Finish Your Doggone Story!

by James Scott Bell

Robert Heinlein had two rules for writing:1172011_100417_0

  1. You must write.
  1. You must finish what you write.

We usually have no problem with #1. But #2 can bite us in the caboose.

What is it that keeps us from finishing a project?

It could be fear … that we haven’t got a handle on the story.

It could be perfectionism … we want the story to be excellent, but sense it isn’t the best it can be.

It could be laziness … it’s easier to tell someone who doesn’t write just how hard it is to write, than it is to actually write.

Whatever it is, it holds us up. And that’s bad for everyone, including your characters.

I find endings to be the hardest part of the craft. They have to do so much–leave the reader satisfied or, better, grateful. Wrap up the story questions. Deliver a certain resonance.

And we all know a lousy ending can ruin an otherwise great reading experience.

My own approach to endings is to have a climactic scene in mind from the start, even though it is subject to change without notice. It usually does change, because as your book grows, unplanned things start to happen. Characters develop in surprising ways; a plot twist takes you around an unforeseen corner. I’ve even had characters refuse to leave a scene when I’ve told them to. I always try to incorporate these things because, as Madeleine L’Engle once said, “If the book tells me to do something completely unexpected, I heed it. The book is usually right.”

As you make these changes in your plot, the ripples go forward in time to affect how the book will end.

So you adjust. When I get to the point where I’m going to write my ending scenes, I follow a plan I call Stew, Brew, Accrue and Do.

I think hard about the ending for half an hour or so, then take a long walk, letting the story “stew” in my subconscious. My walk inevitably hits a Starbucks, because you can’t walk in any direction on earth for very long before hitting a Starbucks.

Inside I go and order an espresso. Brew.

I sip the espresso and take out a little notebook and pen. That’s when I Accrue. I jot idea after idea, image after image, doodle after doodle. I’m not writing the words of the ending, I’m just capturing all the stuff the Boys in the Basement are throwing out at me because they are hopped up on caffeine.

Then it’s back to my office where I actually Do–write the blasted thing until it’s done!

Now, even with that plan there have been a few occasions in my professional life where I get to Do and got stuck in Didn’t. I just was not finishing, for some reason or other. And I had to break through because a company had been nice enough to pay me some money and was expecting, in return, a complete manuscript. How unfair!

I always made it. And of late I haven’t really gotten stuck in Didn’t.

With one screwy exception: my novelette, Force of Habit 4: The Nun Also Rises.

I mean, I should have finished this six months ago! I was doing other projects during this time, yes, but I always came back to Force 4 trying to figure out what the heck was going on–or, rather, what was not going on–with my vigilante nun, Sister Justicia Marie of the Sisters of Perpetual Justice.

Finally, a couple of weeks ago, I just said to myself, “Listen, Stupid. Finish the doggone story! Or are you just a big fraud?”

“Okay,” I answered back. “How do you propose I do it? And don’t call me Stupid.”

And then I thought of Ray Bradbury.

As an L.A. resident I was privileged to hear Bradbury speak on a number of occasions. He liked to tell the story of when he was writing––or trying to write­––the script for John Huston’s film version of Moby-Dick. He was in Ireland and London for months, trying to



pare down the huge novel and all its symbolism into a filmable screenplay. Finally, Huston demanded the script.

Bradbury rolled out of bed one morning and looked in the mirror and cried, “I am Herman Melville!” Then he sat down at his typewriter and went at the keys for eight straight hours. And finished. He took the pages across town and handed them to Huston. Huston looked at them and said, “What happened?”

And Bradbury said, “Behold Herman Melville!”

Why did I think of this account? Because Force 4 was born as I was reading the biography of Robert E. Howard, one of the great pulp writers. He was, of course, the creator of Conan the Barbarian, as well as other series characters in different genres. His writing was big and wild and full of action.

Which was how I was conceiving this latest story of mine.

So I pulled a Bradbury. In my office I cried, “Behold Robert E. Howard!”

And then I wrote and wrote and finally finished the story. And it is big and wild and full of action.

But most important of all, it is done!

And now it is available for Kindle. Here’s a preview:

So tell me, writing friends. Have you ever had a real hands-on struggle with an ending? How did you handle it?

My White Whale

by Michelle Gagnon

There was an interesting post on Slate this week entitled, “Overrated: Authors, critics, and editors on ‘great books’ that aren’t all that great.

The article got me thinking about which stories endure, which eventually fall by the wayside, and why. In a world where people now fit their innermost thoughts into 140 characters or less (counting spaces), lengthy descriptive passages such as those found in TESS OF THE D’URBERVILLES probably strike the modern reader as tedious, while back when it was first published, that type of writing was the norm. It’s also interesting to see that some of the people quoted cited both GRAVITY’S RAINBOW and Joyce’s ULYSSES as being overrated, but for very different reasons.

I’ve read a decent number of the canonical ‘great books,’ and enjoyed most of them (including TESS, although I’m not generally a big Hardy fan).

But there’s one that has become my own personal white whale: appropriately enough, MOBY DICK. It’s one of the few books that I’ve never finished, despite gritting my teeth and picking it up a half dozen times. I always enjoy the beginning, and sweep through the first twenty chapters.

Then I hit Chapter 32: Cetology, and my eyes glaze over. I have yet to make it through Ishmael’s attempts to classify whales scientifically. I read a page or so, then set the book down. One thing leads to another, and MD inevitably ends up back at the bottom of my TBR pile. I suppose I could always just skip the chapter, but I’ve never done that with a book before and something inside me balks at the thought.

Plus, I honestly have a fairly limited tolerance for sea shanties.

Yet this is supposed to be one of, if not the, “Great American Novels.” So am I really missing out by not finishing? Or has Melville passed his expiration date? How relevant are the classics to our contemporary lives now? Are some so outmoded they no longer qualify as great literature? More importantly, are certain books lauded as great simply because they’ve managed to survive the tests of time?

In the article, Elif Batuman points out that, “the right book has to reach you at the right time, and no person can be reached by every book.”

I love that observation. Sometimes I wonder if I’d still enjoy Milan Kundera as much if I read him now, or if Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s 100 YEARS OF SOLITUDE would make such an impression. I rarely go back and re-read books- there are simply too many amazing new stories coming out every week.

So today’s question is this: which great book let you down?