A writing project is a menacing jungle full of traps and enemies. The enemies may be projected out from behind your eyeballs, but the traps are very real. I've have spent years learning about all of them, and I have the closet full of horrific half-manuscripts to prove it. Lately I've had to pass through some dark places I had hitherto managed to avoid, and now I'm back with some simple tips that may help light your journey through that darkness. Some of these are surely either dead obvious, or so particular to my own process as to be useless, but maybe there's something here you can take with you.
#1. MAP YOUR WAY OUTNo, I don't mean actual drawn maps. I mean that when you dread sitting down to your story, because Mr. Jones has to get to the barber or whatever, and you don't know how the fuck he does it, and your last paragraph is about a bluebird, and jesus christ will this thing ever end, are you going MAD???
Set your actual current draft aside and open a new file called "what_has_to_happen_for_this_chapter_to_be_over.txt" A totally blank file. Now, picturing that awesome ending you've already got basically DONE in your head, step yourself through how you get there, as though you were making a list ahead of going down to the grocery, drug and hardware stores the night before a hurricane. "OK Fred has to get his passport photo taken, Rachel has to go to court and plead no contest.." as you start to really articulate all the details that are holding you back in the story, you realize that some are either readily solvable or non-issues. Some are still problems, of course, but now you have a much clearer idea of where you want to go and how you want to get there, and what you need to spend energy giving to the audience versus what the audience is willing to take on faith.
#2. AS YOU NEAR THE END > START A PROJECT NOTES FILE (IF YOU HAVEN'T ALREADY)One of the things that will keep you from the finish line is that you'll have a cool idea, but think, "oh, this means I have to go back and restructure some things to make this work, but I like this so much I want to make it work, so let's..." and you pick up the shovel and your enthusiasm falls out of your butt.
Don't stop your forward momentum. If your new idea requires rewrites of earlier material, take a few sentences of notes in the alternate document of "project_revision_ideas.txt", just to get the idea out of your head. Then, continue as you were, with the assumption that the work has already been done, the past has already been corrected. If you know where you are and where you are going, you can trust the past to explain itself later; do not go back to it and kick cans around while you still have work to do in the moment of the story. A great advantage of this technique is that when the time does come for you to gird your loins for the next draft, why look, you already have what's basically a roadmap to the weak spots. As an optional aside to this:
#3. USE COLORSYou might be amazed at the power of this technique: when something is obviously not quite right, but difficult or impossible to make right at this very moment... write FIX THIS next to it and make it bright pink and bold. Then move on to the next paragraph and keep going. If you move far enough ahead, the next time you open the manuscript and see that, you'll be like, oh, right, and do a sentence or two that writes out your original half-assed flailing at an idea and replaces it with an actual idea that you worked out below in the meantime. This is preferable to spending hours banging your head on this one part because it had to be just right just then. Colors, shapes, pictures or links to pictures: if you can't the words you want on paper, it's OK to just put down a signpost or a reference, as long its clear enough that you'll know what it means later. This is a technique stolen from programming, where early code is studded with TODO and HACK FIX THIS. Don't let contemplation of tomorrow's work keep you from doing today's.
#4. AS YOU NEAR THE END > ANTICTIPATE AND EMBRACE "POST-PRODUCTION"Making a complete first draft is like passing a god damned kidney stone, you definitely don't want to go back into that bathroom for at least a little while. However, whatever indexing, appendixing, formatting, and bow-wrapping details your particular project requires still stand between you and rung zero, which is the first person who is going to read it and tell you it sucks. Don't be passing around raw unformatted files of rambling text. You don't buttonhole people on the street and yell at them unceasingly, do you? Have some manners. Respect the potential person whom you are asking to read your work by presenting them with something that is not visually worse than what they already have to read during the course of the day. Going back over your work in various ways just to make it more visually presentable is a necessary part of finishing, and if you've already adopted a grim death march attitude by three quarters through your first draft, you are just not going to have the stomach for it. As you near the end, anticipate what you are going to need to do so it's not a surprise, and recognize that writing THE END doesn't mean you can run out into the street with it. BUT, heed the corollary:
#5. DON'T DO FORMATTING WORK IN THE MIDDLE OF A DRAFTMore generally: don't do anything during a draft that could potentially result in multiple conflicting versions of a draft. If you catch yourself copying draft text from one program to another, slap yourself. How many problems are you trying to cause for yourself here? Seriously? You want to spend hours reconciling multiple versions of a second or third draft?
You can do pretty stuff between drafts. If you started in a spiral notebook, finish the draft in the damn notebook. If you started on a PC, finish on a PC and do the next draft on your new Mac or whatever. Never split a draft.
The reason this happens is because writing requires you to switch between states of intense concentration and kind of mind-wandering states, and it's gratifying in a masturbatory way to idly reformat your draft. You are walking down the devil's path if you do this. Find something else to do while daydreaming. I hear some people enjoy Sudoku.