Monday, August 25, 2008

Craft of Writing: Finding and Finishing Stories

You may feel duly chastised by my friend Angie's article on finding things to write about. It's true that stories surround us. However, I submit that one inhibition against sitting down to write is not knowing where to take that story once you've begun it.

Don't get me wrong, I think far to many wannabe writers walk through life with buds in their ears or talking on cellphones, and missing the story ideas around them. Thus the over abundance of "relationship stories," but how many times have you written a great introductory paragraph and then thought, okay, now what? Where do I go from here? Or, who are these people and what should they do next? Have that happen too many times and you may put off the writing process all together.

This is a particular dilemma for short story writers. If you are writing a novel, it's easy enough to follow standard wisdom and "write through your block." You presumably already have a cast of characters and somewhat of a story set in motion. If that day's writing ends up not to fit in the finished product you can remove it or revise it. Short stories are different. If you don't have an idea there's no point in writing through unless you want to end up with one of those 10,000 word monstrosities that doesn't go anywhere.

On the other hand, that fear of having nowhere to go can paralyze you, not to mention that inspirations for entire stories––the kind where you forget to eat or sleep–-can be few and far between. You can get badly out of practice waiting for one to come along.

Now I hate those writers who say, "do it this way." There are probably as many approaches to writing as there are writers, so I'll just give you an idea that worked for me.

Recently I attended a very inspiring workshop after going a couple of years––yes I said a couple of years––without writing a complete story. The inability to expand on my first idea or first scene on a few stories in a row, eventually caused me to give up trying all together, but when I returned from that workshop having connected once more with that terrific rush I get from sitting down to write, I was determined to focus at least three days a week on my writing.

Certainly I couldn't come up with a complete new story every day. So here's what I do. On my writing days I will do one of the following.
  • Start something brand new based on an idea or scene I have in my head. If the idea is for a complete story I keep going. If not, I quit when I can't think of anywhere else to go.
  • Continue something I've already started if I have a complete idea in mind.
  • Revise a completed story that I've let rest for a couple of weeks.
  • Go back through my incomplete files deciding what is worth keeping and what I could get rid of. Re-reading all those beginnings I will often find one that inspires me and I run with it.
Hemingway always said that when he was stumped for something to write about, he tried to come up with "one true sentence."I'm afraid I don't have the talent to turn one true sentence about fly fishing into a story about war, which is probably just one reason why Hem was able to keep writing while I can't. So I'll just have to work within my limitations. The main thing is to keep writing.

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