Just You And The Words And The Dark Sky You Shout To

About a week ago, I received a tweet from a reader named Thomas, which read:

I started a novel and got 3/4 the way written then lost inspiration. Anything I can do to rekindle the desire to finish my book?

With permission, I’m replying here.

Dear Thomas,

Let’s begin with a confession: I haven’t finished my debut novel yet either. I’m working on it, with a NOVEL OR BUST sign hung across my chest, but it’s not done. I am unpublished, unrepresented, and unrepentantly optimistic.

Furthermore, I have been working on this novel of mine for a long time. It started as a glimmer of an idea I had in 1999 while on vacation with my best friend, Lisa. 1999 was not my finest year. My first husband had left me just months before, and I was in a haze of depression, anxiety, and emotional turmoil that made it difficult to put on pants, much less consider writing a book. And yet, this idea nudged at me and poked at me and stamped its foot while I tried to ignore it and did other things. It absolutely refused to go away. The main characters took on names, and then personalities, and started asking — demanding to know, really — why I was ignoring them.

I made at start at writing my book in January of 2013, and it was like falling in love — a headlong hot rush of words and ideas. That lasted for a few months, and then in April of 2013 I attended the Robert McKee STORY seminar, which is to writing seminars what Ultraman is to endurance races. I do not exaggerate when I say I cried through most of that seminar, for a few reasons:

I cried with frustration, because I was more than 100 pages into a novel that I now realized had to be dismantled and rewritten from page 1.

I cried from relief, because finally, FINALLY, I had a method for doing the work. I have been to many writing classes and seminars where the focus was on beautiful writing, finding your unique voice, and being brave on the page, and these are good, worthy things to learn, but holy hell — INDEX CARDS ARE THE KEY TO EVERYTHING. (OK, now I’m exaggerating, but the McKee seminar gave me a precise method for understanding characters and crafting a story. It gave me tools, not permission.)

I cried because on the last day of the seminar we watched Casablanca for hours — with McKee stopping the film to explain the mechanics of the plot, the subplots, the way everything from camera angles to costumes tell us that Elsa and Rick are soul mates – and I always cry when I watch this movie, hoping in vain that this time he won’t put her on the plane, this time she’ll refuse to go, this time there will be an epilogue where they find each other after the war.

I cried because it is four very, very long, exhausting days, and it is so cold, and the seats are so uncomfortable, and I was so hungry, and I had to pee all the time, and did I mention I had to throw my whole book away and start over?

That was April 2013.

I went home from McKee, and took the book apart. I went back to basics. I outlined. I wrote character bios. I wrote scenes. I threw them away. I made a timeline. I made a Spotify playlist. I tried again. I wrote and rewrote.

I thought I had it.

I didn’t have it.

In mid-2014, I got stuck. Profoundly stuck. Scary stuck, the kind that makes a person want to give it all up and re-watch The X-Files. All of The X-Files. Including Season 9. And both movies.

So I stopped writing the book, and I started thinking about it instead. I had a problem, a major problem, and the problem was I didn’t know what my main characters wanted. Oh, I had lists of things they desired, dreams and wishes, motivations and hungers, but nothing that could be expressed in a single sentence, nothing that would drive a person forward.

I thought about them all the time, these two characters who first appeared to me as I climbed a mountain in Costa Rica with my best friend in 1999. I thought about them as I drifted off to sleep. I thought about them on the treadmill. I sat in front of my computer and I tried a million answers to the questions “What do you want? What do you wish for? If you had a magic wand, what magic would you do?” I listened to Into the Woods. I listened to Bleachers. I listened to Motown. And I finally got my answer last month, in December of 2014. It was a terrible answer, raw and full of pain, but it was the absolute truth.

I wrote it on an index card and I got back to work.

This is a very long way of telling you that I am no field commander in this business of giving advice about finishing the book. But I am here in the foxhole with you, and I will share my cigarettes and coffee and tell you what I know, what I believe.

You say, Thomas, that you lost inspiration ¾ of the way through. Which makes me suspect that you don’t have an ending, something went awry that makes it impossible to get to an ending, or you’re scared of what will happen (or won’t happen) when you finish.

Do you have an outline for your novel? Do you know what happens in act 3? Do you have an honest resolution for your plot, your subplots? Will you know when it’s done? These are questions you need to ask yourself, and if the answer is no, then you have work to do; however you do it (index cards!). Returning to the bones of your story, writing an outline that takes you from where you are to that last moment, figuring out the “and then and then and then,” will free your mind to write beautifully. It will give you the comfort of knowing exactly how it all goes down, and the ability to structure your time by giving yourself assignments and deadlines for those assignments. It sounds so obvious, but you need to know how it ends to write the ending.

“But Stefanie,” I imagine you protesting, “I do have an outline! I have all of act 3 carefully planned on multi-colored index cards and I’ve got a string map that shows how the plot and sub-plots resolve. I made a Pinterest board! I have a Spotify playlist! I’m just not feeling inspired to finish.” It is possible, Thomas, that you aren’t feeling inspired because there is something essentially wrong with your story, something dishonest, a problem to be fixed that requires dismantling and reassembling. You may need a rewrite. It may be terrible, the idea of starting again, but take heart in that it happens to the very best writers. You are in good company, if this is the case.

But it may be something else. It may be that as you stand on the cusp of finishing you are thinking, “Well shit, it looks like I’m actually going to finish this thing and then what? What if I finish and no one wants it? What if I can never find an agent, find a publisher? What if it DOES get published, and the world thinks it sucks? What if it DOES suck? What if I suck? Even worse, what if it’s good and I have to do this AGAIN?”

I am well acquainted with this kind of crazy making thinking, and after years of therapy and meditation and yoga and journaling and studying the Dharma I have found there is nothing for it but to tell that voice to Shut. The. Fuck. Up. and do the work. That voice does not have your best interests at heart. That voice is not your best self. That voice rides with fear, and complacency. That voice likes The X-Files. Even Season 9. And both movies. That voice is an asshole, Thomas.

It really does help to have a teacher to consult. For me, that teacher is Robert McKee. When I get mucked up, I turn to the two notebooks I filled during the fours days I attended his seminar, and his giant book STORY. If McKee isn’t your thing, Anne Lamott gives some wonderful, encouraging, beautifully Lamotty advice in Bird by Bird. Neil Gaiman has some excellent things to say about getting the work done (although I find it hard to hear him over those soulful eyes and magnificent floppy hair). Stephen King’s On Writing will kick your ass (and scare you half to death). Steven Pressfield can help you get out of your own way. Find the one who speaks to you, who can help you figure out what to do next when the going gets tough.

Here’s what it comes down to, Thomas. There is so much in this world left undone, unresolved. People leave us in all sorts of ways, for all sorts of reasons, and we never get to tell them the one thing we always meant to — I’m sorry, I love you, it was always you, I didn’t mean it, thank you. Jobs end. Accidents happen, and tragedies. We make choices, and by their nature those choices leave us wondering about what might have been, lingering wants, regrets that can’t be made right. There is no way to control all that gets left behind as we make our way through life, but you do control this. Finish the book. Finish it. Give it closure. See what it feels like to be done, to have done this thing, to have said the thing you meant to say, to not back down to fear or apathy, to have given your heart and your sweat and your time and your best intentions to something with no guarantee, no promise, just you and the words and the dark sky you shout to.