Wednesday, October 10, 2012
To the finish
On the evening of Thursday, October 25th, I’m going to give a talk at the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh. Here’s the link, where they ask you to reserve your seats: http://www.carnegielibrary.org/teens/events/programs/behindthebook/. I would be delighted to meet any of you in person.
Just want to say I’ve been listening to the lectures by Brandon Sanderson and finding them helpful and informative and delightfully geeky. He has my number when he talks about discoverers.
On May 30, 2012, Lark wrote, Gail, have you ever done a post on the motives of writing something? I was reading an article in The Writer's Digest Handbook to Novel Writing (superb articles in there, btw) about what your motives are in writing a novel. It struck me that the only 2 stories I've finished I've had specific motives behind them-- i.e., my short story last year had to be written for writing club (which is a weak motive) and a parody I wrote for the Hunger Games was for my best friend's birthday-- I wrote 7,700 words in 2 days. Whew! (Slightly better motive.) I wasn't thinking about publishing, or writing a certain number or pages/words/etc. And when I did NaNo last year my motive wasn't finish my novel, it was write 30,000 words. (That's probably the reason why I didn't finish my NaNo novel). When I set out writing a story and I think, I want to get this published, it is guaranteed that I don't finish it.
And two days ago, flowerprincess wrote in a similar vein, I write historical fiction, and I usually start a story with tons of fire and energy (and very little research) as soon as the idea is developed enough. But by the time I've reached what seems to be the beginning of the middle, it flops. I just can't write anymore. Sometimes it's because I realize that I didn't research enough, but sometimes I just find that I have absolutely no workable plot (I'm definitely a character writer). To put this problem in perspective: I am sixteen in a month, but I haven't finished a draft of a story since I was nine! What can I do so that I don't keep stopping before the story actually gets started?
I read two questions here, one about finishing and one about writing in the first place. They’re both mysterious.
To get philosophical: People are like locked doors and we may spend our entire lives looking for the key - to ourselves! We have more access to our innards than anyone else. We know what we’re thinking and feeling, and yet... We may have no clue about why we can’t lose a few pounds or quit smoking or not get angry when a certain person says almost anything or finish a story, or why we even start a story in the first place. Sometimes our friends and family can diagnose us better than we can - and vice versa. We may understand exactly why our friend Pamela bites her nails, although she has no idea.
I can tell you why I write: to tell myself a story, because I love books, because I have an itch to be creative that I just must scratch. And why I finish: because I am stubborn and because it feels too awful to fail - it’s intolerable (although at some point I may have to tolerate it). But I can’t come up with answers behind these. I have no idea why I want to tell myself a story or why I’m so stubborn.
So here’s an early prompt: Ask yourself the same questions. Why do you write? Why do you finish your stories or fail to finish them? Why do you finish some and not others? Your responses, regardless of how confused they are, may help you, may guide you in your revisions and your new stories. I would appreciate it if you’d post what you come up with, too, because your answers may help other writers who read the blog.
I’ve finished every book I started - sort of. In thinking about this post I realized that the skeletons of unfinished stories pave the length of almost every one of my books. When I started Fairest, for example, I thought it was going to be about the unrequited love of the gnome zhamM for Aza. Couldn’t do it. There isn’t even a ghost of this in the published book. So the specter of that story is haunting the ether somewhere. In an earlier version of what used to be called Beloved Elodie, Elodie’s mother falls under a spell that makes her totally greedy, that makes her prefer a golden statue of her daughter to the living, breathing girl. I loved it. It was powerful and horrifying. But I couldn’t do anything with it, so it’s hanging out with love-smitten zhamM.
If the problem is that your main story thread peters out, you may find it helpful to assume that wasn’t your real story. Look at what you’ve got. Think about where else you might go with it. Some story choices narrow the future possibilities, which is good when you’re near the end but not at the beginning or the middle. Did you choose directions that limited your characters’ options? Can you see other paths that excite you? This is not failure! This is finding the actual story.
In my case, I always have to simplify to write the book I can write. In my dark hours I feel bad about this and disappointed in myself. But the rest of the time I’m proud and happy that I finished, and I think my books are pretty good.
Obviously we’re all different. Some people do better with a stick and some with honey. Lark, you seem to do best when you set goals for yourself. So do it! NaNoWriMo is coming up. This time make it your goal to type “The End” when the month is over. If it helps, you can say that I demanded it. Write stories for the birthdays of all your friends and relatives. And your pets! Write a story for the major and minor holidays. (Halloween is coming up.)
flowerprincess, in the cases when more research would get you going again, I’d suggest undertaking the research. What you discover may give you a detail that will move your story forward, as has happened to me more than once.
Lots of us work well with small time goals and rewards. I’ll often tell myself that if I write for half an hour I can take a break. Not too much later I demand another half hour of myself. I also have a time goal for the day’s writing. In doing this, I’m not thinking about finishing my book, but underneath I know that if I put in enough time and write enough notes and think enough, I’ll get there. In fact, worrying about finishing may be a distraction. Just write. Just follow the story. Face the ending when you close in on it.
I see two options if the idea of being published gets in the way. One is, don’t think about it; don’t make that your goal. The other has two parts. The first is to imagine yourself published. Imagine a call from your agent to say that your book has been accepted by a publisher and the editor wants to call you to talk about how wonderful it is and how it could become even greater. You can go on to imagine all the stages that follow, the editorial letter and the edited manuscript, you revising, the book in bound galleys, the early reviews, the book in bookstores. The second part is to imagine your book rejected. Think about how bad you feel, how you wallow in misery for, maybe, a couple of weeks. And then you recover (I did, many times) and find that there’s Life After Rejection. And you send the novel out again and resume writing your current project. Then you can return to the first image of acceptance. The idea with this approach is to take the fear and trembling out of the publishing notion. If you live with it, its power will diminish.
Here are two prompts:
∙ Write a ghost story. A life cut short is like an unfinished story. Imagine a character who dies young and have the story be about the life he didn’t have. Bring him in as a ghost.
∙ An unsolved mystery is also like an unfinished story. Dr. Ellen Imoldo is a veterinarian who, in the 1980s, claimed to have discovered a serum that would significantly increase intelligence in dogs. She disappeared along with her notes and her vials. Your main character has found a clue. Solve the mystery of her disappearance and the serum.
Have fun, and save what you write!