Contrary Writing Advice: Don’t Finish This Story!

I love to take conventional wisdom and turn it on its head, following the tradition of rules are made to be broken but firBach-unfinishedfuguest 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!)


The image is the last page, unfinished, of the manuscript of the “Fuga a 3 Soggetti”, from “The Art of Fugue” BWV 1080 by Johann Sebastian Bach, 1749.



Contrary Writing Advice: Don’t Finish This Story! — 8 Comments

  1. What enormous piles of half-done stories taught me was the vital importance of outlining.

    the piles of half-done outlines don’t get half so large.

  2. You inspire me! I’ve always written a few quick pages when I’ve been overcome by an idea, but always in a hodge-podge manner. The idea of doing it intentionally and regularly — like scales — sounds like a very good form of writing practice for building skills.

  3. I could never, ever resolve to finish everything I start. It would be like resolving that every seed you plant shall grow to full size and bear fruit. Anything that is destined to get finished will insist on coming to life. And anything that doesn’t have the vigor to grow will be left behind. It is purely Darwinian. The strong shall survive.

  4. I love the idea of starting the day with a story–maybe even just an opening paragraph. Remember that the entire Liaden universe started with one line on a piece of typing paper, waiting….

      • Heh. I had a story idea about a quarter century ago. I remember the occasion clearly; I was sitting in church and listening to a sermon. The entire book developed in my mind before they got to the prayers. So I began to write it, and damned if it didn’t refuse to ignite. I sat their with my pile of horse manure and it would not start to cook. So I put it away and forgot it. It sat there quietly until last year, when suddenly it came to life, climbed out of the pile, scratched its armpits, spread its wings, and flew away.

  5. As a consummate rule-breaker (and unabashed hoarder of unfinished pieces and passive verbs), I almost wish people would stop asking writers for their ‘top ten tips.’ Practical advice from seasoned writers is one thing, and always appreciated in a mentoring relationship; but I think putting writers on the spot like that makes them feel they have to say something pithy and profound when they may not really have analysed their own writing methods thoroughly – or want to give any advice, for that matter.

    In spite of what many of these literary gurus would have us believe, what works for one writer (or written piece) won’t necessarily work for another, and no ‘rule’ is sacrosanct. Usually, whenever I read any of these ‘always do this/never do that’ tips I end up muttering expletives under my breath, because inevitably I’ve already not done/done those very things. For people who aren’t quite so intractable, this could be a detriment to both their confidence and their writing process.

    Most ridiculous advice I’ve read:

    “Never open a book with the weather.”
    — Elmore Leonard

    (In no small part because it took me a while to figure out that he wasn’t talking about physically opening a book, but beginning a narrative…)

    Best advice:

    “Advice to young writers? Always the same advice: learn to trust our own judgment, learn inner independence, learn to trust that time will sort the good from the bad– including your own bad.”
    ? Doris Lessing