Most writers who have been at it for any length of time have the experience of a story not being truly finished. It may come to an end, but it has not yet come into itself. My version of this usually involves my initial concept being wrong. I will start with an idea in what I call the “front part” of my brain–a notion, a conceit, an image from some visual medium (painting, film) and spin it into a plot. I labor under the delusion that this is what the story “is about.” More often than not, I’m wrong.
I’m wrong because I’m going for the glitz, the superficial attraction. The truth is, I’m a better writer than that when I listen to what’s underneath the glitz. That’s where the emotional juice is, the deeper resonances, the Deborah-vision.
The symptoms of this misstep are many: characters that refuse to follow the pre-arranged script, story elements that just won’t come together, plot idiocies that are not just holes but dead-end canyons. I’ve learned how to rip all that stuff out (leaving chunks of bleeding, burning manuscript strewn about) and dig deep into the core. That’s part of my revision (re-vision, right?) process, and although with time (read: decades of practice), I’ve gotten better at writing first drafts that are less superficial and more true, I still value this process.
Throw away the chaff; be ruthless; seek the nuggets of treasure and bring them into the light.
Stories can be not-ready in other ways, too. You throw them in the infamous trunk when you’re so tired of looking at the same words, you can’t see the problems. I’ve been known to put manuscripts in the freezer to cool them off, although I doubt the physical temperature has any effect except as a metaphor. Working on something else gives “the back” of our brains time to work, for ideas to ferment and percolate and for new patterns and solutions to emerge. Alas, this process can take years, which is why it’s a good idea to dive into the next project and then the next.
I’ve been talking about a story not being ready. Sometimes it’s me, the writer, who’s not ready to tell that story. Usually this is because my writing craft isn’t adequate to the challenge. This is particularly true if the story is a “high wire act,” requiring great skill and subtlety. Or a story that plays into my weaknesses as a writer and refuses to be told in any other way. Or…something I myself am not ready to tackle, like emotionally difficult subjects.
If I try to write these stories before I’m ready, they fail just as surely as those I first described. Perhaps every failed story involves elements of story-unfinished-ness and my own imperfect skill. However, I’ve found that the attempt is always valuable. If I am willing to listen to the heart of the story and to see myself as being a work-in-progress, then I will surely receive priceless gifts. I grow as a person as well as a writer, and end up with stories I am proud of.
The photograph, Sunrise in Thailand, is by Lisa Tancscs and licensed under Creative Commons.
Deborah J. Ross has been writing science fiction and fantasy since 1982. Her novels Jaydium and Northlight, also available as an omnibus edition, Other Doorways: Early Novels and short story “The Casket of Brass” are available as multiformat ebooks here on Book View Cafe.