How To Finish Your Stories

Oct 10, 2020 | Advice

In a workshop I attended this week, someone made the simple comment, ‘creative people are good at ideas. It’s the finishing that’s the problem.’ So true. I look up at the shelf above my desk and I can see reams of notebooks, pages and post-its crammed with ideas.

In my Scrivener ‘Short Stories’ file (which was created in 2014) I have over 100,000 words. At least half of those are notes, half-stories, things that seemed like a good idea but then didn’t amount to much once I’d started. In the last version of this website I even made a section called ‘Fragments’ so I’d have somewhere to put those little bits of writing – descriptions of moments or people or places where I really loved the words but I didn’t know what to do with them.

So many ideas, so little time… But there are lots of practical steps to making sure you get to the end of your story once the spark of the idea has faded.

Be they bits of inspiration sleeting through multiple universes (thanks for that image, Terry Pratchett!) or a gift from the creative goddess to you, they can be delicious, exciting but ultimately frustrating if they never get beyond the, ‘ooh that’s a brilliant idea!’ stage.

For writing, that ‘ending’ can have many different lengths. Even though flash fiction is delicious in its promise of so few words, squeezing a narrative into such a tiny space and making every word count is a huge challenge. For the sprawl of a novel, just the thought of getting to 80,000 words is frightening enough without even beginning to worry about putting them in a sensible order.

So here are my thoughts on how I’ve managed to finish everything from poetry and flash fiction, to short stories and novels.

1. Small Steps, Big Plans.

Rome wasn’t built in a day/insert platitude here. Putting together lots of little words leads to lots and lots over time. But, for me, it needs to be done in conjunction of some sort of idea of where it’s going. Otherwise, I won’t get to the end.

My ‘big plan’ for the memoir I’m writing about travelling with my baby. It takes up the whole coffee table!

I always like a good sheet of A3. Sometimes it has something as basic as ‘Beginning, Middle, End.’ Other times I have something more specific (especially if I’m rambling) like ‘Setup, Problem, Solution.’ For novels (I think Story by Robert McKee is a great book) I put in a big flow chart with three act structure. It doesn’t really matter whether I stick to them or not. The fact is, I can look at my big piece of paper and feel like I know where I’m going. Then, when I do some writing, all I’m doing is colouring in this little corner of the story rather than feeling I have to do all of it at once.

2. Accountability.

There’s a fine line between carrot and stick, but I’ve always found measuring gives me much more of a sense of achievement and purpose than it does shame and guilt. In the past I’ve used the ‘Stickies’ programme on my computer to do a daily word count, which I then tally up at the end of the week. It puts me in a race with myself, and has led to some very productive months. I have a file on my computer called ‘motivation’ and one of the things in there are a few screenshots of my more impressive monthly word counts.

A rare three months which remind me what I can do

Other ways of doing this is to put a tick/smiley face/sticker on every day you write anything at all. As the page of the calendar fills up it becomes easier to sit down. Be careful with this one though, don’t let a missed day make you feel like giving up!

3. Understand How You Work

Which one are you? Or is it a bit of both? Photo credit:

This is something that only comes with time. No point in spending hours writing out a detailed plan when you know you aren’t going to stick to it. No point in writing something off the cuff if you know you need to write a plan first. Try to be in tune with the times of day you work best, the things you do that make it more likely for you to be inspired to continue with your story and get to the end.

4. Understand How Writing Works

Writing is rewriting. It really annoys me when you see bold claims about how quickly people wrote books. It’s nonsense. What they mean is, that’s how quickly they wrote the first draft. The real, hard work is what happens once that is done. This can help you in lots of ways.

The key to making sure you put most of your energy in the right place.

Firstly, it can help you get the story down on the page in the first place. If you know everything is going to be scrutinised and chopped about then there’s not point in agonising over this one sentence that you can’t quite get right. The last two short stories I wrote had very little plot once I reread them. But, the essence of the idea was there. I did it backwards and wrote a plan once the story was already written.

The other thing it can help you with is where to place most of your time and attention. Once you know that the first draft is only for you, then you know that you can just get it on the page and do the hard work later.

5. Be Selective About What You Write

You can’t turn all of the ideas into great stories

Thanks, Universe, for all the ideas, but I can’t use them all. Some of my half-finished stories will remain that way forever, and that’s ok. If I take hold of the ideas that really grab my attention, or go with the competition or journal that I’m really excited about, I’m far more likely to get to the end of it and be pleased with the results. I have so many tweets, emails and lists of things to enter but I try to keep it down to three a month, otherwise I have a huge list of deadlines that tick past, one by one, as I only ever get halfway through a story. Choose what works for you and stick to it. This month I want to enter the Ovacoming competition to help support research into ovarian cancer, the Retreat West Short Story competition and the Dinesh Allirajah Prize from Comma Press.

I hope this helps you get to the end of the story or novel you are working on. I’d love to hear about your ongoing projects. Please let me know in the comments or @sarahtinsleyuk

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