A little over a week ago I finished writing a new short story. The response of my Beta readers was a uniform, “Wow! This is perfect… best thing you’ve written… doesn’t sound like you…”
I’m trying not to read too much into the juxtaposition of the second and third comments. I know it’s not so much that the narration doesn’t sound like me, but that I nailed the three different narrative voices perfectly.
I knew when I was writing it that this was a very strong, very unusual piece for me. The structure, setting, and tale were outside, way outside my comfort zone. The story completely obsessed me. It visited me in my dreams, and during the day, it nuzzled my ear when I was trying to do other things. In other words, it was exactly what you’d wish you could experience with all your stories. Writing as a Zen experience. Ohmm…
Why can’t it always be like that? Most of the time, I have to cajole and coax a story out of my psyche. It ignores me like a huffy teenager. Even when it does finally show up there’s no guarantee it will turn into something, you know, good.
While I was left dizzy from spending a couple of weeks breathing such rarefied air, I thought I’d revisit some older pieces that have been lying dormant for a long time. I found twelve stories in various stages of putrefaction. At least, that was my first impression.
The thing is, it’s likely that some of those stories are viable. With a little time and focus I should be able to turn them into decent, publishable pieces. About half of them, though, probably aren’t going anywhere.
This raises some questions that have been puzzling me for a long time:
- Why do some stories fail to thrive?
- How can you tell if a story is dead and not merely sleeping?
- How can you do CPR on a story that is still salvageable?
WHY DO SOME STORIES FAIL TO THRIVE?
I suspect there are several answers to this. Here’s what I’ve observed from my own sickly tales:
Nearly-perfect isn’t good enough
You may have been attracted to just one or two aspects of the story. For instance, you love the main character, but the plot, voice, setting, etc. just don’t engage you. For me, it’s usually the scenario that gets me all excited. I can’t wait to explore it. For instance, what would happen if someone found Sherlock Holmes’s secret files. The possibilities are endless. Of course, a scenario isn’t a story, it’s just the spark.You have to populate your tale with characters who intrigue you (note, that doesn’t mean you must like them. Some of the most compelling characters in literature have been unlikable.) Place them in settings that are rich and identifiable. Develop the scenario into an original plot, and tell the tale in an authentic voice. If you get all these elements right, you’ll almost certainly end up with a potent story. Fail on any of them, though, and your story may not work so well.
When you’re still a new writer, it can be very difficult to determine why the story isn’t working. It takes experience and a great deal of dispassion to be able to say, “This tale fails because…” One positive thing though: If you can leave your story aside for a couple of years, I guarantee you’ll be better able to see the flaws when you return to the piece. What’s more, you’ll gain great insight into the strengths and weaknesses of your work. You’ll find yourself chuckling at the jokes, sympathizing with the hero, and tutting at your clunky phrases. Of course, the insight very much depends on how much you’ve grown as a writer since you finished the piece. If you’ve done little or nothing, you may not be able to see the flaws. But if you’ve been working diligently at your art, you’ll discover how much you’ve learned over the past years or months.
The Re-Fried Tale
You can refry beans and they’re delish, but stories… not so much. Sometimes when you revisit your sickly stories, you’ll realise they are trite, hackneyed and predictable.
Many of my early tales were highly derivative. They were versions of TV episodes I’d watched or the books I’d read. At the time, I told myself I was putting my own stamp on them, but in retrospect I realised I was just kidding myself. One of their biggest problems was those stories weren’t ‘me’ enough.
One of the things you hear again and again in writing classes is that you must develop your own voice. In my early days, I thought that was useless advice. How could I develop something when I didn’t know what it was. I taught myself to pay attention to how other writers speak in their prose. No one would mistake Dickens for Austen, or Fitzgerald from Hemingway. They all sound uniquely themselves. Once I stopped copying other people’s ideas and started to work on things that moved me, that came from my own experience, the voice came.
Rehashed tales aren’t sleeping. They’re not even dead, really. They’re malformed clones, dripping bits of protoplasm wherever they go.
