You get a great idea, throw yourself at the keyboard and tap away enthusiastically. The characters, action and dialogue flow quickly through your fingertips, living and breathing on the screen almost before you are aware of them.
That first rush of inspiration might last a few hours, a few days. If the literary gods are well disposed, the story might write itself for a good couple of weeks. Then the tapping slows. And stops.
What now? There’s no ending – perhaps not even a middle. You have absolutely no idea where to go. The screen, rather unhelpfully, returns your blank stare.
This has happened to Kaaron Warren dozens of times. The science fiction, fantasy and horror author has a filing cabinet full of unfinished stories – one page, two pages, four. But the youngest of those neglected stories is 20 years old. These days, she finishes them.
At yesterday’s Swancon 36/Natcon 50 workshop ‘Finishing the Story’, Warren outlined her no-nonsense process with such confidence that it seemed inconceivable for a story to be left incomplete at the end.
I’ll be giving the process a go with my long-abandoned start ‘The Sensible One’ and will let you know how it works out. In the meantime, here’s a summary of how to go about ‘finishing the story’, according to Kaaron Warren.
There are three main parts to the process:
1) Physically working your way to the end
2) Figuring out the end
Work your way to the end
Don’t fuss around perfecting the first draft, just get on with it.
“This can be really hard but the most important thing about it is just to finish it and not be too careful in the first draft,” says Warren. “Write dot points in the middle. Skip bits. Get the skeleton down. Write ‘check this’ or ‘research that’. If you don’t know how to end it, put ‘write end’.
“This draft is you putting your brain on the page and no-one else will ever see it. I have dot points and question marks and arrows. I don’t want to be restrained by writing the perfect sentence or paragraph. Get it down and then start fiddling with the words.”
Figure out the end
Many writers struggle with an ending because they are searching for a twist, a way to surprise the reader. Sometimes, Warren says, you have to let the story finish how it needs to finish.
“You want your ending to be strong,” she says. “I don’t think strong necessarily means surprising. Sometimes trying to find a different ending doesn’t work. It’s like a doona on a bed. You can twist the doona around or just let it fall straight.
“Make sure the words have their own strong voice and have that resonance and that is how your story will stand out. If the journey has been unusual, and the words and the characters, the inevitable ending doesn’t necessarily break the story.”
If you do go for a surprise ending, make sure you include some clues supporting it earlier in the story. Otherwise, you are being unfair to the reader. Warren emphasises the need to respect the reader and not to trick them.
“They need to get to the end and feel like they have been in partnership with you,” she says. “They might have to go back and read from the beginning again to figure out some of the clues – to me, that is the partnership between writer and reader.”
When she’s really stuck for an ending, Warren goes back to her original notes and makes sure she either incorporates each point or deletes them if they don’t make sense.
“All those little notes that say ‘finish this conversation’ or ‘mention the cat again’ or ‘don’t forget she has broken her arm’. Every single one of those will be a clue to where your story might go.”
She also revisits her original idea and checks whether she has expressed it or moved away from it. “Sometimes the story you start travels to unexpected places, which can be a good thing if you have done it well,” she says. “If it is a better story, move on. If not, you may have to reconsider your story and re-write it.”
Warren offers a few other tips for discovering a good ending.
One is to write 20 different endings, which will ensure you come up with something different. Another, to think logically. “What, logically, is going to happen when I flip that doona out? What is the logical way for it to land?”.
Yet another tip is to do more research into the topic you are writing about. When she was stuck on a story called ‘The Human Moth’, Warren looked into the life cycle of moths and discovered that most don’t have mouths. The idea that they obtained most of their sustenance as caterpillars intrigued her and inspired an ending for her story.
“Broaden your research and read newspapers and journals and other things and take little bits of information and try to put them into your story,” she says. “You never know where it is going to lead.”
Polish the story
These are some key points Warren focuses on when polishing her writing.
- Make sure your story starts in the most compelling place.
- Remove transportation and scenery. “Unless we are learning about the character or moving the story forward, cut it out, because the readers will skim through it anyway,” Warren says.
- Read your story aloud to check the rhythm of the language. Get someone else to read it to you if you can.
- Remove repetitive words.
- Check that the dialogue sounds natural.
- Make sure your first and last lines are absolute rippers. “You want those last words to be resonating in their heads. They should make them want to read it again,” Warren says.
- Cut out boring and inactive words. Warren’s says her worst words are ‘a little’, ‘just’ and ‘then’. In one 100,000-word manuscript, she found 60 uses of ‘a little’. But don’t let it be a barrier to getting down the first draft.
- Run the story by several readers you respect. Listen to what they say but don’t be discouraged if they don’t understand your work straight off. “It’s not always you,” Warren says. “There needs to be clarity but I like stories where you think about what it all means. The reader saying ‘I don’t understand what it all means’ doesn’t mean you have to lay it all out. Sometimes you have to make the reader do some work.” On the other hand, “they may see something that you, as the writer, were blind to. They may see the obvious ending.”
And finally, crucially, before you send anything away, be brutally honest with yourself.
“Do one more draft and then do one more draft and then think about sending it on,” Warren says. “To me, your work is your record. Try to make your record as good as it can be.”