Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Why Don't I Finish Stories?

I've been thinking about my recent struggles as a fiction writer with the goal of figuring out how to break out of some of the mental traps I construct for myself.

I have a terrible, awful time finishing long works of fiction. I've tried to write a novel twice already. I ended up with 75,000 words the first time and more than 100,000 the second time before I just gave up.

What are the problems that would-be fiction writers face? Which ones are mine?

Not Enough Ideas?
Is this really a problem for most people who want to write? In any case, it is not a problem for me. My brain is constantly buzzing and I have ideas all the time.
So this isn't a problem I struggle with.

Lack of Discipline?
In the sense of an inability to apply ass to seat and write when the only person watching is yourself.

The ironic thing is, I earn my living as a writer of nonfiction educational materials. Over the past eight years, I have established the fact that I can consistently beat deadlines and receive complimentary feedback on material ranging from elementary school science to high school literature to junior high geography to history and government at multiple levels. I have ghostwritten textbook chapters, lecture notes, test questions, review questions, and state handbooks. I have created activities, summarized content for below-level readers, and written more than one online-only course complete with links to content.

I have done all of this working mainly from my basement, with no one within the same time zone standing over my shoulder making sure I'm getting the work done. I set my schedule based in large part on whether my kids are in or out of school, when my wife is teaching, and whether my clients are working in a time zone ahead or behind my own.

In short, I feel that I have established a very tangible form of writing discipline. I can stare at the blank page or screen and just get on with it.

Lack of Confidence?
Well, this is a mixed bag. I write a fair amount of stuff that I think is pretty good. So that's not a lack of confidence. But I want to write material that is VERY good. And I'm not so sure about that, because I tend to use accomplished authors as my measuring sticks and they have much more experience with the craft.

One of my ideas for alleviating this tendency was to collect anthologies of works by authors whom I admire, with the express goal of finding early material that they wrote. Because typically that material isn't as good. I also look at the bookshelves at the stores and libraries every now and then to look for mediocre-looking books. Just to remind myself that you don't have to be brilliant to get published. And I think this has helped a bit.

So I don't think the problems above are the issue. I didn't include lack of talent because I think I'm a decent writer and plenty of people whose talent is not clearly evident get their novels published. So while I think that talent is essential to be an excellent writer, it is overrated as a prerequisite for becoming a successful writer.

There's something else going on here. Two things, in fact, if my navel-gazing has revealed any meaningful insights.

I have a pair of Achilles' heels as a Writer:
  • I get lost in the settings I create and never stop revising them.
  • I get bored easily with my own plots and so tend to overcomplicate them.
I'm going to try to unpack these weaknesses in a couple further posts.

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