Sunday, October 17, 2010

Heinlein's Rule Number 2 - You Must Finish What You Start

This is a series on Heinlein's rules of writing (Intro here, Rule 1 here).

Finishing is a skill.

Seriously. Most writers don't seem to realize that you actually have to practice finishing a story before you get good at it.

I used to tell student writers that they had to finish ten stories before they were ready to start submitting. There would always be one student who would say "Well, one novel is more than enough to equal ten short stories, right? So I don't have to write ten...."

I would break it to them as gently as I could: it isn't the word count that gives you the experience. It's the completion. Anybody can blather out decent random scenes. It takes skill to pull them together into a cohesive whole. So if you don't want to write short stories or novellas, you will need to finish lots of novels to gain the same experience.

Furthermore, as writers we find it easy to scatter our attention. Shiny new ideas are much more fun than old ones. And yes, sometimes we need to jump around to set our creativity loose, but it doesn't count until you've turned it into a story. And it's not a story until you've finished it.

Otherwise you're just daydreaming with notes, as mentioned in yesterday's post.

So if you look at your body of work, and it's shorter than your list of things you haven't finished... get cracking.

If your list is long, you may have trouble making up your mind about which idea to tackle. So here are some tips toward finishing some stories on your to do list:

1.) Let your creative self dither a bit, and then pick one at random. Draw lots. Use a computerized random choice generator. Flip a coin. Let your cat choose. But pick ONE.

2.) If the idea of finishing a story overwhelms you - if it's something that you're blocked on and you get performance anxiety - set a timer for a moderate period of time. Maybe fifteen or twenty minutes. Concentrate on that story completely for just that amount of time, and see what you can get done.

3.) If you MUST dither among several projects, set a timer for each project, and you must think only of the story at hand for that period. Come on, it's a short session. You can behave for that long. Do this a lot and you'll get stuff done.

4.) Give yourself a break with a brainstorming session. If a story is utterly blocked, then go to a coffee house or MacDonald's or the park - some place airy and relaxed - and sit with a notepad and write down all the questions you need to answer to move forward with the story. And then start listing possible answers.

5.) If nothing else, write some freaking haiku! Write a dozen of them. Remind yourself of the good feeling you get from having accomplished something, and train your brain to focus.

Tomorrow we take on Heinlein's most controversial rules: to refrain from rewriting except to editorial order.


Anonymous said...

I just found this blog and so very true! I write stories all the time, but even if I have the end in sight the middle is always the trickiest. The complex goodies that lead to the end. Sometimes they come easy and other times, we do just have to take the day off writing and go think.
I've beening trying something similair of my own,writing everyday, but it's a lot harder than most people think. So good luck, I hope you can continue to write everyday!

The Daring Novelist said...

Thanks, Anonymous!

Yes, you're right about how hard it is to keep this up for the long haul, but you've just got to keep at it as best you can.

Today was a nightmare day for me. Family emergency involving ambulances and thing. (But it turned out okay so far - still exhausted, though.)

I wasn't able to get any writing done, but I have a lot of interesting new ideas....

DavidRM said...

I realize I'm a bit late to this party, but not horribly late. :)

Just yesterday I was realizing that one of the benefits of my writing a bunch of "practice short stories" a few years ago was exactly this: completion. Reaching "The End".

So it's kinda cool to bump into your blog post about this today.



The Daring Novelist said...

It's never too late, David!

It is funny how these rules are like perennial lessons we can keep learning from over and over again.