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Ask the Book Doctor

By Bobbie Christmas

What Do You Call a Writer Who Can’t Finish a Project?

Q: What does it mean if a writer has about seven drafts and they all stop in the same identical place?

I have everything done, first-draft level, meaning I know the story, have written book proposals on the nonfiction books, written synopses on the novels, undertaken research and clarified the characters. I work around the clock to get the immediate idea on paper, but then stop and go on to another book idea and do the very same thing. I really like that initial stage when I'm working on a new book: I seem to hate the stage where I work on chapter by chapter.

At first I worked on one draft, then worked on another. I said it was to keep from getting bored. (Writing is my life.) I thought I was discovering my genre and writing style, but it seems crazy now. It's overwhelming, yet I'm a columnist and have been a columnist for years. I complete the columns. I'm sixty, have an M.A. and am planning to get a doctorate. I'm thinking I'm developing my scholarship, but all these books! (Not books. Ideas. Drafts!) I feel like I will never finish any of them at my age. I'm thinking I need to open an office and hire staff to finish the manuscripts. Is there a name for me? How crazy is this? Is this normal? Help! Please.

A: The book doctor is here to help! Here's my diagnosis, and the prognosis is good.

First, is there a name for you? Yes. You are what we call in the industry "a writer." Oh, you expected a disparaging term? Writers must create. Call it their muse, their right-brain thinking, their creativity, their whatever, but something drives them to develop characters and stories and books.

Being a writer does not necessarily mean you have the editor within you, though. The revising and editing of a manuscript comes from a different part of the ether; call it the academic, the left brain, the analytical side, or whatever.

You have highly developed one side of your thinking, but not the other. You thrive on the beginning, rather than the completion—the creation of ideas, not the thought of seeing the book in stores. Sure, you would like to see your book finished, but your focus is not set in that direction, right now.

The fact that you have no problem meeting column deadlines says to me that you work best with short-term goals. The long-term work necessary to revise, rewrite, and edit a book-length manuscript overwhelms you, so you get stymied. What happens when a doe sees a car barreling down the road at her? Is her first reaction to leap away? It should be, but instead, she freezes; hence the "deer in the headlights" syndrome. I think you see the completion of a full-length manuscript as too large a project to confront.

Here are my recommendations to break through your barriers:

  1. Decide what you really want and when you want it. Do you want to complete one of the novels by the end of the year? Do you want to sell the book to a traditional publisher by the end of next year? Whatever you want, decide on it and decide a date by which you will achieve it, and most important, write it down. In this way, you set a goal for yourself, overwhelming though it may appear, at first. When you write down a goal, you set it in stone while at the same time setting the wheels in motion. It is a proven fact.
  2. Break your goal into small pieces. You have shown yourself that you can meet deadlines. Your goal for your novel, then, may be "Rewrite, revise, and polish one chapter a month." It might be one chapter every two months. Set realistic mini goals based on your schedule and your final goal. Write down your mini goals. Add them to your calendar or planner.
  3. Break the mini goals into micro goals. If you want to finish polishing one chapter a month, write down that you will polish five pages a week (or whatever will break down to a typical chapter length, once added together). Write down those micro goals in your planner.
  4. Celebrate each time you meet your micro or mini goal. Take yourself out to dinner, see a movie, buy a book, whatever. Reward yourself for meeting your goals, no matter how large or small, and you will be encouraged to continue.

My motto has long been, "A goal is nothing but a dream with a deadline." I wish I had written that quote, and I’ve never been able to attribute it to one person in particular, but I live by it.

Goal-setting may be great, but if you sincerely give it every effort and see, after four to six months, that you still are stymied and cannot continue, find a mentor, join a critique circle, hire an editor, but do whatever you must to find someone or something that keeps you motivated.

If you do all those things and still do not see yourself moving forward, consider enjoying the creativity you have. Eventually you can compile your columns into a book (or pay someone to do it), and you will still have a book to sell.

–Free reports for writers! Go to and click on Tools for Writers. Do you have questions for the book doctor? Write to Bobbie today.



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