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84. Finish What You Start

84. Finish What You Start

I’m going to end this segment with one more nugget of wisdom from writer Stephen Cannell, but before that – remember that Stephen Spielberg quote from a while back? The one that says that most modern stories are giant beginnings without a middle or end. Well, it’s true but maybe not in the way that Stephen was talking about.

We are all our own harshest critics, and most of the time the first draft of whatever it is that you’re putting together is going to be terrible. That’s why I suggest writing much more than you can ever actually use. That way, you can go back and edit it down into something that makes sense. The fact that brilliant stories don’t spring fully formed from your brow is not a problem, it makes you human, that is all.

The problem, however, is if you use that as an excuse not to finish. A half-completed story does you no good. Not only did you not learn the lessons you needed to transform it into something great, but every bit of effort you put into the process of putting it together is wasted. Not the mention the psychological ramifications of accepting that you “failed” the story.

Sometimes you need to let it go and start over, but that doesn’t mean tossing all your hard work away, it means excising the parts that work and evolving them into something better. Waste nothing.

I promised you an excerpt, so here it goes,

When I was twenty-five and writing spec scripts that weren’t selling, I was also writing a lot of unfinished manuscripts. I’d get into them and they would stink and I would become discouraged and stop… YOU GET NOTHING FROM AN UNFINISHED PROJECT, AND YOU LEARN NOTHING. I made another rule for myself; I promised I’d never again start writing something that I didn’t finish.

The very next idea I got was for a spec script for the television series Mission Impossible. I still remember the title I came up with: THE WORLD BANK IS BEING ROBBED. I thought, come on! The World Bank? How cool is that? Nobody’s done the World Bank, perfect for Mission Impossible. I started the script without fully working out my story. I got into it, and I realized that at its core, the World Bank was just a bank. Let’s face it, banks are essentially dull. I was ten pages into a caper about accountants. Ugggh. I started to throw it in the trash and do something else, when I remembered my new rule. I decided I was going to make myself finish the thing all the way to FADE OUT.

You know, there are a surprisingly large number of writers named Stephen. I wonder why? Think about that as you watch Mr. Cannell discuss what might be causing the blocks in your stories.

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