why you should never, ever finish your book

Formerly, when anyone said music I presented was experimental, I objected. It seemed to me that composers knew what they were doing, and that the experiments that had been made had taken place prior to the finished works, just as sketches are made before paintings and rehearsals precede performances.

—John Cage, Silence: Lectures and Writings

If any new work is experimental, every work is. Whether you’re Yoko Ono or Stephen King, you make something, you put it out there, and you wait to see: did it work? That’s the experiment, every time.

You never know if it’ll work. Even if you dutifully follow every “rule”—rules are overrated. They’re just a starting point. Learn them, practice them, break them. The only thing worse than trying something and failing is letting the rules dictate what you try and still failing. Which happens far too often.

My book-in-progress is as “experimental” as any book of writing advice is going to get. I’m writing it using Leanpub, a cutting-edge iterative publishing tool. That said, writing this way hearkens back to a long history of serialized publishing. Book serialization waned long ago, but the industry’s been trying to kick off a renaissance for years. Even Jim Cramer agrees that subscription businesses are the future.

While there are lovely book subscription services like Quarterlane, they still only sell ordinary titles. Many authors, given the option, would greatly prefer writing for loyal subscribers who paid for regular installments of a single work. Nothing beats a steady audience. You can start tuning in to its preferences, tailoring your work to meet its needs. TV writers take this power for granted. Books are due for a return to serialization, too. The tools are all there. It’s just a matter of doing it, making it work. Experimenting.

For example: why not a neverending story? (Sort of disappointing that The Neverending Story clocks in at only 448 pages.  That’s half a Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire.) Seriously, though, in a digital landscape without spine width or weight, why do books ever have to end? Why do Tony and Angela ever have to get married? A story can last as long as its author, and even longer.

My so-called friends Josh Kaufman and Tim Grahl introduced me to Worm. That’s because they hate me and want me to fail in life. Worm is a book, published in blog form by its author John C. “Wildbow” McCrae, that runs 1.6 million words long. That’s 7,000 pages, more than 15 Neverending Stories back to back. Wildbow’s take on teenage superheroes is smart and dark and fun—wonderfully addictive. I had to stop after only a few hundred thousand words just to get back to living my life and earning a living. Tread with caution. The sequel is in progress.

I’m encouraging you to experiment. Nothing “works” until it’s been tried. Every successful book is, in a way, a Black Swan. A 1.6-million-word book couldn’t work, until it did.  What are you going to try?