On Commitment: Never Underestimate Your Story
Photo by Ian Stauffer
I’ve done it before, and I’ll probably do it again.
I start a story and think it will be easy. Maybe it’s short, simple, and straightforward, or just plain silly. Anyway, I can definitely get it drafted before lunch. I write with one eye on my inbox and part of my brain seconded to crafting a grocery list.
And then, boom.
I find out that the story isn’t so short, simple, or straightforward. Or if it is, then I remember that short, simple, and straightforward is never as easy as it seems. My brain has abandoned the grocery list to travel into my character’s history or develop the socio-political framework of the society I’ve conjured.
Does the protagonist of a 500-word flash really need a back story? I ask as my pen tries to keep up with the ideas runnelling through my head. Yes, my writerly instincts respond firmly. You knew that already.
Right. I did know that.
By thinking the story would be easy, that I could toss out a draft I was hardly paying attention to, I’d forgotten the basic potency of storytelling—just a few sips and you’re hooked. The world you’re creating begins to flourish in front of you, word by word, thought by thought.
My mistake, in short, was that I underestimated my story.
So far I’ve been describing a draft, but I actually find I fall into this trap more often when I’m editing. While there’s no pressure for drafts to be any good, editing requires thinking, choices, and purpose. Editing is when I examine the problems in what I thought was a flimsy piece of writing, and realize my solutions are more substantial than expected. Sheesh. I’m definitely not going to get this done before lunch, if I want to do it properly.
Why should you never underestimate your story? At the risk of sounding like a tough-love Little League coach, if you’re only going to put in half the effort, why do it at all?
For a lot of fiction writers, no one’s paying us to do this yet. No one’s asking for another story. Even if you’re at the stage in your career where your work is in demand (and hats off to you, if so), you can never lie to yourself about whether you put in your best effort. You know the difference. And so do your characters. (And they will haunt you until you give them their due.)
Whether sweet or sharp (or, indeed, short, simple, and straightforward), stories—good stories—are spellbinding. Don’t resist. Embrace your story fully. Give it the attention it deserves. Otherwise, sidestep it as you would a tedious party guest and find someone more interesting to talk to. Consider: if you aren’t engaged with your story, why would your reader be?
The bottom line is that underestimating your story is the same as underestimating yourself.
As fiction writers, we’re usually working at the frontiers of our talent, because we’re always seeking to be better at our craft. That means any story we pursue, if it’s worth pursuing, should command our full attention. Writing is a wholehearted venture.
You knew that already. 💚