Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Finishing the Unfinishable - How Do You Know When It's Done?

Dear Dead Beat,
I seem to never be satisfied with my writing. I edit and rewrite and then I do it again and again and again. It never ends. I have written so many stories over the past decade. But even when I submit them for publication, even when they are published, I never feel that they're finished. I continue to work on them. Is this just the way of writers? How do you know when it's done?

Dear Dissatisfied,
Two questions and one long answer.

No, this is not the way of writers, or to put it more correctly, this is not the way of all writers. Some are like yourself, unsure when the work is complete, others cross the t’s and dot the i’s with absolute certainty. The latter are usually suffering from delusion.

You are right, “it never ends”. (See The Perfection of the Circle and related posts in Dead Beat). It is an infinite process. We seek the ‘perfect’ short story just as we would seek to reach where the infinite ends.

However if we were to pursue this notion, we would only write one story in our lifetime and it would never be finished (come to think of it, is that not what we do anyway?).

So rewriting and dissatisfaction can be very useful things. Rewriting is the crux. The pre-writing and writing stages are where the writer is seeking to find out what story it is he or she is telling. It is in the rewriting that the story can be told.

It comes down to the basic question concerning story - What is the story?

As an instructor and mentor in writing I can honestly say that most writers I encounter do not know the answer to this - even when the story is apparently ‘finished‘. And Dead Beat believes this is why so many other writers have a hard time ‘finishing’ a story. They simply do not know what story it is they are writing. Oh, they think they know. They certainly know the story they intended to write. But writing does not work like that. If we knew the story to begin with, what could we possibly learn?

So we have to probe our drafts and ask, what is the story? This is as concrete as it is abstract. By this I mean it will touch on elements of theme (abstract) but also narrative ones (concrete). Thus the story is not just the plot and it is not just the underlying theme.

Here, let Dead Beat get personal. In my novel The Eskimo in the Net, I would say the story is that Jim Gallagher pulls up an unknown corpse in his fishing nets. His search to find out who the dead man is mirrors his search to comprehend his own life living in a small remote fishing village. We have the concrete narrative details and the abstract theme.

The abstract theme is what interests me most as a writer, but in order to explore it I have to use the concrete narrative. His physical search mirrors his mental one. I am obliged therefore to plot out a physical investigation.

This is the single most important part. Here I am at the highest hierarchical level of fiction writing. Once I know what I am seeking to achieve I can look at all the other elements of fiction and work my way down to the lowest level - dotting the i’s and crossing the t’s. Many people do not work their way back down. They start rewriting somewhere in the middle of the process and are doomed to failure. A semi-good piece may result, but it will be incoherent as regards its meaning.

I don’t really have time to go into the various levels in this response, but we need to know this hierarchy, so that we work our way through it. Even then we have to ask ourselves if we have now allowed the ‘story’ that emerged to be told as completely as we can.

I f we are designing a building, we do not start with the individual bricks and start throwing them together. We start with the over all design and work our way through all of the necessary components.

I am not saying that this is why you feel your work is unfinished, but it might be.
Many published pieces are unfinished. Too many in fact.

However, once we have considered the big picture and have worked our way through the other elements, and have gone back through successive rewrites, there will come a time when we can say that the writing is ’close’ to the ’story’ we wanted. And we may have to leave it there. But at least we know that the real story has emerged and has not been submerged by a poor writing process.

This is a big subject - feel free to contact Dead Beat through the Comments section to help clarify any section.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

How does a writer know when he is writing about what he wants to write about and not what he thinks he wants to write about?

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