The Ten Things Which Most Often Go Wrong With Beginners' Fiction
"No tears in the writer, no tears in the reader": True or false? Plus choirboy syndrome

When a good stopping place is a bad starting place

Today is supposed to be a writing day, and the morning is my prime writing time. The project is going well, I've got Scrivener fired up, and I've run my eye down yesterday's work to remind myself where I've got to. And yet ... I've just spent the last hour not-getting-on-with-it: faffing about with useful-but-not-urgent work and domestic things, consoling a Facebook friend who's struggling with the outcome of a nasty book contract clause, doing a bit of necessary professional tweeting, and making cups of tea that I then forget about.

This is nothing to do with serious procrastination: I'm not frightened of the project, nor de-fuelled from some other life stuff, and my Inner Critic got bored with my deafness and blindness to it, and left home some years ago; it now lives in the next street, only popping around occasionally to tell me that I'm lazy, useless and stupid because I haven't weeded the grass out from between the paving stones of my front path. This kind of Inner Critic I can live with.

No, the reason I'm struggling to get going - to put in the first ten or twenty minutes of hard work that will get me through the door in the wall - is that I stopped last night at the end of a chapter. And, as any child knows who's pleaded to be allowed a bit longer with the light on, the end of a chapter is an official "good stopping place". (Indeed, my small, newly-literate sister used to plead for permission to finish not the chapter, nor even the page, but the word.) What that book-devouring child doesn't know, of course, is that a good stopping place for a reader is a bad starting place for a writer.

It's obvious when you think about it: when you're writing a first draft, however much you're a planner, you do rely on the writing of one sentence to lead to the point where your brain knows how the next one starts. If one definition of "narrative" is "a causative chain of events", then within the writer's self each sentence is an effect which is caused by the previous one. But, to some degree, the end of a chapter is the end of that chain. The next cause must be created from nothing, before it can allow the effect to form.

Of course, reckoning to keep going until you reach a temporarily concluding moment in the story - the end of a chapter, scene, section - makes a lot of sense. And making for that moment keeps you going when it's being difficult, when your head aches from shutting up that Inner Critic, when your bum is sore from sitting for so long. It's the same principle as learning to knit on a stripy sweater: you can always push to get to the end of a stripe, even when finishing the front (or, worst of all, the second sleeve) seems impossibly distant. You can pack up for the writing day knowing that you've done a chunk of the work, and put your writerly feet up with the satisfaction of a job done.

But, of course, the overall job isn't done, and the next day - or, worse, the next month - all you can see is the conclusion you reached back then. That blank page headed Chapter Twenty looks as horribly blank as the one that was headed Chapter One, even more months or years ago.  If - as writer and storyteller John Taylor puts it - when you're writing you're living in the world of their book, then a "good stopping place" closes the door on that world. Your plans may (or may not) tell you what in basic material facts this chapter needs to contain, but the "causes" you carefully or intuitively built into the previous chapter are no longer urgent to you: they don't naturally give rise to the effects in this one. 

Apparently Hemingway recommended stopping mid-sentence, and you can see why; and since he was usually stopping in order to open a bottle and get plastered, how he made sure that he'd nonetheless get back to work the next day, presumably grimly hung-over, is worth thinking about: trying to remember what the rest of the sentence was a good, undemandingly small-scale way of getting back into it. The text doesn't say "Morning! Now write the rest of the novel", but "Morning! Now, what were the next few words?" That little bit of thinking, that putting of a tentative head through the doorway into the world of the story, seems much more possible. And, as we all know, any gap your head can get through, the rest of you can follow through.

So, if you use the momentum of wanting to reach a good stopping place to keep you going, how do you start up again? In the Facebook conversation I had about this topic, Lloyd Shepherd suggested exploiting that sustaining momentum by carrying on to write the first couple of paragraphs of the next scene/chapter, just to feel that you're launched; then he stops. Kathleen McGurl says she does the Hemingway thing, stopping mid-scene or even mid-sentence.

Mind you, if, in the evening, I did know what the rest of the sentence should be, I doubt if I'd leave it un-written: I don't myself feel it would be the best use of fresh, morning writing time to have to re-invent. More broadly, I think many writers don't have the confidence to not write something that they know they could write: they panic if they haven't got a notebook, they're terrified if the Person from Porlock comes calling that their 'Kubla Khan' will go unfinished.

Of course, poets may have real cause to worry, because they don't have the basic needs of narrative to provide the hints about what might come next - although maybe patterns, metres, rhyme-schemes and prosody can provide such hints instead. But I suspect (can't prove) that some narrative writers' reluctance to just-start-the-next-chapter is also caused by fear: if you start the next scene, you're starting a new chain of cause-and-... and what if you find in the morning that you can't remember the effects that the causes set going? But if I'm thinking in terms of scenes, what's to stop me making some notes about how I'm imagining the scene panning out? Note: notes, not actual writing; then re-calling the story-reasons for this scene and embodying them in narrative is as good a way of getting back into it as you could want.

But confidence, I think, is key here: "confidence" in its original sense of "with faith". You do need to act with faith in yourself that, even if in the morning you can't remember what that second-half of the sentence would have be, the second half that you now come up with will be just as good.

At heart, this about something wider and much more crucial, in developing your creative practice: letting go of the toxic kind of perfectionism. It's the kind which is convinced there is One Perfect Version of the story in your head; and that there's therefore One Perfect Way of writing which will ensure that the perfect version happens. As a writer, you have to make your peace with the fact that all art is contingent: if you'd started this book on another day or after reading a different writer; if you'd finished your painting in a different studio; if you'd been able to get to a certain place for research - or not been able to get there; if you'd sung your Butterfly in a different production in a different opera house with a different Pinkerton ... the result would have been different. Not necessarily better, or worse: most likely better in some ways and worse in others. But, essentially, just different.

As writers we're more in control of our materials and creative circumstances than most other kinds of artist, but that doesn't mean that absolute control is either possible or even desirable. So instead of straining for absolute control, what you need to do is to develop your craft in handling words and ideas, and your craft in handling your creative self, to the point where you can have some faith that you will cope with - even make the most of - whatever circumstances you encounter. The result will be a good result, and therefore in a crucial sense the right result. It's making your peace with contingency, by way of having confidence in your craftsmanship, which means that you don't have to rush home early so you can close the door every night: that you can safely stop at a "bad" - i.e. a good - contingent, perched-on-the-hard-shoulder kind of stopping place, and know that in the morning it will be all right.

And what if, as John Gribbin put it, a "bad" stopping place means you spend all night with sentences unrolling in your head? Maybe making the notes, like a to-do list, will quiet those voices down. Maybe not. But - with all sympathy for insomniacs - perhaps that's just the price of being a writer. There are worse fates.