Journal, Publishing/Editing, Writing

When Do You Know a Story is Dead?

trashed_pagesI have this story. I’ve been rewriting it from scratch since last February. From scratch. I think I’ve come close to four or five total drafts of this story.

I’ve changed POV. I’ve tried different tenses. I’ve added characters. I’ve altered the plot in major ways. I’ve started it in different places, hoping to find something more effective.

I love the core idea, but it’s Just. Not. Working. And I have no idea why, which is the most frustrating part. I’m beginning to get the feeling that it’s me–that I’m lacking some specific tool set to help me overcome the invisible wall that continues to block this story. It’s not that I can’t get a rough draft. I’ve written several at this stage, but each one has major problems I can *feel* in a vague, intuitive way without being able to specifically identify them.

I’ve talked before about the stages of mastery, and right now I’m sunk deep in that second, infuriating stage: Conscious Incompetence. I know it’s not working. I know I need to do something to fix it. But I’m at a complete loss to identify why it’s failing so badly.

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Rawr.

So how do you know when it’s time to give up on a story? How do you know when the sheer amount of time put into a story surpasses the worth of the output? Chances are, it may take a while before I figure out what I’m doing so wrong on this one. I suspect it has something to do with the plot arch, but I have no idea how to make it better. It could also have to do with the dynamic of the two primary characters, and the complicated backstories for both. I at least managed to introduce a stronger speculative element in the last reworking, so that should make it more marketable once I can fix the rest of it, but everything else is such a tremendous mess, I’m not even sure where the path to the correct version begins. Each time I think I’ve got it, it implodes again.

I stall out in situations like this because I really believe in the mantra “Finish one thing before starting another,” particularly in application to writing fiction (and when creative time is so limited). It’s too easy to start a dozen projects and never get around to finishing any of them. But this seems like an exception to the rule. If you’ve worked and worked and worked at a piece, and it’s simply NOT WORKING, and no amount of forcing oneself to finish yet another draft is going to fix the issue without a major epiphany, is it better to soldier on or cut the failing story loose so you can hopefully move on to another project (and perhaps someday in the future, figure out what’s really wrong with this one)?

The Catch-22 of this situation is the author’s self-perception. Is the story *actually* failing as badly as I feel it is? Or am I being hypercritical? If it’s me being hypercritical, what’s to stop me from hitting this wall on every story I get down?

My only consolation is that I *don’t* hit this wall on every story. I’ve had plenty of stories that I had to work on a while until I was happy with them, as well as the rare (but lovely) scenario when a story has practically written itself. I only occasionally hit a wall like this that simply won’t go away.

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At first, I thought I’d re-read it again, see if some forward momentum could get me through this current draft, but then I started thinking about it. Even if I finish this rough draft (which I would have to force, at this point, because it’s got a major logic fault-line through the center of it which I still don’t know how to fix with editing), it’s just another in a long line of failed rewrites. Maybe this isn’t a story I’m capable of telling at this point. Maybe I’m not quite ready. It doesn’t mean I won’t be able to fix it someday in the future, if the solution presents itself, but I have a feeling that there are some fundamental things I need to learn first. Hopefully, once I learn them, I’ll be able to resurrect this story.

Until then, I’m going to call it: Time of death is 10:21AM.

Journal

Learning to Trust the Process

I had something of a revelation today. In the course of wasting time (AKA avoiding writing), I found a link on my Facebook feed to a blog post by speculative author Jamie Todd Rubin. He’s spent the past year documenting his writing stats via a very smart Google analytics tool, which allowed him to write a post detailing the idea-to-publication path of one of his short stories. You can read the entire post here

I’ve always been interested in the various ways authors approach creating fiction, and particularly how they edit a draft to the point of being ready to submit it to markets. Mr. Rubin’s post details his entire process, from first concept to final sale (though even he admits the sale part was something of a fluke in its expediency, but still!). 

The thing that really caught me and has stuck with me all day, however, is that his process is almost identical to mine in the following ways: 1) Ideas tend to take a while to develop into something I can tackle on paper, 2) In the rewriting process, I also like to retype entire manuscripts from scratch in new documents to preserve “continuity,” and 3) I also save almost every scrap of text I cut out of a document (particularly when it comes to longer works, but sometimes for short works too). 

I think this made a particular impression on me because here is a living, breathing example of someone whose process is very similar to the one I’ve scraped together over the years, and who has found some good success with it. This is not to say that my ideas are as good as his, or even that I’m anywhere near the craft-level that he is, but I’m delighted that the process itself isn’t unique to me. I often think too much about how I go about composing fiction and whether or not I’m “doing it wrong” (whatever that means) or wasting needless time. Because I’m still such a newbie at it, it’s hard to separate whether or not it’s my idea or the process that hangs me up when a story isn’t working/isn’t getting finished. Should I draft faster? Should I spend the time to retype the whole draft while I edit, or is that just spinning my procrastination wheels? And so forth, and so on. 

I’ve tried numerous other processes throughout my writing apprenticeship, but none have felt as native to me as taking my time to let ideas percolate and then redrafting by retyping every sentence for a new draft. The anxiety that comes from trying to figure out what works and what doesn’t for me as a writer can just as easily hang me up as a bad plot point. I’m hell-bent on efficiency and productivity (probably too much), and because of that, I don’t think I’ve trusted my gut enough to “Trust the Process” as I’ve read in so many books on writing. Which process? Is there a better one? How can I tell? 

