Thursday, February 21, 2008

Finishing what you start

"The road to hell is paved with unpaved manuscripts." I recently read this quote from an interview with author Ron Carlson. I don't know if he's the first to ever say it, but it's the first time I heard it. And it really rang true with me. I love anything that affirms writing is hard and not for the meek of heart.

I talked to a young woman the other day who lamented that she could never finish a story. She had started more stories than she could count, but always grew bored or blocked or whatever and abandoned the project for greener pastures.

Oh, how tempting. I butt my head against some kind of resistance every single time I sit down in front of the computer. I'm facing one right now. A young woman in my book is recounting a terrible mistake she made with a man. (Of course, what other kind are there.) She fell in love with this man and gave herself completely to him. He turned out to be after information within her company. Once he got it, he was gone, along with her heart, credibility, and career.

How much of this do I need to draw out for the reader? They already know the situation. They know how wonderful the guy was and how vulnerable the character was. I want the reader to feel Christy's pain, to experience the rejection, betrayal and fear she experienced. But how much is too much? Some things are implied--not every thought and nuance needs to be painstakingly crafted for an intelligent reader who can read between the lines. It's a balancing act that leaves every writer frustrated.

I could close my document and walk away. Start something else. It would be very easy this morning since I'm not feeling too sympathetic toward this character and the poor choices she made.

But I can't leave her hanging. She needs a resolution. She needs to move on with her life. I can't do it to her. I can't even do it to myself. I must see how this story plays out.

How does a writer decide which stories are worth pursuing and which ones are more exercise than craft? There's nothing wrong with writing for fun and practice. We should all do more of it. This journey should be joyful, not frustrating and depressing, though we all know writing has those moments. Even when we are writing to entertain ourselves for an afternoon with something completely banal and silly, we should care about the story and who it is happening to. If we are writing about a dog looking for a fire hydrant or a cloud looking for a patch of earth to shade, we should understand the motivation and care that our subject achieves whatever it started out to achieve.

If we do care--even if no one else ever does--and we can put ourselves inside the cloud or the dog or the woman who always picks the wrong man, it will be much harder to close the document or the notebook and walk away without a backward glance.

Let's face it, some stories are false starts and dead ends. That's all right. The more you do it, the easier it gets to tell the difference before we labor over a story that is destined to languish inside our hard drive. With practice and a little forethought, you'll be finishing every project you start. Even if it has no future on the printed page, you'll know you can finish a story. Nothing does a writer's confidence more good than knowing you can work through the tough spots.

Now get in there and finish something.

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