It’s not always this simple:
“Begin at the beginning,” the King said, very gravely, “and go on till you come to the end: then stop.”
It sounds like good advice, and if you’re a White Rabbit giving testimony in a jurisdiction in Wonderland, it apparently works quite well. It may also apply to some writers when they’re working on a story. But it doesn’t work that way for me.
Begin at the beginning. Yeah, that bit works. The beginnings of stories are always easy. Always. A cool idea or premise for a story pops into your head, you’re excited by it, you’re enthusiastic and engaged, and you bang it out. Then, of course, comes the long, dull, grunt work of actually writing the middle of the damned thing. Doesn’t matter if you’re working on a novel-length manuscript or a short story, the middle chunk is like Mordor without the dramatic scenery. Enthusiasm isn’t going to get you to Mount Doom. The middle is a slog. It’s work. The middle is where most stories give up, curl into a ball, die a slow lonely death, and are never heard from again.
But hey, if you can gut your way through the middle, you can usually cobble together some sort of ending for your story. A lot of writers (me included) like to come up with an ending before we actually start writing. We may not actually use that original ending, but having an ending in mind when you begin can give you direction and a bit of momentum, which is handy when you’re wondering how much farther Mount Doom is.
But endings can be tricky too, because there are almost always a LOT of possible endings to any story. I mean, after you’ve hauled your story all the way to Mount Doom, do you just chuck it into the first fiery chasm you come across? There may be a better, more satisfying fiery chasm just down the path, right?
Here’s the thing: you’re probably never going to find the perfect fiery chasm. So usually you pick the one you think will work the best, and you chuck the ring in, and go on to your next story. Unless you’re like me. Sometimes you’re just not really happy with any of the fiery chasms; there’s nothing particularly wrong with them as fiery chasms, but they just don’t feel right. So you just park the ring in a drawer and forget about it, hoping that some day you’ll think of a better fiery chasm. So to speak.
Why am I nattering on about this? Because back in November of 2017 I couldn’t come up with an ending I liked for a short story. And I wrote about it (sorta kinda, in a rambling blog post). The story is about a part-time burglar who steals a Leica and later gets in trouble with the police for shooting photos in a park where kids are playing. Since it was just a short story and I wasn’t in urgent need of funds, I set the story aside and forgot about it.
Until earlier this year, when I got involved in an online discussion that tangentially related to a scene in the movie Under The Tuscan Sun. After that discussion, I took a walk, and on that walk I realized that what my old burglar-turned-photographer story needed was a connection to that movie. Which, okay, I realize sounds nuts. But I thought about it, went home and rewrote much of the story with a totally new ending, and tossed the ring into the fiery chasm.
Yesterday I got a note from the editor of Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine saying a contract for that story will be showing up in my mailbox by the end of the month.
The moral of this story? The King’s advice to the White Rabbit isn’t always good advice. Sometimes you need to begin at the beginning and go on until you decide the fiery chasm is all wrong, then wait for Diane Lane to invest in real estate in Italy.