have a route map to follow because then you’ll make the best use of your ideas, and you’ll also spot if you’ve got ideas you haven’t used well enough.
A very, very common thing I find when I assess manuscripts is that there’ll be threads that start and they don’t have the consequences that they should have. And those consequences would make great story elements and would really spice things up and would get all the interest and complication that, at the moment, is missing from the book. So there’s often a lot in the original inspiration and roughness that you can look at and then make much better use of.
And the same goes for nonfiction as well. Because in a nonfiction book, you might find you’ve glossed over some aspects of your subjects.
And you could actually make them into whole sections by themselves, and then the book would feel a lot more complete. It’s the same kind of thing. It’s seeing how to make the best out of the material you’ve got.
Joanna: And also figuring out what else you need. So nonfiction, for example, it may be that you need to do — well, and fiction too —
You might need to do some research.
Sometimes I feel that new authors, in particular, think that everything has to come out of their head for a novel, or even for nonfiction. But like, right now, as we record this, I have a pile of another around 15 books behind me that are research for the next novel idea that I have.
And I mean, I read tons. In fact, for my Pilgrimage book, I’ve probably read about 50 books over the last couple of years that kind of all go together. And I’ve picked bits up and used quotes from some, but just ideas that have popped into my head for others.
What are your thoughts on when we might need to research in order to continue?
Roz: That is such a good point. And I love the fact that you’ve raised the point of your pilgrimage book, which you are writing from your own experience.
And you might think that all you would need is your own experience, but that’s just not so. Every book that you write, you usually need to check facts, check any assertions you make, find out what other people have done.
I found when I wrote my travel memoir, Not Quite Lost, I was having to go and look things up and check that I hadn’t made any dumb assumptions.
It would have been fine to make those assumptions in my diary when I was writing the actual incidents that go in the book, but when you put it in print, and it’s going to be for an actual book for other people to read, you’ve usually got to do a lot of checking and additional research.
And yes, so you need research in absolutely every kind of book you write, whether fiction or nonfiction.
And something that I find particularly with fiction is, because we’re often writing about things we haven’t done or we don’t have tons of experience of, we might think, “Oh, I don’t really know what it’s like to work in the circus in the 1930s. Does that mean I can’t write the book?” Well, no, you just stop and go and do some research about it.
Research stops are a totally legitimate part of the work of writing a book.
And you can, depending on what works for you, you can either just stop there and then and go and do that research, and gather lots of stuff, and then bring it back to the book and decide where you’re going to use it.
Or, if not very much depends on those particular details, what you could do if you want to keep the flow, and you’ve got a good flow going, or you want to get a word count done every day, is you could just carry on writing and put placeholder words for those details you will then look up later, and then go and look them up. But research goes on all the time, really.
Joanna: Absolutely. Well, let’s pick another category. And one of the comments from the survey was from a listener called David who said,
“I have at least three books on the go at the moment, or actually, make that five. And my problem is they’re all totally different, and I just can’t decide or find the inspiration on how to finish any of them.”
And this comes under the category of the author who starts a project only to jump to another more exciting one, and then jumps on to another one after that, or in fact, might just change their mind about what the project is anyway.
How does the author who’s started lots of projects commit to one and finish it?
Because of course, you can have 20 manuscripts on your drive, or sort of bits and bobs, but that’s not the work, is it, in terms of getting things out into the world?
Roz: Yes, but what a wonderful grasshopper imagination he has. Yes, you have got to decide to commit to something in order to be able to do enough preparation on it to then feel like you’ve got the serious chops to write it. What I would do, if I was David, is I would pick one of those projects to spend a month on.
You’ve got to give something like this time, otherwise, you’ll decide to just put it down when the going gets a bit tough. And all books do get tough at some stage, but keep in mind that when you’ve gone a bit further with it, they then become intensely rewarding because you have taken nothing, just something from your brain, and you have made a book out of it. And that’s one of the things that really makes it very rewarding.
So what I would do if I was David, is I’d pick one of those projects and just concentrate on that. And if it’s a novel, decide whether you’ve got all the elements of the most interesting setting for the idea, the most interesting use of the idea, the kinds of characters you’d have, all those basic building blocks.
Find out if there’s any research you can do, and as soon as you start doing research that really does heap new ideas into your mind. You’ll get absolutely loads of material.
Then I would start to make a very rough plan of where the book could go because obviously what he’s lacking is a route map for where to take it.
