When Do You Know When You’re Done?

Yesterday’s post, How Not To Write A Novel – Or 4 Ways To Drop The Ball quickly became the most read post on this blog. I wanted to follow up with another good writing topic that has been on my mind for the past few days.

When Do You Know When You’re Done?
Some writers start out with a clear vision, and a solid outline which allows them to write exactly what they need, regardless of whether there is extra content that seems to be needed for the story to properly be conveyed.

I have a problem with this style of writing. First and foremost, if you know me, you know that I’m not exactly the most organized person in the world. While I have made major strides over the past few months, I’m still far from getting to a place where I can make a clear and concise plan and stick to it.

The “Overneath” universe in which my novels take place is becoming more and more of a massive conglomeration of ideas that don’t necessarily directly impact the stories that need to be told. While the novels I’m currently writing do have fairly explicit organizational structures, with events and details that need to be revealed in order to fully the tell the story, I still fall into the trap of having too much information.

Looking at the prolific authors of our time, J.R.R. Tolkien, Frank Herbert, C.S. Lewis, we see that each has created a solid set of rules for their universe, and put a lot of work into ensuring that all of the events in their universe are in line with those rules. Subtle political agendas aside, each one of these authors creates a universe that is believable to the reader, and fills that universe up with events and characters that are credible and accent the universe as a whole.

Now, be sure that I’m not comparing myself as a writer to these insanely incredible authors, only that I wish to draw some inspiration from what they have done with their own magna opera.

These authors spent years creating vast amounts of notes, outlines, sketches and character profiles for even the smallest details that are in their novels. With the boundless ideas that are being constructed daily regarding the “Overneath” universe, it’s hard to try to keep things in perspective when trying to write one subset of the long timeline that is being conceived.

I’ve searched in the past for that perfect piece of software to help me keep all of these ideas in one place, and facilitating the completion of these stories.

Liquid Story Binder XE

Liquid Story Binder XE

While products like Liquid Story Binder XE do a great job of organizing things in a small portable fashion, I have a hard time using them on a daily basis. There’s just something with my brain that doesn’t lend me to getting myself organized with all of the “stuff” in my life.

At this point, there are ideas, sketches, chapters, and character profiles for the “Overneath” universe scattered throughout every facet of my existence. While notebooks and computer storage are fairly permanent mediums, the large majority of the information is in the most volatile place of all — my head. I have dozens of folders and documents scattered across a network of eight computers in my home, with no rhyme or reason to their placement.

In addition to virtual storage, there are more sketchbooks, diaries, notebooks and loose leaf papers floating around my house that store some of the most vital information that’s needed for the completion of this universe, and the ultimate goal of sharing these tales with other mere mortals.

It’s easy enough to set a goal when dealing with your writing, but you may soon fine that it was completely unrealistic. I set a goal for myself to finish the first novel in the “Overneath” universe, “Dimenxia” by the end of this calendar year, 2008. This goal seemed realistic at the time, given the speed at which I was writing, and each of the smaller checkpoints in the story that were being completed.

Now, a month after I set the goal, I realise that there was one thing that I failed to take into consideration: motivation. I have all of the inspiration I could ask for (I would argue sometimes more than I can handle) for writing these stories, but at times I tend to lack the motivation. I find something small and unrelated to get caught up in, completely distracting me from the main goal of finishing the first draft by December 31, 2008.

So, as time flies by, and I don’t write anything more, this is even more discouraging, keeping me from becoming truly motivated to just sit down and write.

The best solution for this type of conundrum is to buckle down and start writing. Write anything. Short stories that are unrelated, blog posts, letters to the editor; anything.

I have indeed been writing more and more blog posts over the past few months, and that does seem to help with the motivation levels when it comes to just putting something out into the world and, most of all, feeling good about what I’m writing.

As Woody Allen once said:

Eighty percent of success is showing up.

If I’ve learned anything from these 124 blog posts, it is that statement is almost completely correct.

