“Keep buggering on.”
— Winston Churchill, said at the start of each day and the end of phone conversations
This weekend, I finished the rough draft of my first novel. I’m still not sure what exactly to do at this point. I’m going to show it to some writer friends, let my wife read it, and eventually pick it back up again to do major revisions and rewrites. For now, I’m just going to step away from it and write a bit here about “the push.”
For the last month, I’ve been going back through the whole book from the beginning, chapter by chapter, to add all the pieces I missed or didn’t narrate well the first time, and “the push” was the last few weeks when I was counting down instead of up as I looked at my word count and chapters left. I started writing in the morning and the evening and every nap time my son enjoyed on the weekends. When I “found” a “missing” chapter (meaning a chapter I realized that I should have written), or expanded a short chapter to an epic one, I used that to propel me to keep writing as much as possible until I slammed headfirst into another roadblock. The next day, that roadblock would hopefully seem easier to navigate around, and I’d use any energy left to write until I was out of time again.
This was my first novel, but this wasn’t my first big push. I’ve experienced it right before every website I’ve launched, in the final weeks of my non-fiction book, and even the last time I moved.1 I at least learned a few things from all of them that I’m recording for my future self and anybody else who’s interested. These are my current thoughts, in no particular order:
- Keep track of progress with stats. When you’re in the weeds of a big project, it may not be possible or even helpful to look at your stats. Knowing that you have 60,000 more words to write out of a completely theoretical 70,000 is not the most motivating thing,2 and anybody who says they know the exact amount of work they have left near the middle of a large website launch is lying or delusional. Near the end, though, it’s possible and helpful. You can see the end right there, but you need to have markers, so you don’t get discouraged. Now is the time to countdown to the real word count or chapter number you expect, or you can see how many real issues are left to fix before launch.
- Progress gets even less linear than before. In the middle of the project, progress is not happening in a linear fashion, but that’s easy to accept. You’re taking a few days to work on an outline or rethink something, but you’re also not staring at your stats at the end of every day, so that feels okay. This is also where finishing a book or a big redesign project aren’t exactly like running a marathon, unless your marathon has literal roadblocks and quicksand traps set up for the last two miles. While finishing the writing, I had days that I burned through a few thousand words in an hour discovering a chapter that didn’t even exist, but I also had days that I spent four hours to add a couple of hundred words and write myself out of a mistake I hadn’t noticed before. In my day job, I spent a whole week on an image cropping tool that I still don’t like, and it felt like all progress had come to a halt. The key, though, was recognizing that the final push has always, and will always, have these moments. You just have to “keep buggering on,” and eventually, you’ll either find a smooth section again or at least crawl across the finish line.3
- It’s okay to reprioritize. Yeah, I stopped writing much on my blog (even though writing on my blog was the big goal that ended up starting my novel). I didn’t avoid my family, but I did dream of escaping to a hideaway to finish.4 I even had to be realistic about my workout progress temporarily so I could write in the mornings instead of using that extra hour for lifting or running (but still workout later in the day). My wife and I always talk about seasons, though, and it’s okay to accept that finishing this huge thing is its own season.
- Plan to celebrate. I still haven’t figured this one out, completely, but I did promise myself that I would take some time off the novel and rediscover purely relaxing things like working out, reading, or watching some Netflix after I finished this first big step. I even decided that I would get away at some point to decompress, and I gave myself permission to think about that every once in a while when the progress was too slow. In the short term, I enjoyed a dram of Scotch and a nice pipe tobacco the night I finished.
- Have your next project on deck. At least for me, I need something to jump pretty soon after I’ve finished a big project while my motivation is still high and all my productivity muscles are warm. I don't spend anytime planning it or distracting me while I'm still finishing the original push, and I don't jump right into the midst of another big push. Instead, I just have an idea for that short story or small site I want to attack next, and I let it sit in the back of my mind as I finish the first project. As soon as I finish the push, I move into that other little project and use some of that momentum to throw me a few extra steps ahead.
I'm sure there's more I could say, but I fear that writing novels is starting to make me long-winded. If this helps anybody else, that's awesome. For now, I'll just be happy to have this as reference for my future self to remind myself that the push isn’t new as I go through the whole thing again for rewrites and revisions, and I shouldn’t forget to enjoy the moment a little.
- In fact, I was wrapping up a major redesign at work with my team this past month, so I’ve seen this play out in parallel. ↩
- It’s also complete fiction because you don’t know, yet, how long your novel is actually supposed to be until you have walked through it and felt the scope. ↩
- Okay, maybe this is like my half marathon experience, after all. ↩
- And I would have if hadn't been completely impossible. ↩