Ask the Writer: When is a Story Done?

People always have something to say when they find out you’re a writer. Sometimes it’s not always polite. Many times it’s dismissive.  But my favorite people are the ones that ask how. 

I spend a lot of time talking to other writers about craft so it’s easy to forget that other people have zero clues about the process of making stories. One question I got a few months ago stuck with me because I’d never been asked it before.

When do you know a story is finished?

I think my response was some attempt to be witty, something along the lines of “When I feel as though I’m going to throw up if I have to look at it one more time.”

Which is kind of true, but it’s little more complicated than that.

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Liminal Boy’s current state

Stephen King wrote in On Writing that a story should take no longer than a season. I really hope he meant each draft should take no longer than a season, but if so, even that I’ve failed at. (Maybe if I was able to devote all my hours in a day to writing I could make that work.) But aside from imposed timeframes, there’s a clear way I know when my story is done. 

Stories are a combination of your relationship with a lover and the child you had with them. Bare with me, I promise I’ll explain.

See, this thing, this story, it came from you. It’s your baby. You’re fiercely protective of it, cradling it. Gestating it. Congratulations, it’s a word document.

But where did this baby come from? Why it came from this super-awesome lover who fell from the heavens. This idea is all you can think about. You idealize it. Excuse its imperfections. You’re in an all-consuming relationship with this lover, an idea, and you’re raising that cute little word document as a testimony to your love of the idea.

But here’s the thing—

It’s not a healthy relationship. It’s more like Romeo and Juliet; the two of you are just teenagers with blinders on and out of control hormones. If you read tarot, imagine the Lovers card, not the Two of Cups.

You reveal in this fiery be-all end-all passion….. until something happens. It happens slowly yet all at once.

One day you notice the draft is familiar. You’ve run through each scene a dozen times. That dramatic plot twist that caught your eye and made you swoon? It’s too cliche. Scrapped it for something subtle.

Distant grows between you and your idea. Those flaws you ignored are now incredibly embarrassing and oh my god, I hope no one saw that sentence.

“Babe, it’s not that I want to change you but… You need to work on yourself. “

And then the draft is different. But better. Romeo quit wearing those stupid tights and now has a suit on. But you can’t deny it. The magic is gone. Your lover isn’t attractive anymore. 

Without that magic, the relationship goes stagnant, and that beautiful baby you two created, little Word Document, isn’t so little. You watched it grow from a toddler, stumbling around with no plot and too much dialogue, to a teenager, an awkward gangly draft that you secretly kept hoping no one would make fun of to now. Your baby has a driver’s license. They don’t need you to tell them not to run with scissors and to always wash their hands. You watch Word Document interact with life outside your head. See how others respond to it, and how it fits into the world. 

And with one eye on those responses, something else catches your attention.

A very attractive idea. Even more attractive than the last. 

I know a lot of writers struggle with sticking to one story at a time. For me, I always remain faithful to one idea at a time. I’m not sure how to explain the process behind that, but my brain is very firm about sticking to one idea and finishing that relationship before moving on. And when another idea is too good to resist I lock it away somewhere (usually in a battered array of lined paper and post-it notes) and save it for later.

Right now, Liminal Boy and I are in the just starting to lose the magic stage. I won’t lie, it actually hurts when drafts reach this stage. Your world shifts. But luckily for me, another idea— the third Opposition book— is slinking around in my peripheral, looking very attractive… I will totally never need to change those overly dramatic scenes… No way.

That’s how I know a story is finished.

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