Why I Hate 1/??
by Sandra McDonald
Almost anyone can start a story. Grab a soda and some cookies, plop down in front of the computer and throw out three or four paragraphs. Slap a title on it, along with a 1/??. Post it to your favorite mailing list, cross-post it to four or five other mailing lists, and don't forget a little blackmail at the end -
"Like it? Hate it? Send me feedback and maybe I'll write more!!"
Few writers venture outdoors only half-dressed, eat partially-cooked meals or drive cars without seats in them - but some feel perfectly justified in sending out stories that have no middle or end. That insidious little 1/?? tells me a writer hasn't committed to seeing a story all the way to the end and sweating through one or two or twenty revisions. She loves to write, she wants feedback, she swears she'll finish - but she usually ends up posting parts every three or four weeks, or maybe every three or four months, because things like "real life" or "my job" or "grad school" keep getting in the way.
Real life is not a good reason to post unfinished stories, even when it's the truth. There's always an excuse not to write - classes, work, the dishes, the kids, too tired, too stressed, too busy, too whatever. Real life is also not a good reason to skip having a beta reader. Some writers claim they didn't have time to have a story proofread because their muses demanded they post their newest work immediately. This alleged Posting Muse, whimsical though she may be, is really just an excuse for laziness or for seeking out the immediate gratification the net has to offer.
Before I burn all my bridges, I want to note the difference between unfinished stories posted on an individual's web page and those sent to wide-distribution fiction lists. The former is an invitation into someone's living room to take a sneak peak at a current project such as a quilt or a painting. The latter is a writer foisting off half-baked ideas on several hundred strangers, hoping she get lots of encouragement and "inspiration to continue." Every writer I know loves glowing feedback. Some of us just seem more shameless and desperate in our attempts to get it. Whether or not that writer gets what she wants, the rest of us are faced with the electronic equivalent of Chinese water torture.
Over the years I've seen three main arguments for posting works-in-progress. The first requires hauling out the ghost of Charles Dickens - "If he did it, so can I!" Dickens also wrote to specific deadlines and word counts, and had to bow to the edicts of his publishers regarding plot, illustrations and story arcs. An author willing to abide by those restrictions can post all the WIP's she wants. The second argument is that some writers need feedback to continue. No, they want feedback. They need water, food, sleep, a keyboard or pencil, and a good imagination. Coddling someone with undeserved praise does nothing to make her a better writer. The third argument, my favorite, is that posting a work-in-progress helps a writer improve her skills by forcing her to abide by what she's already sent out. Which doesn't explain disclaimers like these:
Author's notes: In part two, I wrote that the villain spent time in jail. But I changed that now, so he never went to jail at all. In this part, he gets his revenge, but I might change that later if people don't like it. Let me know what you think!!! But I might not be able to write more for a few weeks because of real life.
Not everyone shares my standards, of course. Many fans will devour any stray paragraph that comes their way, encourage the most sporadic of writers, or even argue against the need for a work to have proper spelling or capitalization. The net is, after all, a free-wheeling marketplace of ideas where even the roughest snippet of a story might find an audience. But just because we can post anything doesn't mean we should. As writers and readers, we should encourage finished, proofread stories in our fandoms. Almost anyone can start a story, after all. Finishing it is much harder, and much more rewarding for all concerned.