“You’re not done with that book yet?” My husband’s voice was less than patient. I’d been regaling him with the difficulties of finishing The Last Casualty. I’d been working on the book for five years, on and off, and it simply refused to get written.
As frustrating as it was to him to hear about my lack of progress, it was infinitely more painful for me. After all, I wasn’t a novice. By that time, I’d had ten books published by major New York publishers, including a few on the USA Today bestseller list. I had four more books under contract.
The Last Casualty was a thriller and I’d made my bones in the genre a decade before. I loved the story and I’d outlined it completely. I knew the story and the characters better than my own extended family. I even had the back cover copy written in my head.
So why wasn’t it finished? I couldn’t figure it out.
The question continued to bother me that night at my karate class, distracting me from the class I was teaching. One particular green belt, a kid who’d showed a lot of promise and natural ability, looked like he was playing patty cake in the ring, sparring with a brown belt. The green belt was darting in and out of the engagement zone, throwing a few techniques, relying on his speed to keep from getting hit. His weight stayed on his back leg and never followed the kick or the punch he threw. He wasn’t getting hit, but he wasn’t hitting the other guy, either.
I stopped the fight and pulled the green belt aside. “You’ve got to follow through. Don’t wait to see what will happen. Commit to the technique the moment you throw it.”
I stopped, hearing my own words echoing in my brain. As it so often happened, the answer to my writing question lay on the mats in the dojo.
This particular book was tighter and more sophisticated than anything I’d written before. My structure wasn’t solid enough to support the required techniques. It was harder to write. Not only was it tougher going, I wasn’t even sure I could pull it off.
Just like the green belt dancing around the ring, I’d failed to commit to the technique-in this case, to the story.
Over the years, I’ve learned that many books remain unfinished for the same reason fights get lost. While each project-and each fight-is different, the problems tend to fall into one of a number of categories. It’s true for me and it’s true for every writer I’ve worked with.
It’s also true that green belts are green belts for a reason. They may know that a fight’s not going well but they can’t pinpoint the reason. Often it’s something just out of their reach, like keeping weight on a back foot instead of committing to the technique. Once it’s pointed out to them-and it’s different for each fighter–they can correct it.
Same thing with writing. Most writers don’t need thousands of dollars of book doctoring and coaching. They don’t need a peer group of unpublished green belt writers giving them advice. They don’t need their precious inner creative children nurtured and encouraged.
What they need is what that green belt needed: black belt eyes on their own work. A black belt can usually pinpoint the problems in a few pages. If I can show a writer what his or her particular, specific weaknesses are, I can accelerate the learning curve to Mach speed.
If you don’t have a set of black belt eyes to look over your work, try listening to your own excuses for not finishing the manuscript. I’ve listed a few of the more common ones below, along with a few “training tips.”
“It gets really good in Chapter Four….”
Ah. Yes. Well…
Look, no one is going to read three chapters of bad writing to get to the good part. I don’t care what your writing group says or how great they say you are. You’ve got major structural problems with your story or proposals.
This is a structure problem. Don’t confuse structure with outlining or anything else dull and useless. Structure is about what the first pages of a novel or nonfiction book accomplish, about the flow of the ideas and conflict. It’s a problem when the writer does not understand the basics of how a novel is constructed and how levels of conflict should be working within each act. For instance, Act I should be approximately