From the E-Mailbag…
Joaquim Ghirotti writes…
Mark, about the "Finish your shit" thing, I think it's an important point to make to "aspiring" writers because of a simple thing. Writing is very different from other artistic endeavours. For some reason "writers" can aspire, not write much, have "ideas" be "working on ideas" and so on, and people and even the writers themselves will buy it. Other artists, musicians, painters, sculptures, have to actually deliver. "Oh you paint? Let me see your paintings!", that's the first thing they hear.
By forcing yourself to "finish your shit" you actually produce something. Which is better than nothing. And why? Because it shows you what you can do, and if you can be a writer at all, or a good writer, and stop aspiring. It shows what kind of writer you are. Talking about writing doesn't, thinking about it doesn't as well, and so on.
So finishing your shit will show new writers, or people that think they want to write, if they can do it. And it will also show them what kind of writing they can do. That's why I think this advice is so important. It is a big, big filter, and clears a lot of things up. Don't you think?
I think it's important for writers to have finished work. I don't think it's important for them to finish everything they start writing. If you spend six hours writing something and you're halfway through and it ain't going in a good direction, why spend another six hours completing it? Put that six hours towards something that might be decent. Yes, it's important to finish the good (or possibly-good) stuff. It's also important to be willing to cut your own work or discard it outright if necessary. Too many writers think an investment of time and effort makes the work sacred or necessarily good.
You know where I really learned this? Writing jokes for stand-up comics. It is quite possible — at times, probable — for the following to happen. You write a joke. A comedian gets on stage. Said comedian tells that joke and it results in insufficient laughter. The comedian tries it again a few times — different deliveries in other venues before other audiences. There is still little or no laughter.
At some point in that process — hopefully, not too late — the professional learns it's time to throw the joke out and try something else. You have to be able to turn loose of it and write off the time 'n' effort you put into writing it. And in the same way, if you're writing something and it's not good, you have to be able to write off the time you've put into it and move onto something else. You don't necessarily have to throw it away forever. If that hurts too much, put it in a symbolic drawer somewhere and go back to it six months from now and see if it's fixable. But don't throw good effort after bad.
I do agree with you though that "working on ideas" is not writing. I run into people who consider themselves writers…or who even claim they're about to start writing. They have all these great ideas in their heads and they're just waiting for that perfect moment to put them down on paper or the digital equivalent. What you want to say to these people — and I have, usually to no effect, is "If you're a writer, write. And if you're not going to write, stop kidding yourself that you're a writer or will ever be a writer." Those ideas in your head are of no value if they remain there. A writer who doesn't write is like a chef who, while he thinks a lot about how he's going to make what he's going to make, never quite gets around to actually making it.