To Finish or Not?

One of my students is a young writer—just beginning to get serious about the craft. She has never finished a story before, but then again she hasn’t written much. However, she already has the impression in her mind, “Finish what you start.” That is an excellent notion, but at times it can be detrimental. Sometimes what you started wasn’t a good idea, or maybe you didn’t think it through before beginning. Sometimes you need to stop and ask yourself if it’s worth it.

If you’re working on something, and you no longer feel any love for it, and you’re writing it out of a sense of duty—stop. The idea isn’t going anywhere. The story won’t write itself, and it also won’t walk away. It’ll still be there—in your ‘unfinished’ file in your computer. Put it in the back burner and let it simmer. Some ideas are like wine—they need to be put in a dark place and left alone for a while to become really good. You might discover later on as you pocket away ideas that a story will come along and use all those great ideas in one impressive story, and it’ll be better than you could have ever imagined.

However, say you have a story in mind—you’ve outlined everything, and you know exactly what you have to do, but you find yourself staring at a scene you really don’t want to write. Maybe it’s a talking scene—not much action, and it’s boring. You’d prefer to skip to the exciting part, but you’re heard the warning against that, so you’re stuck. What do you do? Do you skip or press on through it? If you skip, you’ll only have to write it later, and it still won’t be any more exciting. However, if you press on through this difficult scene knowing what happens next will be an epic scene, you have something to look forward to. It’s like crossing a stream. You want to get on the other side, but first you have to wade through water. You can’t run through it because it’s up to your thighs, so you take one step at a time. As soon as you reach the other side, you can run again. Take it one word at a time, one sentence at a time, one paragraph at a time, and before you know it the scene will be finished, and you’ll be on your way to that exciting part.

There are times when you’re writing a scene and nothing feels right about it. You just getting discouraged more and more, and you don’t see how it’s going to work out, so pause (not full stop, but pause). Look at the scene and think: is there any other way this scene can unfold? Explore the possibilities, different characters’ POV, maybe change the setting or the approach. Once you get a clearer idea, then copy and paste what you had written and put it in a ‘deleted scene’ file. You never want to absolutely delete something you’ve written because there might be a sentence or a paragraph that you’ve written that you can use later. Once you’re removed the text from your original manuscript, you can now rewrite the scene.

This happens because characters are very stubborn. This is their story you’re showing, and they want you to get it right. If you get any detail wrong, they’ll cringe and wince and then complain and kick and scream. You need to be aware of their discomfort immediately and figure out what the problem is. Once you do that, it will be easier to follow the story, and the characters will behave.

So, if you’re struggling with a story and have genuinely lost all interest in it, let me tell you a secret: you’re not going to like it more once you finish it. On the contrary, you likely won’t want to look at it any time soon—if ever. It’s okay to stop writing a story that no longer captivates you.

Am I encouraging uncompleted stories? No. There will come a part in every story where you won’t want to write it, and you will have to determine if it’s because the story itself has no direction, or if you’re just plain bored with it, or there’s some other interesting idea you would much rather to explore. There are times to press on and write it to completion, and there are times to stop and let the story simmer while you take on another challenge. The dangerous potential with this is writing so much but leaving a trail of unfinished stories, so you will have to challenge yourself to complete something so the sake and satisfaction of completing it.

No matter what, always be writing.

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