November 2, 1999
At this time in my writing development, I had a rule: I could not start another story until I finished my current story. This often meant that my brain exploded with piles of story ideas yet to be written, which was very frustrating for me, but this rule actually helped me in three important ways.
I learned to finish my stories.
This is crucial. The main fault of developing writers is that they do not know how to complete a project that they have begun. My brother, for example, loves to tell me all about his latest story idea. I like to listen, but at some point, I have to stop him. “You know what? Don’t tell me about your story. Write your story down and then I will read it.” Of course, I don’t want to discourage him, and he honestly has a lot of potential, but that potential will never become a reality until the actual writing gets done. The act of seeing a particular story through to the very end offers experience and strength that you will gain no other way. If you are one of those writers with half-a-dozen unfinished stories in your desk drawer, pick one of those stories and finish it.
Writing only one story at a time shortened my stories.
This meant that I could finish them more quickly and therefore get on to the next story. Most developing writers want to be the next great novelist. Unfortunately, all they know about novel-writing is that they need to meet a certain word count. Developing writers should not try to make their stories as long as possible. They need to make their stories as powerful as possible and, honestly, the short story or the novelette is the best practice for this, because there is no room for fluff and every single word has to contribute. Constraining yourself to a lesser word count forces you to think creatively and make the most of every sentence.
I had to be selective about the ideas I chose to write down.
Three, the fact that I could not write down all my ideas meant that I had to be selective about the ideas I committed to paper. I might have a dozen ideas a week. Out of those dozen ideas, I may only remember four of them by the end of the week. Out of those four, only one or two still really excite me; the rest became less interesting over time. This natural process of elimination is extremely useful. It helps me weed through the mediocre ideas to find that one idea that is so good that it still excites me even when the initial euphoria has worn off. And that’s a story worth writing.
Use the one-story rule in conjunction with other rules.
At this point in my life, I don’t always abide by the one-story rule. I now have a multiple-story strategy, with its own strengths and weaknesses. (And that’s a topic for another time.) However, sometimes I’ve had to return to the one-story rule because I need to practice my focus again.
If you’re a developing writer, I would recommend trying this rule out for a year or two. Give yourself the gift of knowing that you have actually finished what you set out to do.