The Infinite Sadness of Unfinished Work

Recently I came across the Nicholl Fellowship, an initiative run by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (that’s the nice people who give out the Oscars, FYI), which invites amateur screenwriters from anywhere in the world to submit a feature-length screenplay to compete for one of several $35,000 bursaries, the idea being that in their fellowship year they have some financial wiggle room to take a step back from the 9 to 5 and produce a new script. (You also get invited to a very swanky luncheon in L.A…) There is a small fee to enter which pays for the time of the industry experts – and Academy members – who read and critique the entries, and the only entry requirement is that the entrant has earned less than $25,000 from screenwriting.

It’s a prestigious prize and one, I imagine, that’s not easily won. The deadline just closed for this year and last time I checked, they’d received upwards of 7,000 entries. The number increases every year, presumably as more and more people find about it, and more and more people put pen to paper. (Or finger to keyboard while Final Draft is on screen.) There’s been some notable winners: the screenplay for one of my Top 100 Favourite Movies, Arlington Road, was a Nicholl Fellowship winning script, and other notable winners include Jeffery Eugenides (Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Middlesex) and Susannah Grant, who’d go onto win an Academy Award for her script Erin Brockovich. Finding Forrester, frequently cited in favourite-movies-about-writing-and-writers lists, was also a Nicholl Fellowship script.

But none of that was what struck me about the fellowship.

Also on their website is a section where you can catch up with past winners, a kind of ‘Where are they now?’ just for Nicholl Fellowship recipients. And yes, while a few of them are winning Pulitzers and winning both themselves and Julia Roberts Oscar statuettes, the vast majority of them are not. The vast majority of them are working on another screenplay.

Now maybe it’s just the way it’s worded, or maybe it’s because the best thing for a one-line bio is the name of the project you’re working on now and not the fifteen scripts you’ve finished that are languishing in a drawer, or maybe I just reading into this too much altogether, but it struck me as sad that all these people were the best, the absolute best, out of thousands of people at doing something, and yet here they are, years later, saying they are still working on their next project or admitting that they’ve moved on completely to something else.

Why haven’t they finished them?

Well… Pot Kettle Black Alert!

Too much of this...

Too much of this…

Now I certainly have not been proven to be the best at anything except consuming caffeine, online shopping and getting through TV show box-sets, but I have had some success. Since dramatically (and, perhaps, foolishly) quitting my job in the summer of 2009, I’ve self-published three full-length books and sold a few of them, done a whole load of speaking engagements, seminars and workshops and started to work on social media projects for a major publishing house. I’ve got to a place where I only need do book and writing-relating things full-time. I have a popular blog with lots of followers. I now know a good group of people in the publishing industry; I have contacts. I have a busy writing CV filled with evidence that I have an established readership and that I’m prepared to get out there and sell my books. And, perhaps because of this, in the past couple of weeks I found out that I’ve been offered a place to study for an English degree in one of the best and oldest English departments in the world, at the country’s most prestigious university.

(More on that another time. Right now it’s overshadowed by the fact that I have to move to another city this summer. STRESSFEST.)

But I still haven’t finished my novel.

I mean… I can’t even believe I am still in a position to write that sentence.

I still haven’t finished my novel.

What the fudge HAVE I been doing? Because all that stuff up there, in the paragraph above? That’s, like, maybe one year out of the last five, if you added up all the time it took. I put the first edition of Self-Printed together in a month. Backpacked‘s first draft took two weeks. I don’t blog or tweet or use Facebook anywhere near as much as I used to. And I don’t have a spouse, kids or a full-time job to worry about. My time is my own, more or less.

So what the hell have I been doing with it?

Publishing, however you’re doing it, can be an extremely frustrating endeavor. If you’re chasing a deal or an agent, you’re dependent on someone else’s ‘yes’. If you’re self-publishing, your success will depend on the reading tastes of the world at large, as well as things like timing, price, luck, etc. There’s little about the outcome, on either side, that you can really control, in the sense that you can say ‘Well, if I do x, y and z, I’ll definitely end up selling a trillion copies…’ But there’s one thing you can control, and none of the other stuff will happen if you don’t do it: finish your book.

... and not enough of this.

… and not enough of this.

Catherine’s Stressfest Summer 2014 officially begins on July 1st. I have until then to finish my novel, which is entirely feasible. I have to do it, because after that I’ll be moving, and after that I’ll be in school. I have no choice this time. It has to happen. It will happen.

Because for all the frustration, all the uncertainty, all the rejection, rewards and success — none of it, none of it, can happen if you don’t finish your book.

Let’s do this.

[UPDATE DECEMBER 2014: I finished it – and I got an agent!!! Woo-hoo!]

