The Finish Line
I was an out-of-shape ninth grader when I joined the track team. Somehow I got the idea I would enjoy running even though I NEVER had (especially in junior high, where my mile times were in the high 9’s).
I lacked any power off the line, so I figured I would run a few laps. I was never competitive in the event I chose—the 800m. My best was a 2.16 (though it might have been 2.14). After training for the 800m that first season, I began to like running—particularly distances. This joy compelled me to join the cross country team the following year. I broke the 20-minute mark once.
Winning was never the point for me—like I had an option; rather, I ran because I enjoyed the feeling…once I got in shape. At some point, during all that training (the miles and miles up and down hills, on sidewalks and on dirt paths snaking through the junior college by my high school) I didn’t get good, I got comfortable. Knocking out a five mile run—coasting, at a comfortable, 7-minute mile pace—became fun because my body hit a comfortable plateau that let me know I’d hit my comfortable stride. This is how I knew I was in shape; it wasn’t something I could describe, it wasn’t something the mirror could confirm—though what I saw helped, but that was only part of the story, the surface elements.
I gave up running my senior year of high school, but as I went on to college and began writing, I felt like I was training all over again. Writing teachers—either in my composition or creative writing courses—assigned papers/stories and I did my best. Though, in the beginning, I never knew when the work was done. I could tell when I hit the page minimum, but I never knew if it was any good until I received my grade. And then, after practicing and reading and writing and reading and workshopping, I found a zone in which I felt comfortable. I learned to see when my work was good enough to show to people. This has never meant that the piece was perfect, the best thing ever, or earth shattering. It meant that the story I had imagined, or what evolved onto the page, felt right and true.
The truth is, when it comes to writing, you can never know when a story is truly finished; all you can know is when it feels done. This feeling is something you have to learn to feel—it can’t be taught. Just like being in love or knowing when your hunger has been satisfied, you just know it when you feel it.
Sure, there are checks you can use on your work. First, you must read your work out loud. Doing this allows you to hear your work and catch errors your eyes will gloss over. (Running spell check is also helpful.) Another good tool is taking a hard copy of the story and going paragraph by paragraph, making a note next to each, and describing what is happening in the margin. This allows you to see a compressed version of your story’s progression. Are there places where you double up on ideas? Cut one. Is one section merely repeating the tension/problem from a previous one (without adding something new)? Time to cut. The dialogue sounds crisp, and rolls right off the tongue. Does something nag at you about the way a character enters or exits a scene?
If you can’t put your finger on it, set the piece down and return with fresh eyes later. Your instincts are telling you something your conscious mind hasn’t located yet. Don’t ignore these hints. In your margin notes, can you tell why something happens? Is it clear why a character feels the way he or she does? Has this been SHOWN? If not, you’ve found a hole that needs addressing.
Your story may never be air tight—and perhaps it never should. Something things will be left unsaid, some character motivations murky, some plot points unresolved. There’s a lot to be said for ambiguity. However, this should feel intentional, not unclear. You will have to figure out how and if your work can and should handle this.
At the end of the day, I know when I’m done with a story when I have revised and revised, read it out loud a few times, made my notes, and in the final pass, the words feel right, the narrative moves feel good, and the tone is appropriate. By the story’s end, I haven’t felt the need to pick up my pencil once. That’s when I knew it’s as finished as it’s going to be.