“Literature is strewn with the wreckage of those who have minded beyond reason the opinion of others.”
~ Virginia Woolf
While there could be many reasons why someone starts writing a piece of fiction and then never finishes it, one big factor is other people. Other people! Whether people we know or the faceless specter of The Reader, other people and their opinion, reaction, perception can derail even the most motivated of writers.
The Virginia Woolf quote comes from A Room of Own’s Own and whatever else the essay may do, this powerful quote transcends gender and circumstance. We must write first for ourselves. Write the stories that you want to read! You see that advice in lots of places, but you usually don’t find out why it’s important.
Writing is hard work. Writing with an eye to publishing is even harder because you have to revise and polish and rewrite the piece several times. It’s a marathon. It’s being trapped in an elevator for a day – you better like the people you’re trapped with because otherwise it’s going to suck. So if you dislike your main character, that’s a problem. How in the world are you going to devote the effort needed to write the best story you can if you can’t stand to be around that character?
It’s foolish to imagine that you will complete every story you begin – ideas are not created equally, after all. It is, however, paramount that you complete a story. I see too many people who say, “I’ve been working on my novel for ten years.” They haven’t finished even a first draft of it. For whatever reason, they remain stuck – literally in a rut that they cannot surmount, and each day the rut gets deeper making it harder and harder to ever escape.
Writing short stories is by definition different than writing a novel, and I am the first to admit that I went about it all wrong. I would advise first time writers to start with short fiction and graduate to long form. Ray Bradbury famously suggested that a new writer write a short story a week for a year as a good foundation for writing. You may prefer, as I do, the long form, but you can learn a ton about writing using the Bradbury method.
What is nice about short stories is that you can complete one with fairly small amounts of pain. You write 5,000 words with a beginning, middle, and end. You edit it, revise, rewrite. And it’s done. You have completed a work – start to finish. And you didn’t stop and rewrite the opening before you finished the first draft. And you didn’t have to quit your day job. And you didn’t put the story on hold while you spent months researching trade practices of 6th century Bedouins. And you didn’t suffer a crisis of conscience about writing a story about a magic-using girl truck driver while people are struggling with real issues like poverty.
You had an idea; you created a main character, some motivation and some challenges; you wrote a bunch of description and dialog, and Bam! there’s a completed work of fiction. Completing a story has built in motivation for you to write more. Tell more of this character’s story; explore this universe more fully; branch out into mystery or horror or romance because you are a writer. You wrote a story that you wanted to read. You created something that has never existed before, and you did it for yourself. Bravo.
While the applause dies down, take a moment and re-read the Woolf quote. She uses the words, “beyond reason.” Don’t entirely discount other people’s opinion of your writing, just don’t let it paralyze you. Likely anyone who is kind enough to read your work will have both good and bad things to say. There will be a passage they love and a scene they hate. They’ll love the opening and not understand the ending. And they might have a really good point! The ending might need work.
So in order to do the thing that we love to do – write stories – we need to write what we want, tell the story in the way that makes sense to us, write it the best way we know how, and then absorb what other people say about it. As you write more and open yourself for critique, you will write better first drafts, and become a stronger writer.
The work comes first. Complete the story. Edit the story, then share the story.