Finish What You Start—Or Not
One of the more common pieces of writing advice one sees is “finish what you start.” The idea, as I understand it, is that if a writer never learns to follow through on a project, they will never make it “in the business” (after all, how can one get anything published if there’s nothing complete to submit?).
And so, for nearly three years, I have slaved away at my WIP with varying degrees of dedication. Having decided to try my hand at fiction writing for the first time, I sketched out a short story or two (more character pieces than actual story, in retrospect) in October before jumping into the NaNoWriMo challenge in November. That was 2012.
As anyone could have predicted, the resulting draft was a hot mess. I won’t even bother to outline any of the details of how truly stinky it was, but suffice to say that even three years on, I cringe when I think back on it (let alone subject myself to rereading). But it was a draft! And a draft can always be revised, right?
I set to work, first with utter naïveté, and later with a slightly clearer picture of the task ahead. I took some classes, acquired some wonderful critique partners (CPs), and kept plugging away. Finish what you start.
The further along I got, the more my craft improved (I’m still pretty green as a storyteller—let’s not kid ourselves—but I can be taught). The more my craft improved, the more I recognized the flaws in my narrative (even though my CPs often had to point them out to me). The more flaws I found, the more chunks I cut out, rewrote, and pasted back into place with copious PlotSpackle™.
It’s been my goal to get a working manuscript ready for querying by the end of calendar 2015. Things like moving house and being primary caregiver for kids home from school for the summer have slowed down my progress, but I decided to ease my way back into a writing habit by using September as #MeNoRevMo (that’s “justMe Novel Revising Month”), in which the goal was to spend one hour each day on revising my WIP. Finish what you start.
The funny thing about actively working to improve your craft, though, is that sometimes lessons take you by surprise. I was privileged enough to be among the students of Nisi Shawl and K Tempest Bradford for their first online version of their “Writing the Other” course (as mentioned in my previous post). Our final exercise, to be completed several weeks after the end of the course, involved submitting a piece of a WIP for critique by our classmates and instructors.
Talk about “tough love.”
My submission was (rightfully) panned. Nothing mean—or untrue—was said, but all the issues I’d been trying so valiantly to pretend weren’t a problem anymore got called out. The average person off the street might not notice issues with a pretty, new house (though they’d know whether or not they like it), but someone in the construction business will be able to tell immediately if its been shoddily built. Similarly, my PlotSpackle™ and paint weren’t fooling more accomplished writers.
I’ve been sitting with the feedback for a little while now, and after finally being able to distance myself enough from the work, I have seen the wisdom of the advice I was given: it may be time to set aside this particular WIP.
There is a lot that is dear to me in this story, but if I’m honest with myself, I’ve always known that its plot is a mess. Perhaps after I’ve taken some time to distance myself from it, I can come back and examine which of the underlying ideas are still sound—strip the story down to the studs. If there’s enough left on which to build a new structure, perhaps I’ll begin again, and try to create something that’s sturdy first, and make it pretty after.
In the meantime, it’s time not to finish what I started.