Geetanjali Mukherjee

Monday, August 29, 2016

The Never-Ending Project

Sometimes you’re working on something, and the thing just morphs and changes and takes on a life of its own, and before you know it, it feels like you’re light years away from ever being done. In truth, this does happen to me on most projects to some extent, usually a day or so when I start to think, will I ever be done? Will I really get there?

That happened to me on occasion during Nanowrimo last year, when I had a late start due to a scheduled vacation when I didn’t really find the alone time or the head space to be able to write (try writing or thinking with your mum barging in every hour or so, saying “Do you have a minute?”) So anyway, I was a week away from the deadline with more than 30,000 words still to go, wondering if I would ever be able to make it.

But that’s really not what I am talking about today. This is not so much about the logistics (I didn’t get a chance to work on it much and now I am right up against the deadline) or even about ability (I am not sure I can really pull this off), although to some extent it is just a little about that. No, I am talking about the distinct feeling that your project is a sentient being that simply doesn’t want to be completed, and keeps coming up with excuses to thwart being done. (Or at the very least, does a very good imitation of being said evil, sentient being.)

I am currently working on a book that is supposed to be a revision. For the life of me I can’t remember why I decided to embark on this revision. I am sure I had good reasons when I started out, but that was so long ago, that I am sure I must have had a temporary bout of insanity when I thought taking this on, at this point, was a good idea. This was already a book that gave me a ton of trouble the first time I wrote it, which was a revision of my Masters’ thesis. So really I have been working on this my whole life almost.

Perhaps sub-consciously I think that I will never be able to get it right, to do the topic justice, so I keep coming up with ways to expand its scope, or do more research, or alter something that will just take a few weeks of effort. The beast keeps getting bigger and I keep finding more holes to fix, more arguments to patch.

So why am I talking about this today? I was hoping to come up with some strategies of dealing with this situation, in the extremely unlikely event anyone other than me finds themselves in a similar predicament.

So here’s what you should do, or rather what I am trying to do, in this situation.

1. Lower your standards.
Like right down to the ground. This is not a time for big ambition. Don’t fantasize about that exclusive prize or hitting those best-seller lists. Other than the fact that that is extremely unlikely and very difficult to aim for for anyone, if you have a beast of a book, your first and only goal is to finish it. So make that your standard. What is the least bad book you can live with? How many changes do you need to make to be able to sleep at night after you are done?

2. Work when you are at your highest energy
The book is probably already sapping your energy, so you need to be at your game to do battle. Wake up as early as you can, brew yourself a cup of industrial strength coffee, and go for it. Working at your highest energy point if at all possible means that you will be able to make faster progress, and the quicker you can get through the work ahead the less likely that other issues can come up and derail you, or even new ways the project can morph and drag you under.

This is part of the reason why I am struggling with my current project - I was obliged at several points to stop work on it and do something else, or just got distracted and allowed other items on my agenda. And then before I knew it, getting back to it was that much harder, and when I did, somehow all these additional things just had to be done to get it to where I needed it to be. It would have been far better for me to just keep going and finish it at one shot.

3. Simplify. Simplify. Simplify.
One of my favorite authors on productivity for writers, Hillary Rettig, says this about completing projects - simply them. No matter what your project is, there is probably a way you can simplify it further. Although this advice was given in the context of graduate students writing their dissertations, and taking on monster assignments that had no hope of being finished, I believe it applies equally to all manner of authors.

Whether you are writing a children’s book, a crime novel, or the next great literary masterpiece, if you’re hoping to get it done and the project just keeps metamorphosing beyond your control, make it simpler. Take out that subplot, at least just for now. Get the interesting side tangents out of the way. Complete your book and then assess whether you need those additional elements. Chances are you will realize they weren’t strictly necessary. As you increase your skill level, you can more easily handle more complicated and bloated books, for now keep it simple.

So there you go, my advice to you, and most importantly, to myself. I will now go attempt to apply this, and report back.

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