Q & A: Finishing Stories

I have trouble finishing my stories, so how can I finish?
—Lily, age 11

Oh, Lily. I am the Queen of Not Finishing Stories. I tell kids all the time that if they’ve finished a story, no matter how good or bad the story is, they’re way ahead of where I was at their age. I loved starting things, but I had more ideas than I had the stamina to see them through to the end. I started (and abandoned) three other novels before I wroteThe Rise and Fall of Mount Majestic, and even now I’ve got more unfinished books (and ideas for books) languishing on my computer than I care to admit.

In the course of a long life of not finishing things, I've learned that there are really only a couple of main reasons why it's hard to finish. And though analyzing them and solving them all would probably take a book (which I’d never finish), let me give you a few quick pieces of advice for each reason.

1. I’m not interested in the story anymore.
This happens. It's okay. Not every story is meant to be finished. I give you permission to put it aside! But don't throw it away entirely. In a couple of weeks, or even a couple of months, come back to the story, sit down, reread it, and try writing a little more. See if the ember catches fire again and your passion for the story comes back. Maybe it just needed to bake in the oven a little while longer. I set aside a first chapter for five years before it becameThe Rise and Fall of Mount Majestic, and the first sentence I wrote (and almost abandoned) is almost exactly what ended up in the final book. You never know!

2. The story is not working.
Maybe there’s not enough conflict. Maybe your characters are doing things that don’t make any sense. Maybe you don’t even like your characters anymore. There a lot of things that can go wrong with a story. Just as I said with reason #1 above, set the story aside for a while and come back to it with fresh eyes later. A little vacation from the story might be all that's needed for your brain to come up with a new idea, a missing piece, that brings the whole story together or sets it on a new path. If your own fresh eyes aren’t enough, give your story to someone else to read and see if they can help you see what’s not working and why. Also, while you’re taking that little vacation from your own story, reading great stories by other people and paying attention to what makes them good can sometimes cause a little lightbulb to turn on inside you: “Aha! THAT's what mine needs!”

All stories are bad until they become good. First drafts are always bad. Always. It’s only when you go back and revise a story that you can really figure out how to make it better. So sometimes, the best thing to do is to close your eyes and keep writing terrible stuff and trust that it’s going to be good someday.

But sometimes a story is just broken, and it can’t be fixed. In that case, shed a little tear and let it die peacefully. But look carefully at all those broken pieces. They might not fit together into one story, but what if they can be used for other stories? What if that favorite character or that funny scene could work in a different place? Save the pieces you love. You never know how you might use them in the future.

3. I’ve written a great Beginning, and I know the Ending will be a bang, but I have no idea what happens in the big long Middle.
Want to know a secret? This is exactly where I am in the novel I'm writing at the moment. I've written 15,000 words, and at first I was speeding along like a freight train and feeling like a million bucks because all the ideas that got me started on the story were still fresh and new and exciting and I couldn’t wait to get them down on paper. But now, I get up in the morning and go to my computer with trepidation because I DON'T KNOW WHAT HAPPENS. There’s a long stretch of Middle ahead of me that is a huge terrifying blank.

Putting one word after another can feel like putting one foot in front of another in the middle of a thick fog. It’s scary when you have no idea where you’re going. But the good news is that your imagination is like a little flashlight. And as other authors wiser than me have noted, even if that light only lets you see a couple of feet in front of you, if you keep following it, little by little you’ll find your way home.

You don’t have to know the whole story at this point. You only need to shine your little light a few feet ahead. What’s the next thing my character would say? What’s the next thing she would do? What’s the next choice she has to make? And eventually, you’ll bump into THE END and realize you made it all the way.

4. The idea looked so glorious in my imagination, but getting it all down on paper is TOO HARD.
Yep. It's hard. It's also hard to build houses, compose symphonies, train dolphins, bake soufflés, cure diseases, run countries, and invent new ice cream flavors. Anything worth doing is hard. Wouldn't it be sad if all those builders, composers, dolphin trainers, bakers, doctors, presidents, and ice cream inventors just gave up one day?

Often when I think Reasons #1-3 are keeping me from finishing a story, it’s actually this reason. I don’t want to admit that it’s just HARD. Do you know that even famous, award-winning authors often get to the end of a book they’re writing and think, “That’s it. I don’t have any more books in me. It’s so hard I’ll never be able to do that again”? And then, they take a deep breath and write another one.

So if it’s hard for everyone, the fact that it’s hard for you doesn’t mean you aren’t a writer. The only thing that makes you not a writer is not writing.

5. I’m afraid it's not going to be any good and other people won't like it and I will turn out to be a TERRIBLE WRITER who just wasted all that time when I should have been doing something important in the world like saving endangered koala bears or working in a baby bottle factory and anyway I HAVE AN UGLY NOSE and should just go back to bed.
This is not the voice of truth in my head. This is the voice of Mildred, the imaginary, mean, sour-faced, crabby, critical monster in my head whose sole purpose is to keep me from creating anything. She is my enemy. She is the enemy of all that is good and true and beautiful in the world.

I need other people to remind me of the difference between Mildred and the truth, because I forget a lot. A friend even gave me a pillow with a bullseye on it, so that whenever the sneering voice starts to spout lies at me, I can pretend the pillow is Mildred and punch it. It sits right by my writing desk.

As a rule, I don’t recommend punching as a way to solve problems. But when it comes to imaginary crabby-monster-ladies named Mildred who whisper in your ear that you are not worth anything and what you’re doing is stupid, PUNCH HER. PUNCH MILDRED HARD IN THE FACE. Then smile and go write your story.