And none of this has to destroy the creativity. I think this is a feeling that I’ve detected from talking to quite a lot of authors. They don’t really want to spoil the spontaneity, because the spontaneity and the creativity is the joy.
But if you do these other tasks, they are also creative. They are helping you gather material that you will then put into the book, and you won’t just take a piece of research and put it in verbatim, you will make something out of it. You will decide my characters could do this, or this could create a really interesting plot situation, or a really interesting dilemma.
Always look for dilemmas, by the way. Dilemmas are absolutely brilliant. They are drama. If your reader is wondering what your characters are going to do, and what they would do if they were in such a difficult situation, that is going to keep them gripped.
So you can gather all this material, and then you’ll find by doing that kind of work on the idea, you’ve got a lot more that you can have at your disposal to then start making a short synopsis, or some bullet points or a more detailed synopsis, and then you’ll be able to write and keep writing.
Joanna: And it’s interesting, I think this idea of committing to a book, I mean, I have something similar in that I have folders in my drive where I have bigger book ideas under a structure. And then what I do is I number them and I move them up and down the hierarchy depending on which ones I’m being drawn to.
And then by the time I’m ready to write, like this short story that I’m writing, it’s a military photographer idea spun from a memoir that I read years ago, and I’ve been thinking about it since I’ve my laser eye surgery done.
And this has kind of noodled around in my brain for years, so I guess it comes under that thing where I had an idea and now I’m like, okay, it’s risen to the top of my tree, and now I’m actually going to write it. And that means to me, once I commit, I actually have to finish the project.
And so it’s like I have these other books that I’m kind of flirting with, and then once I’m actually committed, then I will finish that. Like this Pilgrimage book, maybe like your Not Quite Lost, this is years in the making.
We can commit to a book that might take a long time, but once we commit, now we’re going to finish it.
Roz: Absolutely, yes. And you also find that it develops far more reality for you. Because you’re taking it seriously, you’re spending time with it, you are grappling with problems on it. All that makes it a bigger and more solid thing.
And there are times when it will seem quite difficult. But what I’ve often found is that’s usually some little reminder in my brain saying you haven’t yet sorted out this problem. So you can then do some sort of self-diagnosis and think what exactly is bothering me about this, and then you go and solve the problem.
For instance, I remember with my most recent novel Ever Rest, I was thinking, “I don’t like this aspect of it. Okay, why don’t I like that aspect?” Once you have diagnosed a problem, once you’ve asked yourself why enough times, you can then solve that. And the rest of the book is perfectly fine, it’s just a particular part of it was sort of a bit blocked and holding you up. So that will keep you committed as well.
As we’ve said, once you have quite a lot of work that you’ve done on the book, it’s got a solidity of its own. And it’s not just a little thing that you started as a bit of a craze and then drop. It’s got quite a substantial mass in your computer, in your head, in the amount of time spent with it, in the things you think about when you go out for a walk, you’ll find you’re taking the book with you. So if you put the work in, it is rewarded. The book becomes big enough for you to write.
Joanna: So what about those people, because I mean, and this often happens with people’s first books, but can often happen later, which is they started a project, but because they have so little time to write, it’s stretching on forever. We both know people who’ve spent sort of a decade writing a book —
And there might come a point where maybe you can’t remember why you started it in the first place.
And you kind of think, “Ugh, I don’t even know what I’m doing anymore.” And just the amount of time that’s been allocated to this book sort of doesn’t really allow it to finish. So how do people get over that?
Roz: Well, you do have to decide you’re going to commit regular time to it and enough regular spots that you will be able to keep it all in your head and know where you’re going with it. Now, it might only be 20 minutes a day, or 20 minutes, five days a week or something. But what you need is some continuity, so that it becomes something you can pick up.
And a lot of writing is done by thinking.
It’s when you’re away from the computer that you start wondering about things and little details you can just dwell on for a while when you haven’t got the pressure of the page in front of you. That’s all really valuable time.
So if you do manage to set aside only 20 minutes to do the actual writing, you’ll find you are doing more, and so you will get far more out of just that 20 minutes. So try, if possible, to commit enough regular sessions that you can make progress.
Another thing you can do is write yourself continuation notes.
If you might have to put the book down for a few days, and you know you won’t be firing on all cylinders when you get back, write yourself a couple of bullet points, maybe in the text, about what you’re going to do next.
That means when you then open the file again, you don’t have a blank mind. You’ve still actually got some idea of what you’re going to do next.
