Finishing — 8 Little Questions

My previous post on Mysteristas was about abandoned projects, and as it turned out, several comments addressed the difficulty of finishing projects.  That made me wonder:  is there a difference between an abandoned project and an unfinished one?  

I think so.  And it’s more than a matter of semantics.  

Abandoning a project is like throwing it into a junkyard where some parts can be salvaged later.  Unfinished projects lose focus.  

We don’t toss out an unfinished project (let’s call it Murder in the Junkyard) if it has merit.  Merit determines whether or not this mess of a manuscript should be resurrected.  I’ve found that asking myself several hard questions really helps to finish a difficult project.  Starting with: 

 1.  Do I really care about this?  

We don’t have to know why, but if there’s a shred of passion about the project, then the next question becomes…

2.  Do I know what my protagonist wants, and why?  

 

The answer might not be on the page, but what the protagonist wants will determine the direction the story goes.  

 

There’s a bunch more questions to ask before tackling a revision, but that’s for another post.  Skipping ahead to the end, several more questions will help us finish this darned Junkyard project:  

3.  Are there logical obstacles keeping my protagonist from getting what she wants?  

 

4.  Does my protagonist use her special skills to overcome those obstacles?  (And by the way, what are those skills?)

 

5.  What has my protagonist learned by the end?  (If the answer is “nothing,” then remember that the writer is God.  What should my protagonist learn?  How has the character grown?  Even in a series, the character needs to change somewhat.)  

 

6.  What is the story question, and has it been resolved?  

 

7.  What outstanding questions are there? 

 

8.  Has the story fulfilled the promise made to the reader at the beginning?  

 

Once we figure out how to insert the scenes that will show the answers to such questions, then we can resurrect an abandoned project and finish it.  With a little passion!  

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Abandoned Projects

My house is filling up with abandoned projects.  I have drawers of old manuscripts that went nowhere, closets full of fabric that never made it to the sewing machine, stacks of books that haven’t been read yet, boxes of photos that haven’t gone into albums yet, half-painted canvases, and…  Well, you get the idea.  

The collection keeps growing because of Shiny New Project, which sometimes tempts me away from Old Troublesome.  Does this ever happen to you?  

This is the year that I’ve decided to take control (or at least get the upper hand).  It’s the year of cleaning off my desk, as well as those closets and shelves.  Once upon a time, those abandoned projects were all shiny and new.  But then something happened to stop me.  Was it because:  

  1. the idea wasn’t good enough?
  2. the idea suddenly bored me?
  3. the idea presented a problem that I didn’t know how to work through–yet?  

Last month I dug into my file cabinet, and much to my surprise, I found a novel I’d written that I’d completely forgotten I’d written.  “Novel” is such a generous term for this manuscript.  It’s a total mess.  It’s a train wreck.  That’s probably why I’d filed it away and then forgot about it.  (What’s interesting is that I hadn’t forgotten about the two novels I wrote many years previously, before my first published one.  They were learning tools, nothing more.)  

But back to this train wreck.  It wasn’t a learning tool when I wrote it.  I’d simply abandoned it, probably because something easier and shinier happened along.  While I was digging in the file cabinet, I also found a few other unfinished stories.  I hadn’t forgotten about them; I’d just stopped working on them.  I never thought about why.  Maybe the time wasn’t right, and I didn’t know how to fix the mess.  Maybe because of category #3 above. 

Now I think I’ve figured out the problem that blocked me originally.  I hadn’t realized before, but it turns out that all of those various, unfinished pieces actually belong together.  My subconscious (aka “Fred”) had been working on the train wreck and kept trying to approach the problem in different ways–and failing.  

Good old Fred never gives up.  Now Fred has an answer and has been patiently waiting for me to catch up.  I can’t wait to see how it goes.  Old Troublesome has become the New Shiny!  

Do you have abandoned projects, and if so, what do you do with them?  

Writers on the Go

One of the advantages of retiring from the day job is that now I get to take lots more trips than I used to.  Some of them are even “real” vacations, like the Caribbean cruise Hubby and I took last week.  It was fabulous!  It was our great escape from our long winter months, and it was our chance to decompress in deck chairs and decadence.  

And then there are trips.  Unlike “real” vacations, trips have a specific purpose, such as:  

  • business trips (I’m the trailing spouse)
  • visiting family (we have to check up on the kiddos on a regular basis, right?)
  • miscellaneous missions (e.g., driving the granddog across country last July)

Whatever you call it–trips or vacations–they require a lot of hours away from my desk. 

