Unfinished Stories are Toxic Waste

I’ve had a writing-advice heavy run of posts of late, largely ’cause people asked writing-advice type questions, so I figure I’m going to hitch this one to the end of the sequence ’cause it’s thematically appropriate. No-one actually asked about this, but I’ve been rocking the writing-before-work thing and this bit comes from personal observation. All the usual caveats about using a sample-size of one and your writing process being different from my writing process apply.

Alright, here we go. There is, in writing circles, some advice that goes along the lines of this:

JUST FINISH YOUR DAMN STORY, MAN

This is one of the hardest damn things to do when you start out as a writer. Usually this is ’cause you’re not that good and you spend an awful lot of time flailing and flailing and flailing at the page, producing things you know aren’t good (’cause, let’s be honest, you wouldn’t be doing this writing thing if you didn’t have impeccable taste). When you’re in this mode it’s easy to be all “Woe! Despair! I shall abandon this story and start a new one, for it will be the brilliant in concept and form and the world shall award me with a pony.”

But you don’t do that, ’cause some wise writer-type came along and said, well, just finish your damn story, man, and for all that my process isn’t your process etcetera and so forth, that’s still damn good advice.

You want to get used to finishing things as a writer, just like you want to play all the way through a song when you’re first learning an instrument, regardless of mistakes, lest you become one of those guys who knows how to play the first three bars of, say, Metallica’s Unforgiven really well, but have no idea how to get past that. Finishing things, regardless of mistakes, gets you used to looking at fiction as a whole. Stopping after you make a mistake and starting again means you just get really good at beginnings.

BUT I KNOW WHAT I’M DOING, I PROMISE.

Now I fought that fight a long while ago – in fiction, at least – and I’ve largely set Just Finish Your Damn Story, Man aside as a piece of useful advice ’cause often the advice you need when you’re just starting out as a writer aren’t the same pieces of advice you need when you’re trying to, say, write to a tight deadline or fill a space in a themed anthology or belting out a quick short story so you can pay your phone bill eventually (not the world’s most inspired tactic, but I play to my strengths).

These days my hard-drive is littered with the half-finished carcasses of dead and dying stories that I haven’t got around to finishing, although in most cases I haven’t got around to finishing them yet. My hard-drive is also filled with stories that exist in a very rough first draft, largely thanks to my morning routine writing 500 words before work, that need to be redrafted and polished and sent out into the world so they can become fully-formed stories that are read by other people. I am confident of my ability to do both the finishing and the polishing, ’cause I’ve finished enough shitty short-stories to know I can do so.

In my head I wasn’t leaving all this work unfinished, I was just stockpiling it. I drag out a half-finished story and finish it every time I find myself sitting at the computer thinking “I don’t know what to write.” I drag out an unsightly first draft and polish it up every time I need to hit a deadline in my submission journal, more often if I find myself with a free weekend and have the luxury of great glittering gobs of writing time.

And I’ve realised, over the weekend, I really need to stop doing that.

UNFINISHED STORIES ARE TOXIC WASTE

Over the last couple of weeks I’ve found myself writing a bunch of stories that are very…samey. In fact, they’re really, really samey. They share motif and narrative techniques. They play around with the same metaphors and images. Their narrators have strikingly similar voices, even, despite the fact that the narrators are very different.

To a certain extent this is true of my entire body of work, since the things that come out in my fiction tend to be drawn from the same grab-bag full of stuff I like to see in fiction, and that results in certain obsessions coming out again and again.

Trust me when I say this isn’t like that. So very, very not like that.

What I’m struggling with at the moment is more like the writer equivalent of toxic waste that’s been buried and started contaminating the nearby soil. Only I haven’t buried toxic waste, I’ve buried unfinished stories whose motifs and themes and narrative techniques won’t leave me alone. They’ve contaminated the ground-water and every story ends up being something of a mutant. Even if I’ve got a first-draft done, my subconscious is still trying to fix the problems even as I work on something new.

To try a different metaphor: I keep reaching for the same tools when putting together a story, regardless of what I’m working on, simply ’cause they were the tools I had handy. The fact that they’re woodworking tools and I’m trying to fix an engine isn’t really relevant. The tools are there. I can kit-bash together something that’ll do the job, even if it isn’t as clean and efficient as getting the right ones.

I’ve been doing this for weeks now without really acknowledging it, although I had my suspicions there was something like this going on. Reading through the rough story drafts on my hard-drive kind of confirmed things though, and when I pondered ways to get around the problem I came back to some familiar advice.

If my brain’s not letting go of stories until their finished and submitted, maybe it’s time to get back to basics and follow some old advice. Go through the stockpile, fix the broken stories, get them out into the world. In short, Just Finish Your Damn Story, Man.

Yes, well. I should probably go get on with that.

Leave a Reply