Reading Mr. Rubin’s blog post has, oddly enough, relieved me of some of that burden and left me feeling a bit more confident. The process that I naturally gravitate towards does work, at least for some successful writers. I don’t have to worry that I’m accidentally stifling myself by producing fiction in this way, or that I’m “not good enough” because when I get an idea, I have to let it percolate for a while before doing something with it. The process is functional, which means I can let go of that stressor and focus on what really matters: the writing and the ideas and the craft. It’s strangely liberating. 

Now whether my noveling process is functional or not is another question entirely, but not a concern for today! :) 

Journal

Day 21 – Think, Think, Think

Over the past few years, I’ve had the opportunity to watch something of a pattern in my creative life unfold: I appear to cycle through times of editing/submitting and times of drafting new work. 

I believe it all started in college when I attempted what my mother (also an aspiring writer) and I both called a “Chekhov Year” in which we tried to write one new short story a week. These weren’t polished stories, as Chekhov would have written in his suggestion to his brother to write a minimum of a short story a week. My no! These were ratty, crazy, usually whipped-off on Friday afternoon in a panic kind of stories. Overall, I managed to write 46 short stories (or mangled corpses of short stories) in that single year, and I have to credit that attempt with teaching me a huge amount of what it means to both conceive-of and then execute a short story. Of those stories I wrote, one was “Mimicry” which eventually saw publication in Leading Edge Magazine (the second story I wrote that year). There are others still kicking around in my tub o’ fiction that contain ideas worth revisiting, even if the writing wasn’t up to snuff that week. The biggest lesson I learned, however, was that I could come up with ideas at the drop of a hat. They weren’t always good ideas, but clearing out the crappy ideas also opened up whole new realms of awesome ideas that I otherwise wouldn’t have gotten around to thinking about. It was something like a creative mental purge–get all those crusty, dusty story ideas that have been clogging up the creative pipes out on paper, and see what’s lurking behind them. It was liberating, and exciting. Over that year I developed a much better grip on how to think about a story before I wrote it so that I could make sure it didn’t automatically devolve into a novellette or novella (as previously they had been prone to do). I learned how to pare down a story at it’s seedling-level before I even put a word on paper so that I knew I was writing a short story and not biting off too much for one week.

The trick with writing so many short story drafts is that they’re still–at the end of the year–drafts. They’re not ready to be submitted, they’re barely ready to be read by beta readers. They’re scruffy messes, and they need dedicated time and care to fix.

Lately, I’ve been in an editing kick. The last two years, I’ve done very well writing new words every day and pounding out a lot of drafts of short stories and longer works. Problem is? I haven’t spent almost any of that time editing. I’m not as confident approaching edits. I’m not as experienced in fixing problems I see in my work. But lately, I’ve been feeling the submission itch. Wanting to submit has driven a number of rough drafts to my attention that with some work might be worth polishing up. I spoke about this earlier when I decided to drop the one-new, one-edit per week plan late last month, but it does seem that at least at this point in time, I can either edit short fiction or I can write it, but I can’t do both simultaneously on different projects.

It’s made me think about my mother’s comment a few years ago that I seem to go in cycles: writing lots of new work, and then spending a lot of time going back to those previously written works to fix them up and get them submitted. Who knows if this’ll be my process for the long-run, but I’m trying to let the writing take its own course on this, and see what happens. 

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ImageEDITING PROJECT: Ghosts and legends and Bluebeard, oh my! The cold Maine coastline! Haunted grounds! Ribbons and bitter, ghostly wives! Dueling secrets! True love? Perhaps!

Current Editing Project: Nobody Here But Us Monsters (Revision Edit–2nd Pass)
Accomplished in Edits: “Think, think, think.” So I finished the full rewrite on this a couple of weeks ago, so it’s time now to revisit and try to whip it into submittable shape. The verdict as of today: Oof. There’s going to be a lot of work to do. Spent most of my writing time today re-reading what I rewrote before and trying to wrap my head around even the most basic tasks at hand for this one. This is what I’ve come up with so far:

1) I’d like to pare it down to around 5,600 (currently at 7,400), which is about a quarter shorter. It’s pretty verbose, though, so I’m not anticipating too much challenge on that part. 

2) I’d like to go through with Jim Butcher’s Scenes and Sequels checklist and see if this story adheres to that, at least on a rudimentary level. I feel like this might be a useful exercise anyway, and it might reveal some of the problem spots I can feel lurking there, but just can’t quite visualize. 

3) DONE!I wanted to go through and check the word-count per scene, and take a look at the 25/50/25 split between what would be considered Act One, Act Two, and Act Three.–At the moment, the tail end is a bit heavy, and the middle isn’t maybe as weighted as it could be. Ideally, it’ll split closer (though likely not exactly) 1400/2800/1400, and I’m not too far off from being able to achieve that, especially once I pare the whole thing down a little. 

So some good thinking progress, but it’s always a bit daunting at this early stage when it seems like *everything* is a little bit wrong, and so few things seem even a little bit right. Joy, joy, joy. :)