While I may be retired from the day job, I’m NOT retired from writing.  I have a schedule to keep and deadlines to meet.  It’s a challenge to keep up with the words while on the go.  So, I use trips to focus on other writerly tasks. 

  • trips create deadlines for me.  When I plan my yearly calendar, I know that I have X amount of writing tasks to accomplish before the next trip, if I am to stay on schedule.  Miss that deadline, and it throws everything out of whack for the rest of the year.  
  • trips are great opportunities for character studies.  New places are full of people who are outside our usual circles.  I listen to their tone of voice, their word choices and patterns of speech.  Sometimes I meet real people doing some of the jobs I read about, like detectives from Scotland and agents from law enforcement–they have wonderful stories to tell! 
  • trips engage sensory details.  Different places have different smells, sounds, etc.  I try to notice what my characters would notice in such a setting and how it might be described.  
  • trips fire the imagination.  New places come with new-to-me stories.  Sometimes a tiny detail, most unexpected, will catch my attention and won’t let go.  Then starts “what if…?”  When that happens, I can’t wait to get back to my desk and discover the story!  

Do trips inspire you, too?  

Going Short

I love short stories–both reading and writing.  I have a line-up of 6 stories I plan to write over the next few months.  They’re ideas that I’ve tried to express before in short form, but their execution has failed (so far).  Because writing short stories is hard!  

I’ve been writing them for many years, and it hasn’t gotten any easier.  I write them between novels, or between drafts of novels.  Because they’re a change of pace, I’ll sometimes alternate my writing time between short stories and the novel in progress.  Overall, I’ve probably written a couple hundred, but only a handful has ever been published.  So, why do I keep at it?  

For 3 main reasons:  

Most importantly, they’re fun!  Writing a short story is like working a jigsaw puzzle, trying to figure out which keystone pieces will hold together the picture of the story.  And by the way, what exactly is that picture?  Which pieces of the puzzle don’t fit?  They’ve got to go.  

Secondly, they’re exercises.  They keep the writer brain practicing.  Sometimes I like to try something experimental in a short story because there’s little investment.  But usually, I like to practice a difficult element of craft–for example, endings.  What better way to practice lots of endings than using the short form?  

And finally, short stories are rewarding.  They’re convenient to use in critique groups, as they’re an easy bite with immediate feedback (including that pesky ending). They also provide a chance to explore characters–either the main character’s background, or secondary characters begging for a story of their own.  And if the story works, then a bonus is visibility in the marketplace.  All that hard work pays off when the reader finds powerful emotion.  It doesn’t get much better than that!  

Do you enjoy short stories, too?  

Juggling Act

Last week, Becky’s post made me think about how we writers have to juggle.  Sometimes we drop a ball or two, because there are so many of them to keep in the air.  Not only do we have different writing projects but also related tasks, such as research, editing, clerical, service, marketing, promotion, and…  What else am I forgetting?  

At the start of each new year, I like to assess how many balls have dropped, so that I can see where I need to focus more.  Last year I wrote about my goals as being more of a road map toward where I wanted to go, and that approach worked well for me.  Somehow, despite the unanticipated disruptions, and despite lots of dropped balls, I made it to the neighborhood of where I wanted to be.  Yay!  

So this year I’m designing another road map, tailored to my needs.  2019 will be the year of cleaning-unfinished-projects-off-my-desk.  

That means lots of juggling.  

How to keep all those balls in the air?  And then, keep them all straight?  Some folks use excel sheets, but I’m a hard-copy type.  I like to use paper calendars and ledgers.  I divide up my tasks on the calendar, working around other obligations already in place.  This way, I can visualize the bite-sized pieces that will take me in the right direction on my road map, and then I mark them off each day in the proper column of the ledger.  When I look at my columns, I see at a glance when I’m spending too much time on a certain project and neglecting something else.  

As for when I tend to those various tasks, I save the mindless ones for that time of the day when my mind slumps, and I need a cuppa tea.  I also like to alternate my physical position in my office for the type of task I’m doing.  If it’s creative, then I’m at my antique roll-top desk.  If it’s research, I’m in my comfy armchair.  If it’s editing, I’m on the laptop, anywhere there’s a quiet corner of the house.  If it requires technology, I’m at the worktable with my desktop.  

