Next week, Americans will celebrate Thanksgiving Day -- a holiday when most will stuff their faces with turkey and dressing, slap backs with relatives, and listen to the tired old stories that they’ve heard more times than they care to count but smile and listen to again because they’re fascinated with the way Grandpa’s dentures clack while he talks. It’s a time when most of the women in my family gaggle around the table to cackle and haw, when most of the men plop down to watch (mostly scream and whoop) as the Dallas Cowboys and Detroit Lions play football with opposing teams.
For me, it is one of the few times that I actually watch sports on the tube. Now, before the men out there decry me as an infidel and gather wood to burn me at the stake, I willingly and publicly acknowledge that I like to watch football. If I’m going to watch a sport, though, I would much rather be in the stadium than at the home where I am more inclined to pop in a movie and sit down with a bucket of popcorn.
But, this is a writing blog, and I’ve only brought up football as a vehicle to address a tactical approach I use sometimes when writing short stories: drop back and punt.
Currently, I’m in the middle of a piece for a Holiday Story Exchange, a little something in the spirit of "Secret Santa" that I put together with some of the forumistas on the Writer’s Digest Forums. Instead of buying gifts for each other, though, we’ve swapped names and are writing stories about one another with very little information to begin with. Reading books like On Writing, by Stephen King, I have learned that there are generally two ways to write stories: (1) plot and outline and (2) watch the characters and write down what happens. When it comes to short stories, I usually follow the latter. Stephen King refers to this process as digging up the stories out of the ground. The point is, writing this way is a path of discovery; I never know how it will end up until the final period is in place. The story takes on a life of its own, often forcing me to zig when I thought we were going to zag. As such, there are moments, like the case with my current story, when I just have to stop with the ending I had in mind because it doesn’t gel. I drop back and punt it to my subconscious.
"Think it through," the right side of the brain says. "Don’t rush to a conclusion that readers will ungratefully say sucked." The truth is readers don’t care how much time and effort went into a story, whether it took two hours or two months. All they realize is that the ending didn’t fit the story. Or they see the flaws in the character’s action compared to the character’s motives. There have been plenty of times when I’ve ignored the little critic inside of me and pressed on, only to have my friends in the writing group sadly shake their head. So now, I’ve learned to listen when the little voice inside throws up the warning flag.
This goes against the grain for some writers. Keep writing, they say. Don’t let the critic inside discourage you from putting the pen to the paper. If you stop writing the story, you’ll lose it. For them, I say that dropping back and punting is a form of writing. Listening to the story over the course of a day or two, letting it tell you how to finish, is in fact writing – even though the pen hasn’t hit the paper (or the fingers tapped the keyboard). And it is a far better approach than to press forward when there’s plenty of time on the clock and fumble the ball.
Dropping back and punting has helped me in more than one case. There have been stories when, after a few days, the answer snapped into focus somewhere on the bridge between dreams and consciousness. It was only then that I could sit down and finish. My subconscious just needed to churn the story over, whirl it around to polish it up.
Pulling off of the story to let the brain digest it is not an act of giving up or abandoning the craft. Besides, while the mind is working out the details of the plot line, I can always blog to stay in a productive habit of writing every day.