In genre fiction, many stories don’t end happily ever after.
Some stories don’t end at all.
A couple of weeks ago, while cleaning up the mess of papers on the pull-out shelf on my desk, I discovered the submission guidelines for an anthology that had slipped my mind. The deadline was only a week hence, so I tossed the sheet of paper into the recycle bin and shrugged.
The next morning, while I was mowing the lawn—one of those activities that sets the mind free to ruminate on this, that and the other—a scenario began to develop in my head. I saw someone fleeing a city to escape a scourge. His flight wasn’t random: he was drawn ineluctably toward the rural region where he had grown up. I could see that much clearly.
After I finished my chores, I went inside, snatched the guidelines from the bin, put them on the sideboard, opened Word and started to write. I managed about 1500 words that afternoon, which is a decent achievement for any day. The words came easily as I measured out the man’s progress through the near-desolate countryside. However, in the back of my mind, I knew that, while I was putting this guy through the hoops of forward motion, there wasn’t much energy in the story. There was a little suspense and conflict from time to time, tense moments, but I had no idea what was going to happen when he reached his destination. It’s not a great place to break off when working on a story: at a point with little real momentum.
The next day, a mere five days before the deadline for submissions, I went to work with a sense of dread. I still didn’t know what was going to happen when he got “home,” so I spent the session rewriting what I’d put down the day before. That’s one of my favorite stalling tactics. I’m getting work done, I can tell myself; however, especially with a deadline looming, this wasn’t the kind of work I should be doing. The story felt leaden.
In the wee small hours before the alarm went off the following morning, my mind went to work. What it developed didn’t exactly push the story forward. Instead it gave me a different take on the tale. One that I liked a lot. It was going to be a challenge to pull it off (it was one of those situations where you have to hide a key piece of information from the reader without making it seem like you’re cheating), but I felt up to it. I scrapped everything I’d already written (and, let me tell you, that isn’t an easy thing to do) and started afresh.
It was harder work, because I had to pick my words especially carefully, but I got nearly 1000 words down that morning, and another 5-600 words the following day.
If you’ve been keeping track, then you can see how quickly the deadline was zooming at me. Panic set in.
And the story died.
Despite my enthusiasm for the new approach, the story still felt leaden and aimless. I even had an idea of how it would end, but I didn’t think I could do it justice in the small amount of time remaining. So I threw the guidelines back in the recycle bin and surrendered.
I had already given up on the anthology once, I told myself, so no big deal. And yet it felt like a kind of failure. The story’s still there, waiting to be told, and maybe I’ll go back to it some day, but for the time being this particular once upon a time had no happily (or unhappily) ever ending.