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On and on and on and on

I’ve never really had a problem writing at length before—whether for a class, my own personal writing endeavors, or for something as innocuous as a journal entry (though I would hardly call my journals from my high school years innocuous…embarrassing is more like it). In fact, writing too much at length is generally my problem. Whether or not I actually have any idea what I’m going to write about. This has frustrated me and I have pinned it down to the reason that I could never discipline myself well enough to actually complete anything of any merit that was not already an assignment or some other construct with strict guidelines that I must meet.

I’ve written before about my need for an endpoint in all things that I voluntarily take on. The problem with creative writing, however, is that the endpoint can hardly be arbitrary and the possibilities for setting one are virtually limitless. I once had what I thought was a great idea for a writing project—not one that was to be of any seriousness or real literary mettle, but just something silly that would at least result in a completed story of sorts. (Spoiler alert: I fail in the end…but I learn something!) Walking downtown one day through a particularly touristy section of New York, I happened across a souvenir stand that was selling really cheesy looking postcards—worse than usual, even. Luckily, for such poor quality, you didn’t have to pay much and on a whim, with the beginnings of my plan in mind, I bought 30 postcards for a mere dollar.

What was my BRILLIANT plan? I was going to send one postcard every day—or every other day at least—and on each postcard would be an installment of a story. The postcards would be numbered in sequence and I would have exactly the space provided on a standard card for each missive. Surely this would be an amazing thing! I eagerly started in on my story, filling up three postcards without stopping…or even thinking of where I would eventually want my little fairy tale to go in terms of inevitable conclusion. I only had 30 cards on which to do this and getting more would feel a little bit like cheating. No matter, I mailed off the first three on consecutive days to some (very dear) friends all the way across the ocean.

Caught up in the excitement, I was over 20 cards in before I realized that I was still in what I thought to be the introduction to my story. This was disastrous! Even though I continued to write about my doomed princess in the notebook I had recorded each card in for my own sake, I knew that I had once again failed to edit myself properly, had not done what should have been so simple and laid out at least the most basic of plans for what should happen. This is, I say again, a constant problem of mine. I get excited by an idea, start in on it full steam, and realize too late that in neglecting an outline or forethought into consequences, I have reached yet another dead end in my writing.

While writing a lot may not always be a problem, writing too much too soon without proper planning seems to be a prevalent one. Does it make sense to structure your work so rigidly? Does this block any real creative flow, or is some sort of guide necessary in order for any work of fiction to really happen? Just writing is always my go-to method, but clearly, it doesn’t always quite work. How do you resolve these issues?

(P.S. My friends, I think, liked the incomplete, introduction-heavy story anyhow.)

4 Responses to On and on and on and on

  1. Donn says:

    I think your friends did alright ;).

    I feel that it doesn’t much matter what your approach is, whether it be inspiration-driven or methodical, what really matters is that you just see your project through.
    Because the same thing happens to me, nothing gets completed, but my approach is a careful planned structure and that doesn’t really get anywhere either…

    Finishing projects. It’s all that separates the professional writer from the amateur?

  2. Kerry Gans says:

    Simply going with the flow and writing can work IF you are willing to then put in the massive amounts of editing time needed to restructure and polish and pare it down.

    Structured writers tend to do a lot more “revision” before they write a word of the story, and therefore have less to do at the back end.

    I use a combination method. I might write scenes as inspiration hits me while I am still working on a loose outline. Once I have an outline, I write and I deviate when it seems to make sense.

    Once done, I revise like a madwoman! Luckily, I like revision.

    The key, as Donn says, it to actually finish it. Once it’s done, you can manipulate it in any way you’d like.

  3. Lisa Ahn says:

    I love the postcard idea (even if it didn’t work out).

    I use a combination of some structure and some winging it. I create enough structure (outlines, notes, research notes)so that I can see the story in my head, and then I discover more of the twists and turns along the way. It works for me.

  4. Lisa Marie says:

    I start with a detailed outline of around 50 pages. Fiction works for the same reason music works – because there’s something about the structure that’s appealing (and familiar) to the reader. A piano sonata, for example, adheres to an unwavering form, during which time it changes key at precisely the X-measures — creating a feeling of trepidation or tension — before returning to the original key. Then there are the repetitive motives that draw the entire piece together. Structure is how music evokes emotion in the listener — and why so many people are unresponsive to atonal compositions (and Phillip Glass).

    I think of writing fiction along the same. I’ve done doofy things such as using tiny “stickies” in books of a similar genre to denote where the first sense of crisis or tension takes place, the penultimate, the ultimate crisis and finally the resolution so I can make sure that my manuscript follows a similar mapping. Ultimately, I write with the reader in mind. I tend to do very little major revision.

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