Tuesday 19 July 2016

F is for... Finishing

Finishing. Unsurprisingly, it's a very important part of getting a story published, or winning a prize in a competition. No editor is going to want to leave a blank page in their magazine or anthology so the readers can write out their own version of the ending.

So, you have to finish your story. That isn't to say it's even remotely easy to do. I'm sure I'm not alone in having dozens of abandoned stories lying around on my hard drive. Some of them are malformed and flimsy and should never see the light of day under any circumstances, but others are just unlucky - perhaps they got interrupted and I never quite found my way back into them, or I lost interest in them for some other reason.

Part of the problem, I think - and this is only my personal experience so I'd be interested to know whether anyone else feels the same - is that the process of getting through a story is something of an emotional rollercoaster. If I was to plot a simplified graph of confidence levels through a first draft, I'd end up with something like this:

Essentially, that's the journey through:
  • I've got an idea for a story, might be worth a go
  • Yes, you little beauty! This is gonna work.
  • Actually, I'm not sure about it now...
  • Oh god, what was I thinking? I'm the worst writer in the world.
  • Hmm, this might be OK after all...
  • Oh yeah, I'm the storymeister - this is straight-up genius!
  • Right, that's finished. I think. It's alright, isn't it? At least, it might be after a bit of editing.
That slump in the middle, where you start wondering where it's going, why all your characters sound the same, how you're ever going to wrestle the story back to the ending you had in mind when you started - that's the dangerous bit. That's where other ideas become irresistible, when you have that sudden urge to reorganise your bookshelves, when keeping going with the current story seems like the biggest waste of time imaginable. But the key is to keep that arse of yours firmly on the seat, and press on regardless.

For me, the main thing is to keep the momentum going. Plough on, resisting the urge to go back and tinker with the beginning, and get yourself a completed first draft before you do anything else. Don't worry about how ropey it is, or that your main character starts off as John with brown eyes but has changed to Stephanie with green eyes somewhere along the line. It's all fixable. Just get to the end.

I find that it's helpful to keep in mind that the first draft is only ever that - a first draft. It's the roughing-out, the quick sketch to suss out the proportions and the general shape. Don't aim for perfection - in fact, leaving it as loose and malleable as possible can be very useful indeed. And if you get stuck, skip a bit. Lots of my first drafts have notes like [FIND A WAY TO DEMONSTRATE LENNY'S FEAR OF DOGS PRIOR TO THIS POINT] or [CHECK WHETHER THERE ARE THREE OR FOUR PEOPLE IN THE CAR AT THE BEGINNING]. Anything to stop me getting bogged down, looking back over an incomplete draft and losing confidence in it.

If you're getting bored with what you're writing, for instance if you're having to set the scene for a more dramatic part of the story, it can be useful to simply rough out the basic flow of events with bullet points, and then get on with the exciting parts. When you come back to rewrite the scene, you may find that you don't need half as much detail as you first expected.


Susan A Eames said...

I like your graph and the 'thoughts' behind the reasons for the peaks and troughs. I have a terrible habit of tinkering with my opening paragraphs instead of getting the thing written first and edited afterwards.

Susan at
Travel, Fiction and Photos

Paul said...

I'm always split between two common issues. I'm either terrified to write because I can't translate what I'm thinking first time, or my head is being turned by another project. I also panic about writing something bigger, because I'm concerned I can't establish a presence if I'm not constantly releasing, or at least entering competitions with hope of exposure!

This has been a great series to read! Keep 'em coming! :)

Anonymous said...

Good, wise stuff!

I think your graph is mostly accurate, though I think you also have to factor in time taken and possibly length of piece of work. For me, I think that graph would be accurate for, say, a 2000-4000 word story.

However, if I'm writing something shorter, say 500-1000 words, I think I can usually write it quickly enough that the first draft is pretty much over in one go, and I avoid some of those peaks and troughs and am generally much happier (not that it necessarily produces a better piece of work).

I wonder if there would be a different graph for writing a novel as well - I suspect that one would be a bit more bumpy...

P.s. Do you remember some number of years ago, you were judging a competition with the theme (ironically) 'Start'? Yep, my entry for that is *nearly* ready...

Chloe said...

Finishing a draft for me is where things get going! Only once I've finished a first draft do I feel as if I can properly start working on something - a novel at least. I kind of need to know how it pans out before I can make the middle bit good.

Talking of finishing... how's the novel coming along?

Dan Purdue said...

Thanks for the comments, everyone.

Susan - yes, it's easy to fall into that trap of going over and over the very start of your story/book with the thought that there's no point continuing if you can't at least get that right. The problem is that the beginning is pretty much the hardest part to do and can change completely depending on the shape the rest of the story takes. So don't sweat the start - get something down and get on with the rest of it!

Paul - I know what you mean, it seems so important to do everything all at once, and as a result the important bit - actually writing - tends to get pushed to one side while you attend to everything else. All I'd say is that no amount of 'presence' (short of actually becoming a celebrity) is going to convince a publisher to take on a sub-par book. It's far more important to have a sound product rather than a theoretical army of fans. That said, winning a competition or two never did anyone any harm so I guess it's a case of striking the right balance. Either way, you seem like you're doing a pretty good job, so keep on keeping on!

Ric - For something flash-length I think I go through a similar emotional journey as for a longer work, although the peaks and troughs are possibly a little less extreme. The good thing, as you say, is that generally you can do it in one sitting and so the momentum usually carries me on to the end. In my experience, when it comes to a novel it's like that for pretty much every chapter.

Chloe - One of my favourite parts of writing is getting that first draft and sitting down with my editing pen to knock it into shape. I've pretty much always preferred editing to composing. It's less exciting but to me it feels like that's the part where the real craft comes in, and there's something indescribably satisfying about taking a story that just about works and making it into something special.

The novel's finished, I'm just putting it through maybe its third deep edit, sorting out a couple of plot holes and generally tidying it up. It's still a bit of a battle, but with a bit of luck and discipline it should be doing the rounds at agents/publishers before too long. I hope!