Finishing the Goddamned Thing

You know when you see a movie where the protagonist stops in the middle of a crosswalk and there are few piano notes and the camera does a slow pull-in and the guy starts to smile? And then the music swells and there’s a montage of  typing, printing sheets, biting a pencil, crossing things out, going for a walk, coming back, typing  more (the music gets faster now, and usually there are more strings)? Then a crescendo of fast cuts showing the mounting pile of pages, then mailing off the manuscript, then walking in to a big building in NYC, and then the finished book on the table and then another (obviously a sequel) and then another? You know, a movie about a writer?

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Mind you, I base this on my own experience. Like many other  fledglings, I read A Moveable Feast  and drew tremendous inspiration from Hemingway’s tale of heading out into early morning Paris and writing in a cafe until noon, creating some of the greatest stories in American literature. I loved the idea of an exhausted Charles Bukowski listening to classical music in his Los Angeles rat hole apartment, swilling wine and writing Post Office late into the night. How about Stephen King banging out The Shining at the Stanley Hotel at 3AM?

And of course, the Glorious End: Undying fame. Undying adulation. Piles of money. Dan Brown fueling the boilers of his yacht with hundred dollar bills. Alan Moore buying the northern half of Scotland. James Patterson driving an Aston-Martin DB4 through the hills of Hong Kong.

What I didn’t imagine? This shit:

Luke Johnson was the funniest guy I ever knew. He could find the humor in anything. His father was a psychiatrist and his mother was a hoarder. Mormons, too. They no longer lived together. They weren’t divorced. The church discouraged divorce. His mother was devout. His father lived in a condo with his former receptionist. They lived in sin.


Luke Johnson could find the humor in anything. He had to. His father was a psychiatrist and his mother was a hoarder. Plus, they were Mormons. His parents weren’t divorced. The church discouraged divorce. His mother was devout. His father lived in sin with his former receptionist. They lived in a condo.


Luke Johnson was  a guy who could find the humor in anything. His father was a psychiatrist. His mother was a hoarder. They were Mormons. They weren’t divorced, but they didn’t  live together. The Mormon Church discouraged divorce.  Luke lived in his old house with his mother, brother and sisters. His father lived in a condo with his former receptionist.

for three fucking hours.

Take out a word.

Put it back.

Comma, or no comma?

Short sentences are well and good, but what about a long sentence?

How many syllables?

(counts syllables).

We’re not talking about plot, character, dialog, style or anything writerly.  We’re not talking about grammar or spelling or anything technical. We’re certainly not talking about publishing, marketing or revenue-generation.

We’re talking about pulling apart the bird to find out how it flies and then trying to glue it back together. Blood, guts. Feathers everywhere.


Where is Gordon Lish when I need him?

I wish this guy had access to my mouth.



So what the hell do you DO? How does this endless plowing and replowing the same furrow translate into writing a 135,000 word novel? To finishing it and selling it?

Hell if I know. All I can share is what I do.

I get up before work every day (usually at 4AM). I get some coffee, write a couple pages in a diary and then turn on my computer. I open my document. Lately I have been reading back over the previous day’s pages, but with the strict rule of not editing it (more on this in a second). And then I get to work. It’s often like starting a bicycle up a hill. Usually, I can get into a rhythm and start making tracks. But not always. With this last novel, I was constantly snarling myself in the smaller elements of the story. It is a mystery, and I hadn’t yet discovered what it was about. I had to write my way through it. It was rough, slow going. But every day I got up and forced myself to keep at it. And what do you know, an exit revealed itself. A new scene emerged, with new characters.  I could see a way out of the woods. I charged ahead. I got it done.

So now comes the other part. This is the editing part. How the hell do you edit your own work? How can you tell if it’s good? How do you know if it works?

Bring your own wieners!

I guess you just have to trust that you know what the hell you’re doing.  And as with the writing, to keep momentum. It’s vital to not spin out, to not bog down. Keep moving.  Get all the way through it.

Then put that fucker aside. Write something else. A blog post. A short story. Poetry. Go for a walk. Don’t think about the story. Do writer exercises if you want. And read. Read a ton. But give yourself a date when you’ll go back. Stick to it.

This has been working for me. What works for you?

One more thing: I actually did write a novel. It’s 135,000 words. I think it’s good, and those who have read it seem to enjoy it too. I would very much love if lots of people read it. I want you to read it. The link to get it is up top. Hell, I’ll even give you one if you want. Hit me up.


Add Yours
  1. karen rawson

    Your approach is better than anything I could offer. Although I will say that once you reach the point where you’re just shifting commas around, it’s time to step away from the manuscript.

    That being said, if you ever need any pointers on burning your own work or spinning out of control, let me know. I’m a master.

    However if you’re smart, you’ll ignore me completely. Drop me a line when Future-You buys an island in the South Pacific. I’ve got a keen eye for design. It will be fabulous.

    Oh, and I like the first Luke paragraph.

  2. lpishere

    Okay. First off, I’m new to your blog but I’ll freely admit I already love your writing style.

    Second, your comma “process” mirrors my own with frightening accuracy.

    In terms of process, I write, I set my writing aside and write other things, then I come back with fresh eyes because whenever I cut something on impulse, I cut it all wrong.

  3. Subliminal Quibbler

    I read a comment you left on Fred Colton’s blog and thought, I should check this guy out. Pleased I did. After the first read over, I clicked subscribed and you’re one of the only writers whose posts I look forward to and read all the way through in one sitting. Much to do with your writing style and content. I wish you well on all your writing projects. Also, I’d be happy to take you up on your Hawser offer ;)

Don't just stand there.