Sunday, July 11, 2010

How Do You Know When a Story Is Finished?

We often complain that life isn’t as clear as it is in the movies. Unlike real life, stories offer definitive story arcs and concrete beginnings and endings. And, yet, ironically, it can often be difficult for writers to know just where that supposedly definitive ending point is in their stories. This ending point isn’t so much the knowledge of where to end the story itself, as it is knowing when to stop writing the darn thing. When is a story finished for good and all?

  • When we type “The End” on the first draft?
  • When we’ve edited it a few (hundred million) times?
  • When we’ve submitted it for publication?
  • When we’ve seen it in print?
  • When (if we’re extraordinarily lucky) it’s lasted through two or three editions?
  • When we’re dead and buried and the poor story is beyond our possessive clutches?

Because fiction, like much of art, often offers its creator a beguiling sense of fluidity, we have an infinite opportunity for improving it. No story is ever going to be perfect. There’s always room for refinement. Some of us grow frustrated with this ability, declare a story finished as soon as possible, and cast it aside to move on to new projects. Those of us with a streak of perfectionism tend to lean toward the opposite extreme and obsess over projects, sometimes even after they’re in print—and sometimes to the point they will never see print, because we’re not willing to let them go until we’ve tweaked them just a teensy bit more.

In a post on the Writer’s Digest blog MFA Confidential, Kate Monahan, revealed that:

I often struggle with knowing when a story is finished…. Finishing means that the story is as good as it is going to be, or rather—as good as you can make it. It’s hard to let stories go… Sometimes we have to make the choice, decide, and just stop. Sometimes, even though the story isn’t perfect, we have nothing left to say.

Following are a few signs you’ve reached that point of nothing left to say:

  1. You’re changing miniscule details (punctuation, paragraph spaces, etc.) over and over again. If you’re not making important changes in your edits, you’re probably at the end of your editing capabilities. Either seek outside opinions from critique partners, or move on to the next step of submitting for publication.
  2. You’re editing for the sake of editing, as a delaying tactic to avoid sending your work out into the world. Submitting our beloved stories for the approval (and, often, rejection) of others is scary business. But don’t trick yourself into taking the coward’s way out. You’ll never be published if your manuscript never hops into that manila envelope.
  3. You’re rewriting the same story over and over again, to the point that new ideas never get a chance. In truth, we could all probably spend the rest of our lives polishing just one story. And perhaps we would produce a magnum opus in the end. But there comes a time when we have to let stories go. Some stories will never be perfect. At some point, we need to take what we’ve learned and move on to the next piece.
  4. You’re not setting (or observing) any deadlines. Due to its unpredictable nature, art doesn’t always observe the concrete deadlines we might like to impose upon it. If it says it wants more time than you had planned to give it, you’re usually better off listening to it. However, there comes a time when deadlines can be useful in moving a stubborn story to the finished pile. Set a tentative time limit for your story. Tell yourself you’re going to finish editing it by next Christmas and move on to the next step (seeking publication, starting a new story, etc.).

“Too many stories, not enough time” sums up many writers’ outlook. As a result, we can’t afford to spend too much time on any one story. It’s important we learn to recognize when a story is finished with us (and vice versa), so we can continue our journey as authors.
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