My three-year-old granddaughter doesn’t believe in stopping. “Try again” is her battle cry. She must say it twenty times a day, to herself and those around her. “Try again,” she says to grandpa when he misses the ball. “Try again,” she encourages when I burn the cookies. “Try again,” she tells herself when her block tower collapses.
I’m in the “try again” camp too. With life, I believe in keeping on. Consider the time I was running my first half marathon and broke my foot with several miles to go. Did I stop? Never. I hobbled along until I saw that finish line, then sprinted into a full out run.
But there are times it’s important to know when to stop. It might have been a good thing if I’d known when to stop during that half marathon. Knowing when to stop if you’re a writer is a good thing too.
This blog isn’t about stopping when you feel like it, the way you feel after a rejection, a bad review, or when everyone in your critique group thinks your story should be on life support. Those are the times we should “try again.” It’s when we don’t feel like stopping that we probably should - when we want to add one more twist to our story, one more character trait, one more plot line, one more ending.
I confess, as a writer, I have a hard time knowing when to stop. That may be difficult to believe looking at my eighteen word Lost. Found. You may have thought I barely got started.
Yet much of my writing looks like I’m on a trip around the world with no particular destination in mind. Some of my picture book manuscripts, which editors prefer to be under 500 words, look a bit like the “Great American Novel.” I’ve learned a few things in my time on earth and, doggone it, I want to get it all in that manuscript, that one manuscript.
Besides writing “picture book novels”, I’m also good at multiple endings. I can’t choose just one! Usually, I like my stories to have at least three, in the style of “Choose your own ending.”
Creating multi-dimensional characters is one of my talents too, but multi-dimensional characters aren’t needed in picture books. They just complicate matters. I’m working on a story now where my character loves wordplay, but he’s also shy. More than half of my critique group agrees that the addition of shyness as a characteristic takes the story off track.
Another example of not knowing when to stop, especially for novel writers, is saying the same thing over and over again. This habit of repeating oneself comes largely from not trusting your reader. Sadly, these repetitions can sometimes find their way into a published novel. That doesn’t happen with an accomplished writer though. I recently finished Kate DiCamillo’s Raymie Nightingale. I don’t know if Ms. DiCamillo has trouble knowing when to stop, but I doubt it. And if she does, her finished novel doesn’t show it. Perfect number of words. Perfect number of chapters. Perfect book. Kate DiCamillo knows what to leave out and what to keep. She knows when to stop. Perfectly.
Of course, our first drafts are often wordy with too many characters and plots and endings, but when we begin to rewrite we need to learn when to stop, where to cut, and when to “kill” our darlings, the parts we love the most but that don’t add to the story.
“Try again” should certainly be a writer’s main battle cry; it has to be with all the wrong turns, rejections, and disappointments we come up against. But we should also learn about the important discipline of knowing when to stop.
Know when to stop so you don’t have three endings. You only need one that’s perfect.
Know when to stop adding dimensions and attributes to your picture book character. One main characteristic is good.
Know when to trust your reader.
And, oh yes, know when to stop working on your blog and start writing your story. That’s my exit line.
(Though, I'm exiting, I'd love for you to share your experiences with the importance of stopping.)
Marsha Diane Arnold is the award-winning author of twelve books that have sold over a million copies. Her most recent, A Welcome Song for Baby, portrays a young girl sharing the sounds of the seasons with the baby in her mother's womb. It's available in the UK and at http://amzn.to/1VVbVOt
Marsha's popular Character-Driven online Course is at http://www.childrensbookacademy.com/writing-character-driven-stories.
Meet the Friday Blogonauts
First Fridays will feature Bryan Patrick Avery, published writer , man of mystery, and professional magician among other things.
Second Fridays will feature awesome multi-award winning author Marsha Diane Arnold who will be writing about character-driven and/or nature-based books and/or anything she likes :)
Third Fridays will feature independent Aladdin/Simon & Shuster editor Emma Sector who has helped bring many books into the world.
Fourth Fridays will feature the great Christine Taylor-Butler who has published over 70 award-winning fiction and non-fiction and nonfiction books including the acclaimed new middle grade series - The Lost Tribes.
Fifth Fridays will feature the fabulous Carl Angel award-winning multi-published Illustrator and graphic designer.
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