NEVER ENDING STORIES
I had an email the other day from a young (extremely young) lady called Regan the other day. She's a very enthusiastic writer and reeled off a list of about six or seven story titles that she's working on, some of which were up to seventy-five pages long. She was mainly writing to me for advice on how to handle it when her family, teachers etc. dismiss her writing, so referred her to my TOP TIPS post and my website, where I talk about that a lot.
However, she made a throwaway comment which caused my Writer Senses (like spider senses, but with less webbing) to tingle. She said that before she could finish any of her stories she always ended up getting an idea for another one. Her stories weren't getting finished.
This is an issue which is close to my heart - and probably to the hearts of many reading this blog. For a lot of young and not-so-young writers, the problem of actually managing to complete a story/novel crops up again and again. If you want to learn more, read on. I warn you - this post is long. Very long. It may have developed its own gravitational field by now...
The thing is, it doesn't sound difficult to finish a story. In fact, you'd think it would be the most natural and easy thing in the world. You start it, then you do some noodley bits in the middle, then you write The End and you've finished. Yeah?
For many years, whenever I told family and friends that I was starting a new novel their response would be a long-suffering sigh and mutters of 'If only you could FINISH one...' At first this didn't bother me much. Because, of course, the story that I'd just abandoned at three chapters was lame and pointless, but this new story, well, this was the perfect story, it was awesome and of course I was going to finish it, right? Oh, Young Zolah, how very wrong you were. Because three chapters into that awesome new story, somehow all the new and awesome had always drained out of it, and there would be MUCH better idea lurking in the back of your mind waiting to pounce.
I loved writing. I always have. I'm a writing geek. I play with words constantly, steal parts of overheard conversations, note down news headlines, and have new stories, characters and worlds constantly crowding into my head. Which is supposed to be a good thing, isn't it? Having so much love for writing should have made it easy for me to finish lots and lots of stories. But it didn't. By the time I'd hit my teens I'd gotten to the point where I couldn't even finish a three page story for an English class. That was okay at school, because I usually ended up writing twelve pages instead of three, and the teacher would be so impressed they'd overlook the lack of ending. I wasn't overlooking it, though. I'd started to get this creeping, icy sense of anxiety. Maybe there was something wrong with me. Maybe I couldn't finish stories.
Maybe I never would.
When I was sixteen I decided I wanted to write category romance (Mills and Boon for those of you in the UK, something like Harlequin Romance for those in the US). I was reading these non-stop at the time, mostly because they sold ten for a quid in the local charity shops, and were available by the thousand in the library. They were so plentiful that I could read about ten in a weekend and still have twenty left to keep me going throughout the week. No other genre in the publishing industry could keep up with me. I did some research. I found out that the ladies who wrote these books could make a really good living from it. I did some more research and wrote to the publisher for a set of their guidelines. This set out exactly how many words each book could have and what sort of storylines you could use. It was almost like an essay assignment at school. Armed with all my facts and figures, I set out to write one of these books.
AND I DID IT.
Somehow, the fact that I had been given a word target and a fairly narrow list of requirements, combined with my in-depth knowledge of the genre, made it possible for me, in between school and homework and TV and the rest, to bash out a 50,000 word romance novel in about four months.
You can probably imagine my triumph. I'd beaten the jinx. I'd proven I could really be a proper writer. I don't think my feet even touched the ground for about a week after typing The End.
On a roll (so I thought) I submitted the novel to Mills and Boon. And the inevitable happened. I was summarily rejected. Looking back, I can only thank the God of Writers for his unexpected kindness there, because that book STANK. At the time, though, it was a huge blow.
Then when I was eighteen, through various coincidences, I found the genre which was to become my perfect home. YA Fantasy. Just like always, I began to read voraciously in my chosen field, digging out old favourites and discovering new ones, until I had, once again, become an expert in my genre. Once again, I did my research, found out what sort of word target I needed to aim at. Once again, I checked out submission guidelines on publisher's websites. Then the idea for Blood Magic came to me.
By this time I was working full-time in an office, but that didn't stop me *living* inside that story for months. I remember putting customers on hold for a minute so I could scribble ideas on odd bits of paper. I remember leaning on the concrete wall of the tea-room, jotting down dialogue while colleagues stared. And I can remember thinking: I WILL COMPLETE THIS BOOK. I loved it - the story, the characters, the fictional world - so much that I just had to. I had to find out how it finished!
I drew up a little chart of how many words I should write a day, and gave myself a target, about nine months away, for completion. Unlike with previous stories I didn't go back and revise previous chapters, because I was always too busy writing the next one, and as a result I smashed my target, completing the book six months early, because I just couldn't stop writing.
Although Blood Magic was never destined to be published, writing it was the best thing I ever did for my YA writing career. When I submitted it to (and was rejected by) Walker Books, I came into contact with the gentleman who was later to become my first editor. After the book was rejected he called me up to tell me how much he liked my 'voice' and to ask me to send him anything else I wrote. A year almost to the day after submitting Blood Magic, I sent him The Swan Kingdom. Within a couple of months I had a publishing contract - and an agent too.
So, what is the point of this rambling story? Well, let's have a look at the facts here. Just like many of you, I couldn't finish stories. Except that I COULD - with the right conditions. I proved that with my romance novel and later with Blood Magic (and the books that came after). So, what are the right conditions? How do you go about writing a story in such a way that you will be able to finish it?
RESEARCH: Read widely in your chosen field! Glory in it! Devour everything you can get your hands on. Read books you love and books you hate. Re-read both kinds and learn from them. In short, become an expert. Because that way you will be filled with a sense of confidence that you know exactly where your book fits in - that your ideas are original and interesting, and worthy of their own book - and this confidence will propel you forward to complete it.
TARGETS: Decide how long you want your book to be (look at other books in your genre and look at publisher's guidelines if you can find them). Decide what date you want to complete it by and how many words you should write a day or a week. Be reasonable, but do stretch yourself. Remember, even if you only write 500 words a day - two typed pages - that would be 182500 words by the end of the year! Enough for two or three books! Then do everything you can to stick to those targets. You won't always be able to manage it. The original word target for Shadows on the Moon was 65,000 words and the original completion target was April 2009. Instead, the first draft was 130,000 words long and I didn't complete until October 2009. But having targets will give you a sense that you're working on something that can and will be finished one day.
PASSION: Don't write the first idea that pops into your head. Don't be distracted by every fleeting, glamorous image in your brain and launch into writing without really thinking your story through. Don't read someone else's book, get 'inspired' and end up writing fanfic disguised as original fiction, telling yourself no one will notice. You need to be in LOVE with your story. Cherish it, think about it deeply, live inside the characters and love or hate them. Give all your imagination to one idea and let it grow and mature within you. Let it become something so special and unique, filled with so many of your own deepest values and feelings, that no one else on the planet could write it but you. Then when you come to put it down on paper, nothing will be able to tempt you away, even when things get hard, because nothing in the whole world will be as exciting to you as the story you're working on RIGHT NOW.
MOMENTUM: Just write. Keep your eye on the target and keep pushing forward. Don't give into the temptation to keep going back and revising those first pages or chapters. Maybe they suck, but so what? You can fix anything in revision - once you've finished the book. You can't fix it right now. In fact, it's pointless trying to revise an unfinished story, and you know why - because you get caught in the death spiral of doubting yourself and the story and never finish it. So just think about that glorious, heart-rending, funny, sad, change-your-life forever ending that you're going to create. Believe in that ending. Reach for it. And somehow, before you know it, you really will be writing it.