Are you haunting by unfinished work? What prevents you, do you think, from finishing it? Do you agree that you’d find the time if you truly wanted to? Let me know in the comments below…

31 thoughts on “The Infinite Sadness of Unfinished Work

  1. MarinaSofia says:

    Oh, Catherine, I can so sympathise with you on that score… and tell you not to beat yourself up about it… even while I am beating myself up about my own unfinished novel. I blamed it on the fact that last year I was working too hard, but this year I took some time off and still haven’t managed to move it forwards.
    On the plus side, you have achieved so much more than me, and I do envy you the fact that you can work full-time on your writing. I am sure you will achieve whatever you set in your mind to achieve. Here’s to you and your certain success!

  2. Harliqueen says:

    I’m in the editing and formatting and general ‘get everything up together’ stage of my books. That is a hard place to be 😀 Being unmotivated hits me easily, but I know I have to push through and finish my stuff if I want to move forwards in life 🙂

  3. Frankie Valente says:

    Good luck with your move. You might find that university deadlines kick-start a new regime of productivity. It worked for me. I spent 18 months in Ireland, not working, and all the time in the world to write – and did I? I became far more productive as soon as I returned to the UK to a full time job, part time MA course as well as all the domestic stuff. The more you do, the more you can do. That’s my theory.

  4. margarethawkinswriter says:

    Am thrilled you have been offered a place to do a degree in English lit. Savour every minute. Pressure to earn a living sometimes means that creative projects take longer but procrastination has a tendency to set in too. It’s about facing the blank page and getting over the ‘if I don’t start I can’t fail’ voice that has you cleaning skirting boards rather than sitting down with your pen when you do actually have the time. And oh the joy when you finish a novel! Wishing you energy, clarity and determination especially between this and the 1st of July. 🙂

  5. Devon Trevarrow Flaherty says:

    For me, putting deadlines on the calendar is key (like just what you are doing). I have a work calendar, I keep work hours, and I generally treat novel-writing and publishing like I have a boss telling me what to do and expecting me to meet those deadlines. Maybe that’s why I make a decent novelist… I am great at imagining things. 🙂 (And I’m also great at panic-publishing because I need income.)

  6. Lindsay Edmunds says:

    Deadlines are motivating, new and stimulating environments are motivating — I think the move and the course of study will help. Speaking for myself, I have trouble finishing a thing I know no one is waiting for. If I want to write for myself, I can scribble in a journal.

  7. writer2050 says:

    I have one book to publish and one in the wings. I aim for 1,000 words a day, most days, unless I research for an hour. I wake up thinking about the next scenario and two days later it’s still percolating. It’s a travel diary with interesting snippets from my travels to 5 continents – the grand tour of a 13 year old and his family so I only need to do about 20,000 words for middle grade.

  8. evie gaughan says:

    Oh Catherine, Catherine, Catherine *shakes head dolefully*, don’t you know that the more time you have, the less you get done? It’s a universal truth. In my house anyway 😉 I often look back, after what seemed to be a very busy period and think, what the hell have I been doing? It’s just all this bits ‘n pieces stuff that takes up all of your time with not much to show, but it needs doing nonetheless. As the other commenter said, try not to be too hard on yourself (another big waste of time!) Best of luck with your move and uni, delighted for you.

  9. sallyparkrubin says:

    Catherine hi,

    When your posts come in, I read them with the relish of getting a letter at camp. I was telling my husband “I feel like I know her.” Of course, I don’t. But, thank you for being part of my life through the DigiSphere.

    What do I think about you not finishing your novel? You WILL finish it, now that you have a DEADLINE imposed on you by other cool and exciting things on the agenda. That’s what I think.

    But, crap! Life does get in the way, doesn’t it? And it can all be rationalized as GOOD MATERIAL for the writing effort. Sieeeghsh!

    Keep going! I’m (one of many, no doubt) routing from the sidelines!


  10. barryknister says:

    I think you may be the living cautionary tale of the writer who’s too good a blogger. You have a great following of loyal readers, people who actually wait for your posts. How can you let them down? Ah well, the book will have to wait a little longer.

  11. Stephen Tiano says:

    Oy, if the two-and-a-half bad novels I wrote before I turned 22–I’m 60 now–and never pushed into “finished” works had haunted me, I’d’ve wound up in a straitjacket years ago, I bet. Luckily, I became a book designer/layout artist and have put my stamp, figuratively, on almost 100 books over the past 21 years. (Or maybe not so luckily. I still have a novel below the surface somewhere that, every once in a whole, suggests to me it wants to see the light of day.

  12. Cara says:

    Ah! Me too! I have an unfinished novel which MUST BE FINISHED soon. MUST. I have started telling people that I am self-publishing and the book will start coming out in October. So I have to FINISH IT. We can do this!