And what you could do is, earlier I mentioned things like triggers that help you keep sight of your original inspiration, the thing that originally made you really excited, you could use those as well. Go back to those or put them in the text file.
Joanna: I guess there’s two things we’re saying here. And one is, if you need to be gentle with yourself, and I know there are people who cannot commit daily, that just doesn’t work for their brain, or perhaps there are kids, or illness or whatever it is. For those people, I think the continuation notes are brilliant.
And for those who can take the tough love, I would say you just have to put it in your diary, you have to get up early or work late, or whatever it is, to get it done. Whichever way of motivation works for you, it is worth it to write your book. We’re both telling you, the listener, that it is worth it to take whatever is in your head and put it into the world.
Both of us feel there are just intrinsic benefits to finishing a book. You will be so proud of yourself, regardless if it’s your first book or your 30th or 50th, or whatever book. You’ll be like, yes, look what I’ve just done. This is amazing. So, I mean —
It’s either be gentle with yourself or tough love. Right, Roz?
Roz: Yes, I think it is. There is toughness in everything you try to do, even if you started out doing it just because you felt like it. And I certainly found that when I was writing my ghost novels that there’d be times I’d think, oh, I really don’t feel like it today. But I had a deadline and had to get it done.
It’s supposed to be creative work, but we still do have to make something out of nothing sometimes. And what I found was if I just sat down, I’d put some music on the headphones, and think, right, one CD, and I’ll see how I feel. The days of CDs…
Joanna: I was gonna say, you’re aging yourself there!
Roz: I would get into 10 minutes, and I’d be fine. So there are ways that you can overcome the kind of initial reluctance if you are just feeling a bit reluctant to start. There are ways of overcoming that too. But yes, there are also life circumstances that make it more difficult.
And now, we have so many ways of recording our words, even if we can’t type, you can just say it into a dictaphone.
Again, if you’ve made a plan, it will be a lot easier for you to make useful words out of that time.
So if you’ve got a plan, and you’re thinking, right, I need this to happen, and this happened, and this to happen. You can speak it into a dictaphone and you’ll get some text that’s more useful than if you were just trying to randomly pick up for 20 minutes and didn’t really know where you were going.
Joanna: Absolutely. And again, nowadays, it’s more like an app than a dictaphone. In fact, this transcript will be generated using otter.ai. And I use the Otter app now on my phone. And AI transcription is great in a lot of situations now, especially if it’s just one voice. So that tip is really good.
I mean, I remember when I was really sick with COVID, and I just literally was lying in bed a lot, and being able to speak and listen was a really good way of creating and also learning and thinking. In fact, I think we spoke about Not Quite Lost soon after that, and partly, your Not Quite Lost was part of my inspiration for my pilgrimage book.
So I feel like there’s lots of things that go into the making of a book, but we have to commit time. There’s literally no way around it. You have to put in time.
Roz: Yes, but it is a lot easier than it used to be when all you had was a computer to type on. Now there are — I’m not used to calling them apps yet. Because I do everything on a desktop, and I’ve only just acquired a phone that can do things like apps. It’s all very new.
Joanna: Oh, you’re hilarious. Well, let that be encouraging to everyone listening. You do not have to be as techie as me to make a career of this. Oh, that’s brilliant.
Let’s talk about confidence because this is another thing that you mentioned in the overview.
It’s like you’re writing this book and then you realize that someone else has written a book like this, or, you know, Colleen Hoover’s hit the top of the charts with a book just like your idea, or someone has written a nonfiction book that is similar to yours.
How do we get past the point of wondering what’s the point?
Roz: That is such a good question. Someone will seem to have had your idea, but your idea is yours. It’s not theirs. And you will do it differently. And the first thing you should do is to look very closely at all the other versions. And there’ll be quite a lot more versions of what seem to be similar to your idea. Read them all, and they are part of your research.
What you’ll find is very soon you’ll think, oh, I wouldn’t have done that with it anyway. And that will make you more clear about what you do want to do.
If you do find that somebody has done something very close, you probably should think of a way to make yours different, but it doesn’t mean your idea is wasted. Some people say that there only a few stories in the world, maybe there are if you group them together.
But there are so many author voices, and author souls, and styles and ways of examining the human condition or writing how-to books or writing a memoir.
The personal touch is what will make yours different.
If you do find there’s something else that’s quite like what you planned to do, bite the bullet, go and read it, and then sort of have a kind of dialogue with it. What is different about yours? How could you make yours even more different?
