How to Finish That Project
How to finish a book, again and again and again until it stays finished.
Do writers ever really finish their books? Whenever I give a reading for Mixed Company, I use a book I’ve marked up with pencil, full of cross-outs and revisions. But at some point if we’re lucky, we finally cross the finish line on a project and consider it done. Getting there can be a real battle, a struggle I think any creative person who works on long projects can empathize with, from writing code to completing an artwork to building a house. My husband is a software engineer, and he often cites the “ninety-ninety rule” first uttered by Tom Cargill of Bell Labs: “The first 90 percent of the code accounts for the first 90 percent of the development time. The remaining 10 percent of the code accounts for the other 90 percent of the development time.”
It always takes me longer than I expected to finish a book, and when I remember that it’s because the last ten percent of it takes another ninety percent of the work, it all makes sense. Sometimes it feels like I’m approaching the ending of a book only asymptotically, and I can never actually reach it. But now that I’ve finished several books, I know it’s possible. (If you haven’t finished a book yet, trust me: it’s possible for you too.)
R. Alan Brooks, multi-talented comic book writer and my colleague at the Mile High MFA, gave a terrific presentation at one of our residencies about the importance of finishing projects. Many creative types spin their wheels, revising the same project for years—sometimes fixating on just the beginning—without every following it through all the way to the end. Brooks says that every time you finish a project, to use a gaming term, you get to “level up.” You’re endowed with more powers and abilities heading into the next project. That doesn’t mean that the next project will be easy, but that there’s a type of seasoning and insight you only gain from finally finishing a project that enables you to keep on finishing more projects.
I am thinking about this right now because I’m trying to finish a major revision of my novel before I start to teach at Lit Fest in June (see below for my classes). The end is in sight…I think! I estimate this is my seventh-ish full draft of this novel. If it ever makes it to publication, there will be many more drafts to come, but I find it useful to trick myself into thinking that this is the final FINAL draft. I’ve noticed, as I close in on the ending, something I’ll call the Zombie Hand Phenomenon.
You’re cruising along, planning to have several hours to work on finishing your project, and all of the sudden all these grasping zombie hands appear out of nowhere and try to pull you away from it. All kinds of things can happen to prevent you from doing your work—for example, an armed, demented car jacker can lead your town’s police on a chase near your house, crashing into a bus shelter that causes you to have to drive each kid on a 45-minute detour loop to get to schools that are normally five minutes away. That was Wednesday.
Or, like another afternoon last week when I thought I had two clear hours to work on my book, I sat down to write, and suddenly a sprinkler repairman and a lawn aeration guy showed up spontaneously and my son simultaneously called for a ride because his track practice let out early. It was a spasm of zombie hands telling me NOPE, YOU WON’T BE WORKING ON THAT NOW.
It’s easy to get frustrated when you’re prevented from working, but I just envision those zombie hands reaching for me, trying to keep me from finishing, and I break myself free. I get back to my project again during the next available window of time. Because even zombies have to sleep.
The Assorted Whimsy Portion of The Tumbleweed
Several items made me laugh this month. Most absurdly, this tweet by @blameaspartame with a fake Wikipedia entry claiming this is Chubby Checker’s real name:
Chubby Checker’s real name is actually Ernest Evans, according to his real Wikipedia page.
And if you haven’t checked out this hilarious Chuck E. Cheese sketch from Saturday Night Live, with Bowen Yang and Benedict Cumberbatch starring as the mesmerizing ‘80s new wave band Reflection Denied, you should just stop reading this newsletter and watch it:
The Book Recommending Portion of The Tumbleweed
There are so many great books coming out this spring and summer. I’m planning to check out a bunch of readings at Lighthouse Writers Workshop’s Denver Lit Fest for some of these new books, including a Colorado Matters live recording about Erika Krouse’s fantastic memoir Tell Me Everything on June 10 at 5:30, Vauhini Vara’s The Immortal King Rao (reading before Lit Fest, on May 17), and the book celebration for Denver Noir, a short fiction anthology edited by Cynthia Swanson on June 15 at 7:30.
If you’re looking for a good novel to sink into, I highly recommend Marie Myung-Ok Lee’s The Evening Hero, which will be published on May 24. My full review should run in the Minneapolis Star Tribune next week, but here’s a preview:
“Marie Myung-Ok Lee's sweeping novel, The Evening Hero, opens with a depiction of an eventful day for Dr. Yungman Kwak, who for decades has delivered the babies of Horse's Breath, a small town in the Iron Range of Minnesota populated by the descendants of Swedish, Norwegian, and Finnish immigrants. Yungman is a good man, but perhaps has never lived up to his bold Korean name—Evening Hero…With comic flair, Lee follows her endearing, 5'4" protagonist as he embarks on a late-in-life awakening about his purpose and the secrets he carries from the Korean War.”
The Q&A Portion of The Tumbleweed
Writers often ask me about where to find places to submit their work. I used to always send them to Entropy Mag, where Justin Greene did a great roundup of calls for submission, but alas Entropy has shut down. (By the way did you hear the story about how The Believer lost its university backing, asked UNLV to sell its archives to McSweeney’s, but instead UNLV decided to sell them to an organization called Paradise Media that earns money by posting racy clickbait on websites it owns? Heidi Julavits explained the exasperating situation here.)
But, there is some good news in lit mag land! Heavy Feather Review has picked up where Entropy Mag left off, and is now featuring a regularly updated Where to Submit column.
And yet more good news—on Monday afternoon, McSweeney’s announced that Paradise Media turned out to be a good company after all. They took a loss to sell The Believer back to McSweeney’s after the outcry. According to The New York Times, a dean at UNLV still thinks what they did was just fine.
Please send me any questions you’ve got about writing, editing, publishing, rabbit keeping, gardening, taco eating and naps. You can leave a comment or send me an email.
The Self-Promotional Portion of The Tumbleweed
Mixed Company is a finalist for the Colorado Book Award in the General Fiction category! On May 20, I'll be reading with the other finalists in General Fiction and Anthology for the 2022 Colorado Book Awards at BookBar in Denver, 7 p.m.
I’ll be helping to host an open mic reading and information session for Regis University’s Mile High MFA on May 27 at the Tattered Cover in Westminster (6-7:30 p.m.). Come join me and program alums Hillary Leftwich, Violet Mitchell and Nawal-Nader French to read and chat.
Lighthouse Writers Workshop’s annual Lit Fest classes are now open for registration! I'm teaching a bunch at Lighthouse HQ (3833 Steele St., Suite 1438, Denver, CO).
The Psychology of Story, Friday, June 10, 9:00 a.m. - 11:00 a.m. (One space left in this one, the last time I checked)
Faculty Reading w/ Jenny Shank, Nick Arvin, Joy Sawyer, Harrison Fletcher, and Traci Jones, Saturday, June 11, 7:30 p.m., free
Mixing Life Up: Contemporary Memoir Structures, Monday, June 13, 1:30 p.m. - 3:30 p.m.
Building the Writers' Notebook, Monday, June 13, 4:00 p.m. - 6:00 p.m.
Getting Published: Stories, Essays, Articles and Books, Wednesday, June 15, 4:00 p.m. - 6:00 p.m.
Laughing for Change: Funny Stories with Serious Purpose, Saturday, June 18, 1:30 p.m. - 3:30 p.m.
Personal Essays with a Twist, Saturday, June 18, 4:00 p.m. - 6:00 p.m.
Navigating the Lows of Your Writing Career: Panel Discussion, Sunday, June 19, 12:00 p.m. - 1:00 p.m.