You should finish what you start. New writers often hear this piece of advice, and there is a time when it could be the best advice a writer could get. There are also times when it is the worst advice.
It is all too easy, when you get bogged down in a manuscript without a clear way forward, to start the next new shiny thing, until that becomes bogged down, too, and you can start on the next new shiny thing. And so on and so forth. Rinse and repeat. Manuscripts build up in the proverbial drawer and none of them are finished. Sound familiar? Then you’re a serial non-finisher. The best advice for you is that you need some discipline and to grab the manuscript you feel most strongly about and finish it to perfection.
On the flip side, who doesn’t know at least one new writer who has spent the last five years churning out draft after draft of the same book? Often, the book is a typical first-ever-novel mess, the characters are Mary-Sue-ish and the plot meandering if not downright absent. And every time someone in the writers’ group says something, the writer goes off and does another draft, because member X said it could be about a conspiracy and member Z said that the characters are flat. So obviously the plot-less book needs a conspiracy and all the characters need lots of personal problems…
Hold the show.
Yes, you should finish what you start, but you should first learn to judge which of your unfinished works warrant finishing.
As a new writer, it’s likely you don’t know. I certainly didn’t. I didn’t have a feel for what makes a good story. I had no idea what was a fresh concept, or even what was required to write a good story. I could tell a good story when I saw one, but hadn’t the skill to see why. As your skills in that area continue to grow, you will see what ideas are snippets of interesting stuff and what ideas are complete stories.
Presuming you’re in a similar situation and have not market-tested any of your work, and you have this cool idea that you want to write about regardless… Well, write it, finish the story, and then move onto the next story. It may not be any good, and you may realize this by the time you’ve finished. You may not even be able to finish it because you realized that you made a mess of the plot (does there have to be one?) or that the book ended up being about something different from what you intended. Never mind, leave it as-is, finished or not, and write something completely different. Never mind the planned sequels. Just pick up something completely different, and, using the skills you’ve developed in your other manuscript, start something new.
If there is one thing I have learned in my time as a writer, it’s that once you stop working on a manuscript, it doesn’t somehow vanish or become unwritten. Those words that made you bang your head against the wall will still be there one, two, three or more years later. Presuming you continue to grow as a writer, you’ll be able to look at those early manuscripts and judge whether or not the story is worth picking up again. What is definitely not worth it is to keep banging your head against the wall with something that is not working under the guise of “finish what you start.”
If you find that you can’t finish any manuscripts, then it’s still worth abandoning those manuscripts in favor of some courses or tuition on plotting to work out what is holding you back.
Patty Jansen lives in Sydney, Australia, where she spends most of her time writing science fiction and fantasy. She publishes in both traditional and indie venues. Her story “This Peaceful State of War” placed first in the second quarter of the Writers of the Future contest and was published in their 27th anthology. Her story “Survival in Shades of Orange” will be published in Analog Science Fiction and Fact.
Her novels include Watcher’s Web (soft SF), The Far Horizon (middle-grade SF), Charlotte’s Army (military SF) and books 1 and 2 of the Icefire Trilogy: Fire & Ice and Dust & Rain (post-apocalyptic steampunk fantasy).