But still, it’s so easy to drop those balls, isn’t it?  

Do you have other tips for keeping on task with your different projects?  

The Story behind My Molasses Cookies

When I was eleven years old, I’d just returned to the States for my Best Christmas Ever. For the greater part of my childhood, I’d been living in a Muslim country, where I hadn’t seen a lot of evidence of Christmas other than the inside of our own home.  That year, we were on homeleave (meaning we didn’t have a place to go), so we went to the ancestral home in a very small town in the hills of rural Ohio.  My extended family made up a significant percentage of the local population, and they offered their spare bedrooms to us.  I’d never before been surrounded by so much family.  I met cousins and some of the aunts and uncles for the first time.  The wonders of Christmas and the quintessential small-town setting in picturesque wooded hills made it idyllic.  

But family made it the best.  And traditions made it such fun!  One of our favorite traditions was food, of course, so we enjoyed gathering around various tables.  But the one that stands out the most was the table in my Aunt Rachel’s farm kitchen.  She was renowned in the valley for her cooking, and she pampered us with her skill.  Her oven had a window, where I could watch her little balls of dough magically spread into sugared, molasses cookies.  I’ve made it my tradition ever since to bake her cookies this time of year, and I want to share it with you:  

Aunt Rachel’s Molasses Cookies

(makes 5 1/2 dozen)

  • Melt 2/3 cup butter and mix with 2 cups brown sugar.  
  • Add 3 eggs and 1/2 cup molasses.  Mix thoroughly.

Sift together:

  • 5 cups flour
  • 1 tsp salt
  • 2 tsps cinnamon
  • 2 tsps ginger
  • 4 tsps soda

Stir the flour mixture into the butter mixture, shape into balls the size of a walnut, and roll in granulated sugar.  Bake 8 minutes at 375.  

Enjoy!  

Reading for Recovery

I’m very happy to report that my hip replacement surgery was successful, and now I am happily immersed in books!  I’m working on my list of 10 possible choices, but haven’t made it very far…yet.  The reality is that I’m a slow reader.  Speed reading is the only subject I failed in high school.  But I digress.  (The drugs are still working their way through my system.)  

 Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine, by Gail Honeyman.  This book wasn’t on my list of 10, but it was the book I was reading for book club at the time I went into surgery.  I had to finish it!  Not to give away the plot, it’s a book about a dysfunctional young woman who wrestles with her inability to socialize–and so much more.  It’s a very good book, but it has a really dark, dark side, which turned out not to be the best choice for reading in my situation.  After this, I wanted a book that was less realistic and less emotionally wrenching, so I grabbed…

Fer de Lance, by Rex Stout.  This is the first Nero Wolfe.  He’s such an eccentric, over-the-top character that it’s easy to fall into the story, letting it sweep away the reader, knowing how improbable the whole set-up is.  And I fell in.  I particularly admired the way Archie, the narrator, referred to previous cases, making it sound as if this book isn’t actually the first in a series.  I once had a writing instructor who said that stories need to have a life “off the page,” and I suspect this is what she meant.  Reading as a mystery writer, I admired the way the clues were laid out, and how they progressed, revealing information, layer by layer.  I was surprised that the snake, as promised in the title, wasn’t referenced until about 70 pages from the end.  And the end–the last couple of sentences–absolutely blew me away.  It was a fun read, just perfect for my mood.  

After the mean streets of 1930’s New York City, I needed something cozier.  My next choice fell off my pile, seemingly shouting “read me!”  

Wicked Autumn, by G.M. Malliet.  This is the first of the Max Tudor series set in a small village in southwestern England.  Max is an ex-MI5 agent-turned-Anglican priest, but the book is all about the quaint little village.  The setting is described in exquisite detail, making me feel as if I were really there, sharing tea with the characters in their thatched-roof cottages.  The story gradually unravels through camera-eye viewpoint, roving through the idyllic village and pausing to dip into the heads of local residents.  This book gave me all the warm fuzzies that I needed, but now that I’m getting stronger, I wanted a change of pace for my next book.  

 Origin, by Dan Brown.  This is definitely a faster pace!  I’m still in progress with this book, carefully trying not to let this huge volume fall onto my lap.  It opens in Spain, one of my favorite places, so I’m a happy reader.   

I’ll keep plugging away at my list.  At least now I know what book to read next!