One of my worst fears is that the amazing events taking place in the “Overneath” universe will never see the light of day.

That being said, I have not taken many strides in my organizational techniques to ensure that even in the event of my passing before completion, someone could take up the task and release the works long after I’m gone. Not to sound too morbid, but this is a definite possibility that must be taken into account when writing anything of significance, whether it be a novel or a computer software.

There’s nothing worse than “inheriting” a kludge of a software application that you must support while digging through thousands of lines of undocumented, abbreviated code that only the original author fully understands. The same idea can be applied to writing.

If you were to come to some sort of unexpected cataclysm, what kind of legacy are you leaving behind that can be followed up by another author?

Frank Herbert

Frank Herbert

My favourite example in this arena is that of Frank Herbert and his Dune universe. Herbert died before he could finish his original series, leaving the universe at a cliffhanger point with no hopes of future stories being told through his eyes.

His son, Brian Herbert discovered a decade after his father’s death, that his father had left full notes for the universe in a safety deposit box in another city. Using these materials, he and Kevin J. Anderson successfully drew the stories and threads to a close in the two concluding novels in the original series. Even further than that, they have created 7 other (soon to be more) novels exploring the past events that underlined all of the threads in the original Dune novels.

This is a true inspiration for those writers out there who see no end in sight for their chronicles. Stay organized, keep things clear, and keep focus when it comes to not only what you are currently writing, but the possibilities of future works.

Release Dates in the Game Industry
In my eyes, creating a (good) video game and writing a novel can be considered parallel works. When it comes to release dates in the video games industry, there are mixed feelings. Some companies set dates, stick to them, and release sub-par games that show the unpolished state that is indicative of an unfinished product.

Other companies set dates, reach them and are not satisfied with the results they have achieved by those dates, and continue to push the releases into the future. Though this may enrage their loyal fans, the companies show their true artistic integrity by ensuring that their works are up to their quality bar, however high that may be.

Half-Life 2

Half-Life 2

As an example, let’s discuss one of the best PC games of all time: Half-Life 2. Valve Software released this masterpiece after a long series of setbacks, including having a hacker steal their code, which caused the release date to be pushed back further each time. The fans of the original Half-Life game became belligerent about this complete lack of regard for Valve’s own pre-determined release date. The end result, though was a breathtakingly precise and enthralling experience that I, and many people I know, will never soon forget.

id Software, creators of the Doom and Quake series of games have adopted a different approach. Rather than giving a solid release date which will later end up being pushed later and later as development changes pace, they have adopted a strategy of “When It’s Done.” This is an all-encompassing idea that allows complete creative freedom on the part of the designers, and ends in a more polished experience that is better for everyone.

What is the Best Strategy?

This is where I see the issue. Is there one best strategy for all writers to follow? I don’t think there is some sort of blanket strategy that will work for everyone. Setting public goals and creating accountability does go a long way, but this also can create unnecessary tension and anxiety.

Weigh your options, determine what the best strategy for you is, and get to work. For me, I’ve decided on a “When It’s Done” approach. Be sure that updates will come in the pipeline here on this blog, and you readers will be the first to know about each milestone and any more difficulties that I’ve come across.

I’d like to leave you with an inspiring quote from the mind of Frank Herbert:

A man is a fool not to put everything he has, at any given moment, into what he is creating. You’re there now doing the thing on paper. You’re not killing the goose, you’re just producing an egg. So I don’t worry about inspiration, or anything like that. It’s a matter of just sitting down and working. I have never had the problem of a writing block. I’ve heard about it. I’ve felt reluctant to write on some days, for whole weeks, or sometimes even longer. I’d much rather go fishing, for example, or go sharpen pencils, or go swimming, or what not. But, later, coming back and reading what I have produced, I am unable to detect the difference between what came easily and when I had to sit down and say, “Well, now it’s writing time and now I’ll write.” There’s no difference on paper between the two.