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On Finishing Things

You have to finish things — that’s what you learn from, you learn by finishing things.

Neil Gaiman

Hi, my name is Dan and I’m a writer who doesn’t finish things.

Hi Dan!

I’m here today to finally admit that out of all my writing projects, very few have ever seen the light of day where they’ve gone forth and entered the world as a finished project I’m proud of.  Right now I’m sitting on a first draft of the Ascent to Heresy novel I started – what, four years ago? – and the first draft of the In Crows’ Claws ebook and a dozen short stories and half-finished novellas and downright embarrassing attempts at sleep-deprived poems.  Why?  I can try to figure out any number of justifications for why I don’t finish anything I write – my insecurity in my writing ability, embarrassment, the very real potential that my writing will never amount to anything, that I lose sight of where I want the story to end – but justifications are just that: excuses for not finishing.

The truth is that it sucks that I never bring a story through to completion.  It’s frustrating and then I get more annoyed that I haven’t finished anything and put off starting another project that might be more inspired or I might be more excited about because I doubt I’ll finish that, either.  I always start with such a great idea I’m fully behind, start writing the story, and then lose focus or my interest wanes or I realize I didn’t plan far enough ahead in the story (even taking into the account that I do outline).  I think the real issue, the real problem and not simply justification, is that I very rarely have a plot idea.  Instead, I have ideas of characters I want to explore that tend to sort of just bumble around the world without any real long-term goals.

I’ll use my Gaunt novella idea as an example.  The general idea for this project is to explore the backstory of a major character in my fantasy world of Fyrndell.  I want to explore the character Abner Gaunt and his journey from being the son of a nobleman shipped off to a religious institution to be trained as a holy warrior in spite of what he desires (love, family, a normal life on his family’s estate).  I want to explore the difficulties he has in reconciling his personal desires with society’s expectations of his rather unique situation, how he struggles against his father’s wishes and his faith’s requirements while trying to maintain his own personal humanity and moral code.  So I started off writing this story and I really loved the introduction: Gaunt grows up alongside one of his father’s friend’s daughters, with whom he eventually falls in mutual love with.  As they grow, they realize that fate dictates their paths must diverge and that Gaunt must answer a higher calling than staying home with his childhood sweetheart.

Gaunt ships off to battle as a squire to a rather renowned knight, where he suffers a near-fatal injury.  He returns home to continue his training under his mentor before, eventually, life catches up with him and he must leave behind his love and his family to follow his father’s commands.

So off he goes to his religion’s training institution, trying to be a good son and do what his father and his faith requires of him.  Once there, he sees the hypocrisy of his religion’s bureaucracy and how far they’re off from the actual teachings of his religion.  He wrestles with the idea of abandoning his knightly training to return home and try to win his love back over, but instead falls into a depression in which he experiences what amounts to a bender where he does some rather immoral things.

And that’s where I get stuck.  I have an idea of what happens near the end, and of who Gaunt becomes, but all the meat in between the two slices of bread called beginning and end is dry and boring.  What’s Gaunt’s major goal in the book, his objective?  To become a paladin worthy of the title.  But all the events leading up to that are basically snippets of life from a boy becoming a man.  Worse, they’re tangentially related at best.  He goes through studies as a young child.  He falls in love with his childhood best friend.  He experiences adulthood first-hand in a major battle where he’s given a set-back.  He studies more.  He realizes he can’t have the love he feels he deserves.  He travels to school.  He realizes school isn’t what he thought it was and rebels.  He accepts the responsibility of returning to school and sets out to be the best knight and man he can be to hold true to his faith.  He graduates and returns home and sees all the things he gave up following a dream that wasn’t his own, and then devotes his life to it because it’s all he has left.  Fin.

To me, there’s no grand, interesting plot in there, and I don’t see how there ever could be.  I want to tell stories, and I want people to read and enjoy those stories, and that doesn’t sound like it’s one that anyone would enjoy.

The same can be said for anything I write.  I always have what I feel is a great theme and a strong character to explore, but the plot always seems lackluster.  So I figured I’d try to finish at least something this month, even if it’s total garbage.  Maybe I just need practice.  I’m going to seriously brainstorm and outline a plot before even putting the first letters of the story on the page.  In fact, in writing that last sentence, I think this is the perfect opportunity to test out the snowflake method (side note: living in New England means I’m really sick of snow).

Consider this post as holding me accountable to finishing something.  This is me giving you permission to comment, tweet, or email to make sure I finish something.  I’ll report back when there’s something worth reporting on.

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