This is what the solstice sun set looked like on the Long Island Sound on Monday. Top Cat and I packed a picnic dinner (See that plastic wine glass? That’s what’s called a Traveller in the Carolinas, and a Go Cup in New Orleans) and we had a big chunk of the North Shore all to ourselves. I’m torn: should I be high-mindedly judgemental that so many Long Islander don’t take advantage of the natural beauty of this coast line, or should I be grateful that they stay away and leave me the hell alone on such a gorgeous night?
Change of Subject: I was at the Smithtown/Kings Park library last night giving my low-falutin’ Book Talk (3 things You Should Know About Creativity and 6 Travel Tips for Staying Put). A wonderful group of people showed up and we had a lively Q&A that lengthened pleasantly during the book signing. And then a fellow took me aside to discuss his writing: he told me that he writes a lot, but he can’t seem to finish anything. “I get lost somewhere in the middle, and I can’t get to the end,” he said.
I hear that a lot from workshop writers, that they run out of steam before they get to the end of their story. If that’s you, too, I think I might have some useful advise.
If you can’t finish your stories (because you see no way to end them, you see no resolution, you get tired of them, or you simply run out of things to say) it could be because you are writing the wrong kind of story.
It’s either the wrong genre, or the wrong format, or the wrong length; that is, it’s wrong for your talent. It’s a bad fit: you’re trying to write fantasy when your calling is romance. You’re trying to write fiction when your genre is essay. You’re trying to write a short story when your talent is better suited for feature writing. Or: you’re trying to squeeze 1200 words from a topic that only needs 300.
In short, you’re trying to imitate a writer or a form that you love, but your skills, your personality, your mind-set is better suited for some other, uniquely you kind of writing.
I would encourage writers who can’t finish their work to try some new tactics.
1. Try starting your story in the middle. For one thing, that brings it closer to the ending than if you start it at the beginning; for another, it gives you a whole new perspective on the story itself. You might discover that your story, or your writing, was never meant to start from the beginning in the first place. (If you don’t know where the middle of your story is, well, that’s a whole other problem; it means that you have no idea what your story is about. We can fix that, too: subject of another post.)
2. Try ending your story in the middle. Maybe the reason you can’t finish your work is because it’s already finished and you don’t know it. Try ending your story at the point where you are stuck: wrap it up with a line or two (an end doesn’t have to be a whole big production; and it doesn’t have to be tidy.)
3. Cut the word count . Try writing the story as if it has to fit on a post card. (By the way, I use the term story as a neutral term; it could be an essay, an article, a work of fiction, a chapter in your memoir, etc.) By cutting the word count you not only are forced to deal with the most urgent aspects of your story, but you might discover that it was a story that was only meant to be told that way in the first place: concisely, in epigrams,or stripped of a lot of over-laying narrative interpretation (which is something that a lot of novice writers tend to do– they over-explain).
4. Change direction. Either start over, writing your story from a different point of view or in a different genre. This means taking your current story off the table and switching into a whole other voice. OR, at the place in your story where you are stalled, transition into a new character, a new time line, a new theme. THIS IS VERY TRICKY to pull off and you probably won’t. Very few writers can do it: it usually comes off as an alienating post-modern trick, where the narrator/writer suddenly intrudes into his story, musing what the narrator/writer should do next…I seem to remember that the guy who wrote The French Lieutenant s Woman did it in that book (I didn’t like that book). But if you have the guts or the determination to stay with your story, letting a new consciousness into it might unlock it for you, shed some light on the thing that wanted to be said but you, the writer, were fighting to leave unsaid (which might be why you are stuck with a piece that you can’t end). And with that knowledge, you can re-write the story all the way to the end.
Of course, there’s always the chance that you can’t end your stories because you bore yourself, and are too uninterested in finishing. This usually means that you’ve chosen a voice, or a narrative style, that is inauthentic. It’s not you, the stuff that you are writing, it’s the writer-you that you think you should be. The clue is if you are using much bigger words than you use in real life, or if you are using words that you’ve read frequently in litterchur. Don’t do that.
Which reminds me, as much as I tryto edit out every trace of inauthenticity in my own writing, there are times when some pomposity slips past my bullshit detectors. And then those words get published and I keel over in eembarrassment every time I see them in print. I’m just trying to save you from such mortification.