Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

How do you know when you’re done?

with 2 comments

The Unfinished Span by Otto August Kuhler

If the scariest image in the world, as Stephen King likes to point out, is a closed door, a blank page can’t be far behind. I’ve had to face one nearly every day for the last decade or so of my life, and although I no longer regard it with the dread I once did, some residual fear still remains, especially for the few few minutes before I start work every morning. The fact that I’ve managed to fill that page so many times before somehow doesn’t carry much weight when it comes time to do it again: I usually feel a little nervous when I type the opening sentence of a new story or chapter, as if this, of all days, will be the one where the magic finally fails. The fact that it generally doesn’t, and I’m always able to get at least a rough version down on paper after the usual length of time, has nothing to do with talent or inspiration. It’s more a result of the handful of tricks I’ve learned that actually work when it comes to filling that empty expanse. And although it might seem that a writer’s primary problem is figuring out how to get started, I’ve found instead that the real challenge—and the key to unlocking what limited reserves of productivity I have—is knowing in advance when I’ll be done.

This means having a general idea of how the project will look when I’m finished, in full awareness that the final version will probably take a form that I can’t anticipate. The most obvious variable here is length, and I’ve found it useful to set down a target—whether in words, paragraphs, or pages—for the first draft, basing the estimate mostly on pieces I’ve done before. For a blog post, I aim to generate about four paragraphs of text; for essays or articles, ten to twelve paragraphs; for novelettes, ten to twelve thousand words; for a novel, fifty to sixty chapters of somewhat less than two thousand words each. This kind of writing by numbers may seem mechanical, but that’s part of the point. The final length of any piece of writing is always determined at the revision stage: I tend to cut more than I add, but individual sections often end up being longer or more involved than they were the first time around. Yet setting an arbitrary length for the first draft of a project gives me a kind of template, a certain square footage of canvas on which I can start sketching. 

Nicolas Cage in Adaptation

That’s also the real reason I love outlines so much. An outline isn’t really about laying down a fixed plan: everything I’ve ever written has deviated, in large ways or small, from its initial conception. It’s more like a list of benchmarks, or points in the narrative where I can pause, knowing that I’ve done my work for the day. If I place so much emphasis on the idea of a plot as a series of clear objectives, it’s as much of a courtesy for the writer as the reader. Structuring the plot as a sequence of problems gives the reader a thread to follow, but it also provides the writer with a crucial map and compass. Its great advantage is that it gives you unambiguous information about what remains to be done. If the problem is solved, the story, or the scene, is over; if it isn’t, it probably isn’t. Obviously, there are all kinds of exceptions—not every story or scene needs to end with the protagonist getting what he or she wants—but having those markers along the way makes the road easier to travel. And just three or four pieces of information can make the difference between a formless string of events and a story whose ultimate shape, while still open to change, can be dimly glimpsed from the start.

After you’ve done it a few times, it gets progressively easier to intuit how the final product should look. I tend to turn to my old work for a sense of how long something new will be—I figure that if I’ve written one decent 10,000-word story, I should be able to do another—and I’ve come to understand my own rhythms as an author, which include the lengths in which I’m most comfortable working. I don’t have a lot of experience, for instance, with very short fiction; I like having the additional breathing room for development and payoff that a novelette provides. When I’m uncertain about other parts of the process, which is most of the time, I’ll stick to the forms that I’ve come to know best. Over the longer run, of course, it’s necessary to break out of the routines you’ve established, which may involve starting a project when you don’t know what the final form will be. (And there’s no shame in taking works by other writers as a model, much as the author Harry Crews broke down Graham Greene’s The End of the Affair scene by scene.) But when it comes to filling that blank page, the best approach is still putting one foot in front of the other, moving toward a goal you’ve laid out clearly on the map, even if it turns out to be in a different country entirely.

Written by nevalalee

November 14, 2013 at 8:45 am

Posted in Writing

Tagged with ,

2 Responses

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  1. And one way of breaking the blank page syndrome is with lateral thinking. Might the story need a complete change of direction, a bolt from the blue, an unexpected development which changes the whole scenario? It is often lack of imagination that brings one to a stop.

    Robin Hawdon

    November 14, 2013 at 3:56 pm

  2. Absolutely. I often use Oblique Strategies for that very purpose.


    November 15, 2013 at 9:47 pm

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