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Saturday, February 28, 2009

Letting Go


This is it.

The last word.

The story is finished.

There comes a time when a writer has to stop working on a story and put the pen down. A point when no amount of editing will polish the plotline, no amount of re-reads or re-writes will improve the story structure. This is the end of the story, a place where a writer has to put a period at the end of the last page and move on.

Letting go of a story is the hardest part of the writing process for an author in any medium. It means the writer has to allow themselves to be vulnerable. Not just to praise, but to criticism, rejection and even insults. Without those things a writer can’t grow in their craft.

Unfortunately, some writers hold onto stories they write for years trying to protect themselves from the very thing that will improve their craft: Sharing it with the audience. They think that if they write one more paragraph, change one more sentence, restructure the plotline to go in another direction, the story will get just that much better. Sometimes this process goes on for a few months. Sometimes a few years. Sometimes it can just go on too long. Sometimes analysis is just another form of insecurity.

I used to be one of those insecure authors who protected his stories like a newborn baby. After I completed my first novel back in 1997, I kept trying to rewrite it telling people I had to make it better before I submitted it to the publishers and agents. It was fear. I didn’t know I was stalling my own growth as a writer; I was afraid of criticism and I started a co-dependent relationship with my characters. They were like old friends and I liked hanging out with them every day in front of the pea-soup green screened Brother word processor.

It wasn’t until I went to the bookstore and I realized it was time to let go of my first story and write something else. I noticed a lot of authors on the bookshelf hadn’t let go of their first works and how it impacted their long-term careers. Because they hadn’t separated themselves from their first novel and moved on, they kept writing the same book over and over again. It stalled their writing craft; the writing style hadn’t changed, their storylines became more and more predictable, their characters the exact same person with another name. Since there was no end of the first story there couldn’t be a beginning. to a new one.

Ending and beginnings are the primary elements of the writing process. Just as one story ends, a new one begins. To let go of my old story and start a new one, I often write something in a totally opposite direction of my previous story. If I finish writing a fantasy story, I write a contemporary romance. If I finish writing a contemporary romance, I write a gritty drama. If I finish writing a gritty drama I write a romantic comedy. If I wrote a screenplay, I’ll write a book next. If I write a book, I’ll write a blog post, a movie review or an article. Mix it up. Make it interesting. I don’t want to get too comfortable with a bunch of characters ever again. I feel it stalls me creatively. A good writer shouldn’t be afraid to put the period at the end of a story and move on.

Starting the next story is the hardest part of writing. For me, it means leaving old friends behind, and getting to know a whole new group of people and interacting with their world. I may like them. I may not like them. It’s a very vulnerable position to be in mentally and emotionally for me at the computer. But I understand it can be very rewarding as I learn about different story models and different experiences than I’m familiar with.