Guest Post: Contrary Writing Advice: Don’t Finish This Story!

by Deborah J. Ross

D_RossI love to take conventional wisdom and turn it on its head, following the tradition of rules are made to be broken but first you have to learn them. Beginning writers make mistakes. At least, I did, and I don’t know anyone who’s gone on to a successful writing career who didn’t. At some point, either a teacher or a more skillful writer points out, “Don’t do this” and why it’s a bad idea. Sometimes we figure it out for ourselves. I wonder if in the process of expunging our mistakes we also ignore that kernel of wisdom or inner creative impulse that led us to make the mistake in the first place.

For example, we get told, “Avoid passive verbs, especially the verb to be.” But sometimes that is exactly the right verb and if we contort our prose to avoid it at all costs, we end up with…well, contorted prose.

The writing rule to Always Finish What You Start is equally worthy of a challenge, yet it rarely is. The rule is practically engraved in granite, creating a sense of obligation to slog through stories, no matter how much we’ve grown beyond them. We end up with trunk stories (stories that are so flawed as to be unsellable and are therefore relegated to the proverbial storage chest) when we could have been writing the very best new stories we’re now capable of. The second rule, to move on to something new, is a good one most of the time, as is the commiseration, Not every story succeeds. I’m all for taking risks in our writing with the understanding that we’ll occasionally go splat into the Quagmire of Drekness from time to time.

Is there any value to starting things we don’t finish? (Or allowing ourselves to not finish what we start?) That is, aside from dropping projects that just aren’t working and using our time and creative energy more productively? I think there is.

Beginning writers often have far more ideas than they can put into stories. We’re like kids in a candy store, with our minds hopping with images, bits of dialog, ultimately cool mcguffins, nifty plot twists, you name it. When we’re new, we don’t have the experience to sort out what’s prime story core material, what needs development, what needs a lot of development and a lot of structure before it stands a hope of becoming a story. So as beginners we dive into whatever strikes our fancy and end up with files and files of story beginnings. That’s a valuable part of the learning process, even if it is far from comprehensive. Later, when we know how to cultivate those ideas into stories that work, we can return to those sketches and openings as a treasure trove of ideas.

All this is well and good, but it centers on the content of the unfinished stories, not the process of beginning, and applies mostly to newer writers. Here are some thoughts on how unfinished stories benefit even seasoned writers.

First and foremost, that very first sentence is a killer for many of us, no matter how many books we’ve published. The Blank Screen (or page) represents the blank mind of the writer. Even if we have our story outlined to a fare-thee-well, finding our way into the first page of the first scene can be excruciating. What if we practiced beginning stories the way a musician practices scales? Instead of checking our email, we start our day with a new story – three to five pages, then stop. That’s all. Five to seven unfinished stories a week. What a concept! My bet would be that it would be awful at first, then delightfully freeing, then awful, then a breeze. What if we prepared to write that novel by writing three openings every day for a week? Would we end up gibbering in the corner? Or would the paralysis of the blank screen lose its power over us?

Another gift of unfinished stories is just plain play. When I was in high school, I must have started a new story a week, written a few pages, and then gone on to the next. I have a box of them somewhere and they’re not “treasure trove” material. But they were so much fun. I loved that feeling of opening a door to magic and adventure. Now, when I write mostly novels and I complete almost all of them, those moments of anticipation are few and far between. Yet I think they are important. They give us the joy of telling a shiny new story, of writing to please ourselves, of our connection to everything we find wonderful. Regardless of the quality of those opening paragraphs or whether they are of any use to us in the future, they tell our creative muse, “More! More!”

From time to time, I go through a bookstore, reading opening pages and noticing whether and when the story hooks me. This varies from genre to genre, of course. Something very literary is not going to have the same “grab ‘em” factor as a thriller. One of the things I struggle against in my own work is the tendency to start a story slowly. Sedately. I’ve developed various strategies to counteract this tendency, but I wonder if the exercise of just putting down story beginnings might be helpful in learning how to focus interest. If I know I have only a page (or three or five) and that’s it, adios, then I have to get what’s cool and exciting down on paper right away. I can’t wallow through a chapter of scene-setting or backstory. This is it: why I love this story and why you should read it. Instant query and pitch material!

So here’s to unfinished stories (and to finished ones, too!)

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Deborah J. Ross writes and edits fantasy and science fiction. She’s a former SFWA Secretary and member of Book View Café. Her short fiction has appeared in F & SF, Asimov’s, Star Wars: Tales From Jabba’s Palace, Realms of Fantasy, Sword & Sorceress, and various other anthologies and magazines. Her most recent books include the Darkover novel, The Children of Kings (with Marion Zimmer Bradley, Amazon Barnes & Noble); Collaborators, an occupation-and-resistance story with a gender-fluid alien race (as Deborah Wheeler, Amazon Barnes & Noble); and The Seven-Petaled Shield, an epic fantasy trilogy (Amazon Barnes & Noble). She’s also the author of Ink Dance: Essays on the Writing Life (Book View Café Barnes & Noble). This post first appeared on her blog.

2 Responses

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  2. Elizabeth Moon

    Great advice, both on not being too rule bound, and about the non-need to finish everything you start. Writing bits of things I know aren’t going to be right–or finished–does freshen the mind and exercise skills habit may have allowed to grow dull. Writers have to finish something–quite a lot of somethings–but not everything. (Now staring at the beginning of a novel that seemed all bright and shiny until about page ten, and now looks…like a red-hot first page rapidly cooling to slag. Oh, well.)