At the end of March, I attended the AWP Writer’s Conference in Portland, Oregon. It was a fantastic weekend. I got to see some amazing panels, and catch up with some old friends, and explore the incredible Powell’s Books.
Another thing that happened? I had an encounter with someone during a walk to the Portland MAX line that inspired the nugget of a short story.
Soon after this encounter I knew I needed to write a story about it. 4,000 words. Maybe 5,000. I hadn’t written a short story in a year, and it was time. I had just sent the revision of my new novel to my literary agent and had at least two weeks free to write something short from scratch.
When I returned to Reno that Sunday, I vowed to get up on Monday and start pounding that story to paper. I figured I could write 1,000 words a day and be done by Friday afternoon. By the end of the week, I’d have the first draft of a new short story, woo-hoo!
Last week came and went. I never wrote the story.
Why didn’t I write it? It’s not because I didn’t have the time. There were at least two or three mornings pretty damn free to work on this story. I was even eager to do it, too.
Here are the three main reasons I didn’t write it…
- I was afraid the antagonist might be a cliche.
- I had no clue how to end it.
- I was lazy.
Three decent reasons, I guess. Last Monday morning I was determined to start the story, at least give it a couple hundred words, but I was stuck on how to make the antagonist something unique and not totally banal, not something readers had already seen before in countless other works of fiction.
I also had absolutely no idea what the ending was going to be. I love to know the ending of a story or a novel before I begin writing the project. Without an ending I don’t have a clear vision of where to go, what to do.
Without an ending, I’m lost.
And yes, there was the laziness factor, too. I had just spent three and a half weeks completing the hardest novel revision of my life. Did I really need to add a short story project onto my list of things to do? A short story wasn’t essential right now. Nobody would care if I didn’t write it.
But sometimes stories simply have to be written.
You know how you know a story needs to be written? If it simply doesn’t leave your mind.
In a way it’s actually easier for me to write a story down in a few days’ time than carry that story with me in my head for weeks or months at a time. If the idea of the story pops into your head once or more a day, you can’t just let it sit there forever. You need to write it down!
If the idea floats away eventually, and you never really develop a passion for it? Then fine. Don’t write it.
Move onto something else.
That happens to me, too.
I went on a run about six months ago and found a strange pile of discarded clothes up in the mountains I was sure I would write a story about. I couldn’t imagine that particular day that I wouldn’t write it.
But a week went by, and another week. The idea floated away, and it wasn’t until just now that story idea came back to me. So that’s fine, I can toss it.
Here’s the deal: if the idea is a good one, you need to write it now, not later.
I spent all last week thinking about my newest short story idea, trying to understand the point-of-view of my antagonist, trying to come up with an ending — any ending.
What I should have been doing instead?
Writing the damn story.
You can ponder your story for a little while. You should ponder your story to a certain extent, because if you start writing too early, you might begin in the wrong place and discover halfway through something isn’t working right. You shouldn’t just rush into a new writing project without giving it some considerable thought, I’ll give you that.
But you also shouldn’t wait forever either. You shouldn’t think your story to death, to the point where you might lose the interest you had in it in the first place.
Figure out the basics. Who the main character is, what he or she wants. The setting. The conflict.
And once you have enough to go on? Please, I’m begging you, START WRITING.
Don’t wait for the perfect moment!
Don’t wait until next week, next month, when you might have more time.
Stop making excuses. Write the damn story. Even if you don’t have it all figured out. Even if you don’t have a clue about the ending.
This is definitely a case of do as I say and not as I do. Because I didn’t write my story last week either. I didn’t start when I should’ve.
It took me until today to finally write the damn story. The first 1,200 words of it anyway. And you know what happened as I was writing earlier today?
I figured out how to make the antagonist more original, and I figured out the ending. All in about twenty minutes’ time.
Not while I was thinking about the story. While I was writing the story.
I’ve said it before on here, and I’ll say it again: inspiration is in the doing, not before the doing.
If you have a great story idea, just write it. Just do it. Write the damn thing!
And then see what happens.