  13. jmvandenberg says:

    The number one reason why I don’t finish my writing projects is because I read too much so I really related to this post. In honor of your July 1st deadline I too am going to finish one of my projects by July 1st. Perhaps other readers would like to join you in your quest. Thanks for the inspiration.

  14. L. Palmer says:

    Finishing is always the hardest part. Sometimes, it feels safer to say the work is in progress and give yourself space. I’m sure you’ll be able to finish it and it will be spectacular.

  15. Widdershins says:

    I was going through one of my old story idea folders and started reading one of the stories. It was riveting! Until I got to the note I’d written to myself that said … ‘gotta go, finish this later’. I never finished it and I didn’t make notes, so I have no idea where I was going with my riveting story!

    … at least now, I make notes.

  16. Elaine Jeremiah says:

    I think it’s all too easy to leave work unfinished. I’ve got loads of stories I never finished, most of which will probably never see the light of day. But last year I published my debut novel. While it didn’t exactly make waves, it was a good experience for me and I’m currently editing my second novel. So we’ll see what happens. Best of luck with finishing your novel. 🙂

  17. gerhogan says:

    Cheers Catherine,
    you have a way of always making me feel so much better about things, damn right it looks like I’m just wheedling away the hours, in fact I’m a very productive person, you just said it! Try all that deal hunting, writing, editing — okay, so I’m not so good at the posting, twittering and facebooking — who has the time? Good luck finishing this one, you can do it, you know you can!Ger H.

  18. everywordweighsaton says:

    Thank you for this blog. Every time i read one of your blogs it’s like it was destiny. I love the honesty, I too wonder what the hell have i been doing with my time, i have my own small business and a husband but i also have ALOT of free time. I also do WAT too much reading and not enough writing. The line ‘finish your book’….. was just what i needed to see today! xxxxx

  19. Lonny Salberg says:

    I just stumbled on your blog. Following now. Interesting confession. A novel seems the hardest to complete because, after all the story is completely in your head, and most likely is not all there yet. You clearly have a passion and a story to tell. It clearly is not just fashionable for you to “have a project” on your bio; you want it done. I’m rather convinced that you will make that July 1 deadline. If anything, it’s Canada Day. Or Canadian Day, depending on whether we stick to the rule of calling them Canada Geese, as they are correctly called, or Canadian Geese as everyone calls them, and whether or not that rule applies to Canadians, or as I like to call them, People of Canada, or their national holiday.

    As I write this, it’s a mere five weeks in the future before People of Canada will be celebrating both their freedom from Germanic Rule (I got that right, correct?), but also the completion of your novel which I’m sure they will read with the usual Canada flair.

    I would encourage you, unlike some, to focus on that novel rather than this blog, because if I know bloggers – and I do – you will be unable to resist the urge to blog anyway and post liberally as those moments seize you in the night. Until then, type away… the sadness need not be infinite at all. It will all be over before July 1 and then joy, great joy, will await you.

    I can not help but note that your critique of not being responsible for children giving you, in theory, more time and less excuse, is far from correct though. Children are the muse and inspiration for much – including novels and Canada Geese chasing – and should you be blessed with some ever, I think you’ll find you actually will have more time, more inspiration, and even less excuses. In other words, you are actually working harder now.

  20. Danielle Lenee Davis says:

    I know what you mean. I’m lollygagging on getting started on the second one. I’ve been on the first chapter for two months. I’m now telling myself that I’ll get a jump on it when school’s out in two weeks.

    WE will get it done…eventually. 🙂 I’m going to take the dog for a walk, then run some errands. Maybe, I’ll think about putting some words to paper later. 🙂

  21. Elizabeth Andrews says:

    I’ll be thinking of you finishing your novel while I’m struggling to finish rewrites on my current mss.

  22. myinsanitycheck says:

    Reading your post made me realize my novel has almost become a decade long endeavor. Since starting it I have gotten married, moved across the country, gone to college, had three children, am currently running a group home and started a blog this month. Those are my excuses. Now I am faced with a dilemma. Do I set my goal to radioactive stress level and try to finish it within the decade OR give myself a couple extra years and submit it to a publisher on my 35th birthday?
    Thanks for the nudge.

  23. jumpingfromcliffs says:

    Oh, I can empathise with that feeling. Getting the novel finished is (surely) every writer’s number one dream priority, but there are still so many other things which get in the way. I find that just ensuring there’s at least some time devoted to it each week – even if only half an hour on one day – keeps me from getting too stressed. Or that’s the theory anyway… Good luck with cracking on!

  24. emchandles says:

    I have two unfinished novels and countless first chapters haunting me. I’ve set myself the task of finishing one in a month just to see if I can. Not THAT month just a month. Starting today!

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