What it might make me think is, well, their version is perhaps a little wider ranging or deeper than I was going to go. So what could I do with my idea to make it more mine? It is always going to happen, but you should use it as an opportunity.
Joanna: It’s interesting this question, because I was just reflecting as you were talking. I mean, your books on writing novels, for example, you’ve got lots of them and they’re all amazing. And when I was thinking about, oh, do you know what, I really should write a book on writing a novel because people keep asking me for it, but there were so many.
I mean, you’ve obviously written some of them, but there are so many books on writing novels. And I spent a lot of time going, there’s no point in me writing one because I can just refer people to your books, for example, or to Stephen King, or James Patterson’s masterclass or whatever.
So my confidence around writing How to Write a Novel, my book, I had a draft for years, but I couldn’t get it out there until I actually rewrote my first three novels, and I realized that I’d learned a lot and maybe I could share it now.
So the confidence to write that particular book took time, but I didn’t just sit there during those years not writing anything else.
So what do you think about the sort of there are books that will take time, so maybe they just need to be put into the future, and in the meantime, we work on something else?
How would you know when an idea is ready?
Do you know what I mean?
Roz: That’s such a good question. Yes, some books will need to mature a bit more in order to be able to write them, quite simply. We need to get more experience to put our own personal spin on it.
As you’ve explained there, maybe five years ago wouldn’t have been the right time for you to release that book. But now, you’ve got quite a lot more of your own experience to add value to it.
So yes, what you might do is finish a draft and think it’s sort of alright, but it’s not satisfying me yet. So you have to go a lot on gut feeling. And that’s something that you learn as a writer. No one can teach you gut feeling. Gut feeling just sort of comes with experience with lots of reading, as well as writing.
Writers should always read.
Read loads and loads of stuff, get to know what else is out there, where your book fits, and then you have a better sense of whether you are contributing something useful to the books of that kind that readers of those kinds of books will appreciate. So yes, you might finish something to the best of your ability at the time, but you might still think it needs to settle a bit, or I need to settle a bit, and then come back to it.
Joanna: And in the meantime, maybe write something simpler.
Like I have quite a few of these books, like my Shadow book, which you know, I’ve been talking about for probably a decade. And then also like, I want to write something similar to Stephen King’s The Stand, which is my favorite book. It is an epic, dark fantasy book, and like 1000, or 1500 pages or something. It’s so big that it kind of scares me, that project scares me. But yet, I want to put something like that in my life at some point. So that would be another tip to people listening.
Well, let’s get into this question of quitting, because I feel like there’s a difference between quitting a project because of some of the reasons we’ve talked about and not finishing it, and then parking a project because maybe you’re not ready, or you want to tackle it when you’ve got more life experience or more writing experience.
And there’s this sort of, “you must finish what you start,” one of Heinlein’s rules. But then this book Quit by Annie Duke that I’ve talked about on the show, and lots of people have, which is about walking away and really just leaving something behind. So I guess that’s a continuum.
How do you know when we should park something? How do we know when we should finish something?
Roz: Parking is such a good word for this. I always believe in parking rather than giving up.
That is because a lot of the writing mindset requires you to go through the grueling days and just get on with it. And there are always little problems you need to solve in the manuscript, where really bum on the seat is the only way. So giving up is quite hard for anyone to do.
I do think you can find that you just need to put a book down for a little bit and go on to something else. And you usually find, if you’re the kind of person who had an idea for one book, you’ll have ideas for more.
It’s more that you had the writing urge, the creativity urge, the need to make other people see why something that strikes you, can also be very exciting to them, and the need to communicate all that. That’s just a really basic thing that artistic people have. And that’s why, if you start one kind of book, you’ll probably start another kind of book.
So you might have several that are done to the best of your ability at the time, but that you could revisit when you’ve got fresh insight, something else that you could add, something you could use to add what you think is missing. And it is gut feeling, again.
If it seems it’s not quite satisfying to you yet, that’s an indication that you should park the book for a while.
The feeling that something’s not quite satisfying also walks you through revisions.
We all have to revise our manuscripts, they don’t come out perfect first time, even with all the planning in the world, because they’re so big, there’s so much complexity. And when we revise, some of its by a plan, and some of it’s by the gut feeling that this could be better, this doesn’t quite work or, oh, that does work. So listen to your gut a lot.
Joanna: It’s hard, though, because we’re like, “Oh, you can park a book. But you have to finish some books. And you can’t just keep parking everything.” It’s funny, but, I don’t know, you kind of get to know this through experience.
