Writing Advice of the Week: Finish the Story You Start

Reading Time: 12 minutes
(Image by Fallon Clark via Adobe Firefly.)

Have you ever started a story, gotten partially through the writing, and fizzled?

I’m an ENTP-Capricorn, which means I’m typically full of big ideas, distracted by shiny objects, and bored by implementation. Known as “Messy Mommy” at home, I’m likely to complete about 90% of a task before I flit off to something else. As you can imagine, I’ve a nasty habit of leaving things unfinished.

But, despite my shortcomings, I also know the value of achieving goals for growth and development. I help authors set writing goals and stick to them so they can finish their books. So when I started writing a non-fiction booklet about point of view, I knew getting to 90% wasn’t going to cut it.

90% of a book is just “boo.” And many writers don’t even make it to the 90% mark.

Just 3% of people who start a book actually finish it. And only about 0.6% go on to publish their work.

With stats like these, it’s no wonder we allow the fizzle to win. Letting a project fizzle is easier than the hard work it takes to make it flourish.

Every writer faces times when the muse departs, casts herself off the writerly boat and into the shark-infested waters of writer’s block. imposter syndrome, and creative awkwardness. Once the muse falls into the depths, it can take some serious willpower and a whole lotta muscle to pull her back aboard — and that’s if you try.

Some writers watch the muse walk off the edge and wave as she — and their publishing dream — goes into the deep. “That story wasn’t meant for me to write,” they say, as they tuck their unfinished manuscripts into desk drawers or file them in desktop folders to be forgotten. Another story will surely come along that will be just right.


Well . . .

Coming up with ideas for stories is hard enough without squandering all that hard-earned creativity on unfinished projects. If the story is important enough to start writing, it’s likely important enough to finish writing.

If you find that your muse frequently leaves just when you need her the most, have you considered whether your muse likes your storyteller?

While I hate to break it to ya, you, author, are not the teller of your story.

Sure, you may have written the darn thing, but once the story is on paper or on screen, the narrative voice takes over, assumes control over the reader’s experience.

But, as Oceanus once spoke for the ocean, your muse speaks for the reader.

If your muse isn’t on board with your storyteller, she’s going to fight against you even as you try pulling her back out of the water to save your creative work.

When choosing the right storyteller for your tale, who tells the story and why they tell it matters.

This week, I read a great article from Kristen Lamb on how POV Can Revive Or Ruin A Story. In the article, Kristen shares reasons some perspectives result in lackluster stories and what you can do to examine your storyteller and re-write your story from the right character’s viewpoint to keep your muse — and your eventual reader — engaged.

And when you’re examining your story to find the best viewpoint and, thus, the best storyteller, make sure you consider their agency when creating your pros and cons lists.

Character agency is about the freedom with which a character moves through your world and directs plot events. A character with agency is an active character in charge of their destiny (for better or worse), a character that makes the plot happen. And for readers to want to root for your protagonist, they need the character to do something.

Michael James wrote a solid piece titled, Agency — What Is It And Do Your Characters Have It?, for A Writer’s Path, and the article will help you create characters your readers actually care about. Michael explains the differences between characters with and without agency using examples from Star Wars, which I loved, since those stories are ubiquitous. Even if you don’t know the specific examples used, you’ll get the gist.

Now, whether your narrative voice is a character in your story or a detached witness of your story events, Kathryn Craft shared a piece for Writer Unboxed titled, Dig Into Your Character’s Taboos. Because your characters are people too, or are at least peopley enough that your human readers will understand them, it’s important to dig into what makes your characters tick, what their flaws say about them, where those flaws come from. Does your character have a serious problem showing affection, even believing someone could feel affection for them? What about their relationship with money or finances? How about their views on aging, emotional sensitivity, sex?

Through stories, writers traverse socio-cultural territory from our writing desks, using our characters and narrative voices as the mediums upon which we paint beautifully storied lives to share our opinions, principles, and values with our readers.

But one does not form their opinions, principles, and values in a vacuum. These marks of who we are as people come from our backgrounds — our backstories.

Your characters have backstories, too. When drafting, write all the things you need to write to understand backstory. When revising, however, it’s time to assess and reduce or eliminate many of the things you originally needed to include to finish the writing. The goal here is to present the backstory information at exactly the time the reader needs it to understand what’s happening for a particular character in a particular moment.

If you struggle with knowing when or how much character backstory your reader will actually need, visit Jane Friedman‘s blog and read her piece, How To Deliver Backstory Without Confusing The Reader, which includes a helpful walk-through of backstory revision with Tiffany Yates Martin. To care about the character’s backstory, the reader has to care about the character. And to do that, the reader needs to care about the character’s role and transformation potential on some level.

And backstory isn’t the only thing readers will need to develop that care. Readers also want conflict.

Conflict is often described as the series of obstacles that prevent the story hero from getting what they want. While the definition is technically true, Janice Hardy for Writers In The Storm points out that obstacle alone isn’t enough for true conflict: That’s just “stuff in the way.” If you’re concerned your story may be boring readers because of a lack of true conflict, read through Janice’s article, Are You Making This Conflict Mistake? Because just as your characters benefit from agency, the major conflicts you include in your story must also have agency to intentionally prevent the hero from reaching their goal, rather than passively being in the way of the goal.

And conflicts benefit from hefty doses of tension, the special sauce that keeps readers on edge, turning pages, and losing time and sleep. This week, Stacy Stokes for Writer’s Digest wrote a piece titled, 5 Tips For Building Anticipation In Thrillers. Don’t get caught up on the titling, though; tension is a critical part of any story. Look at Stacy’s five tips and adapt them for your story, no matter the genre.

Now, since this article is all about finishing the projects you start — and giving yourself the tools you need to do that — remember that finishing your story means you’ll need to get it into readers’ hands. And to get your story into readers’ hands, readers need to know your story exists.

I chose three pieces from the wealth of advice shared this week specific to marketing, so if you need help getting comfortable with marketing, knowing how to use social media better, or are noodling over whether to start a blog or update that dusty old thing rotting on the internet, check out these pieces that turn marketing your work into writing about your writing, which is what marketing is at its most basic level:

Once you get through all this week’s advice and implement the activities you need to achieve your goals, you’ll become not only one of the 3% who finish their books but hopefully one of the 0.6% who publish.

Getting all the way to done will make the muse happy, so she will be less apt to throw herself overboard the next time a shiny new story object comes into view.

Happy writing!

Have Feedback?

I’d love to know what your favorite piece of advice for this week was, so share below and let me know what resonated so I can do more of that in the future.

And Maria collects more advice links each week than I can possibly share in a single writing advice article, so be sure to check out the overflow if you need something I didn’t include.

More Productivity Advice for the Week
More Craft Advice for the Week
More Business Advice for the Week

We subscribe to more than 200 writing advice sites and gather the best posts for you every single Sunday. You can see all the previous writing advice of the week posts here and subscribe to the RSS feed for this writing advice series here (direct Feedly signup link).

Are we missing any writing advice sites? Email [email protected] or leave a note in the comments below.

Or watch me discuss this week’s writing advice on video:

Fallon Clark is a Vermont-based manuscript development coach and editor serving fiction and creative non-fiction authors. Her writing has been published in Flash Fiction Magazine. Check out her website, FallonEdits.com, or connect with her on LinkedIn or Substack.

1 thought on “Writing Advice of the Week: Finish the Story You Start”

  1. I’ve opened SIX of the links you have given here and I’m about to read them all–too intriguing not to, though usually I don’t tap on links because, gads, I’ve so much to read already, right? ! But I have to say this article of yours is immensely helpful–thanks a lot…

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