And sometimes you have to force yourself onwards and you’ll figure out how to finish a book, or sometimes you do need to park it. And it is hard to juggle, isn’t it? But I guess, how do you measure? Because some of your books have taken years to write. So I guess —
How do you know that this is the book you are going to finish this time?
And why is it worth it for you to keep going, even after decades as an author?
Roz: Oh, good question. Yes, my last novel took about seven years. And it came from a short story idea I wrote actually about 30 years ago now. So it took me a very long time to start envisioning it as a much bigger story. But I always had the feeling something was in there.
As I keep saying, everything starts with a feeling, a feeling of, “I must write this.”
And if the book is going to become a book in the end, it will always keep plunking at you. It’s this idea that there is something in there that I really want to explore and express.
That’s with my kind of novels because they are quite literary, although they are really story based because I love a good story.
I also want something bigger to shimmer through, and finding that is very rewarding to me.
And creating characters who are complex and in unique difficulties really interests me. I certainly find that a novel kind of builds itself around me as the ideas for characters start to become quite real. So it develops its own momentum and becomes a thing I find very rewarding to build and problem solve.
That’s a very personal reason for wanting to write. It’s the personal reward of creating something and doing it as well as you can. And I’ll often find I might be reading something else or watching a movie, and I’ll think, ah, that was a note I really wanted to put in the book, but I hadn’t yet thought of it.
After you’ve had a book with you for a while, it ambushes you all the time from unexpected directions, and that’s very rewarding too. But that’s the sort of real long haul book.
While I was writing Ever Rest, I wrote Not Quite Lost, which was just from travel diaries, and that was a hoot to do that even though there was some hard work in that. As you would’ve found with your Pilgrimage book, you had to do certain bits of research, had to rewrite things so that they are intelligible to an audience who isn’t you because you’ve written most of it in diaries.
I also wrote some of my Nail Your Novel books as well. And they were all rewarding their own way. The Nail Your Novel books, I thought, right, I really want to communicate how you can do this, how you can solve this problem, how you can make your books much better, and in terms of the widest number of people can understand. So that’s really rewarding as well.
I think the reward really, underneath it all, is communication, isn’t it? It’s giving somebody either an escapist experience, or a mysterious or thrilling experience, or a useful experience or an inspiring experience that helps them go and do something they wanted to do.
Joanna: Yes, basically, we just love doing this and we can’t help ourselves.
Roz: We can’t help ourselves. Yes.
Joanna: We can’t stop.
Roz: But both of us had to figure out to start with, how we were going to take that urge and get something out at the other end that would be satisfying to us.
Tell us a bit more about your books for authors and how the others in the series might also help people.
Roz: Well, the original book that started all this for me was called Nail Your Novel: Why Writers Abandon Books and How You Can Draft, Fix and Finish With Confidence. And it’s a process book that you’ll do for any kind of novel.
It’s also quite good for nonfiction as well, because it’s about structuring your idea, filling gaps, finding ways to solve the problems, what kind of problems you’ll get, how to keep sitting there writing every day, or every 20 minutes every other day, if that’s what you can manage.
And then also how to edit without getting lost, without getting stuck in endless rounds of editing, and editing and editing and never finishing it. And how to present it to the world when you have got a manuscript you’re satisfied with. So that’s all in that Nail Your Novel book. It’s a process book, follow the steps, you’ll get to the end of your book.
I’ve also made a workbook version of that with a few extra tips and exercises to help you do that. And the other books in the series are one on characters and one on plot. And they were distilled from the work I’ve done with other authors, working on their manuscripts, figuring out the common misconceptions they have, how they can do what they want to do, what goes wrong.
Lots of examples of how to, for instance, create a character who people will like but won’t find saccharine, how to write dialogue, how to write plots that have all the rises and falls in the right place, what those right places are, how to keep a reader curious. All those are in my character’s book, my plot book.
Joanna: Brilliant, and they’re all excellent. Also, as I’ve said, I really liked your Not Quite Lost. I think it’s a quirky travel memoir. And also Ever Rest, I think I’ve read all your novels as Roz Morris. And Ever Rest is fantastic, so I definitely recommend that as well to people listening.
Where can people find you and your books online?
Roz: Easiest place is probably my website, which is RozMorris.org.
Joanna: Brilliant. Well, thanks as ever for your time, Roz. That was great.
Roz: Thank you.
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Author: Joanna Penn