The Fatally-Wounded Tale
Be very, very careful about how soon you let other people read your work. An overwhelmingly critical response can destroy all your enthusiasm for a story. Ironically, this is more likely to happen with the stories you’re most enthusiastic about. You’ve written a first draft and you can’t wait for people to read it. It’s brilliant! OK, not quite brilliant yet, but it will be. You want others to see its potential and fan the flames of your ardour. Instead you get a politely phrased “Pee-ooh!”
Now, you may be able to shake off such a response and get back to work on the second draft. If you are resolute and your conviction hasn’t been at all shaken by the ice that’s now dripping off your pages, you may well end up with the story you envisioned from the outset.
Then again, such a response may well send your story to the ICU. It may well stay there for years. It may never recover.
What can you do? Well, set it aside for a long time and, when you’re ready, rework a small part of it. The opening chapter, perhaps. Make it as strong as you can. Then have a different reader look at it. If they also think it’s rubbish, pull the plug, call the undertaker, and accept the bad news.
However, if the story is as good as you originally thought, it’s entirely likely that your second reader will love the revised piece. Enthusiasm is contagious and this may be all you need to resuscitate the tale.
Don’t forget the important lesson: NEVER let anyone see a story before it’s ready.
You weren’t ready yet
Perhaps the story had merit, but you weren’t in the right place to write it. Perhaps your talent hadn’t developed enough for you to manage the complexity of so challenging a piece. Or maybe the theme of loss and heartbreak was too close because you’d just suffered a bereavement or ended a long-term relationship. It may be years before you’re ready to face those themes.
It’s OK to set the story aside until you are ready. You may return to one of those early stories of pain and find yourself lacerated again by your own words. That’s a good thing. I know it may not feel like it, but if the story is strong enough to still hurt, it’s still alive. If you can face the heartache of confronting those wounds again and take another pass at the tale, you may produce something extraordinary.
HOW CAN YOU TELL IF A STORY IS DEAD AND NOT MERELY SLEEPING?
It’s dead if…
- You just can’t bear to look at it. It makes you cringe to think you ever wrote anything that bad. This puppy isn’t going anywhere. Send it to the graveyard of dead tales and move on.
- It reminds you of a dozen other things you’ve read. It’s generic and predictable. Maybe you could revise it, but the amount of effort just isn’t worth it.
- You’ve had it in your files for five years or more and you’ve never been able to fix the problems or come up with a strong ending.
- You recently wrote a piece very similar and far superior. In other words, you’ve exorcised that particular thematic demon. Time to bury it.
- HOWEVER, don’t mistake repeated rejections for a story failure. Just because a story hasn’t been published doesn’t mean it’s bad (or dead). Perhaps you haven’t been submitting to the right market. Maybe you’re thinking of the tale as literary when it’s really horror. New markets appear every day. If the story is good and if you’re persistent, you’ll find a home for it eventually.
It may still have a pulse…
- If despite everything you can’t bring yourself to let a story go, perhaps it still has possibilities. Don’t mistake sentimental attachment for viability, though. You have to be tough. Art is about moving forward, not remaining entrenched in the past.
- If you can, diagnose the problem(s). Examine the theme, the characters, the plot and the voice. Try to identify out what is working and what isn’t. If there’s more right with it than what’s wrong, you may be able to save it. You’ll still need to do some major surgery and excise the flaws, but it will be worth it.
- If you still like the story but can’t figure out what’s wrong with it, ask your Beta readers to take a look. Second opinions are always helpful.
RESURRECTING THE NOT-QUITE DEAD TALE
If you are committed to saving the story here are some treatments that may help:
- Ask yourself where you are in the story. If you don’t identify with any of the characters, if the hero is more John Wayne or Helen Mirren than you, perhaps you should wonder why that is. Try to put something of yourself in every story. Your passions, your interests. YOU, the writer, are the most important aspect of anything you will ever write. Shame on anyone who tries to tell you otherwise.
- Ring out the changes: Try to rewrite the piece from a different point of view. Change the protagonist. Change the setting. Change the voice. Yes, it’s a lot of work, but if the story has merit, the effort will be worth it, right?
- Alter the genre. If it’s a mystery, try it as a literary piece. If it’s literary, make it a ghost story, or a suspense. Even if none of these things work, you’ll have made an effort at saving the story, and you’ll have learned a lot in the process.
- Rework the ending. If it’s ambiguous, make in concrete. If it’s sad, make it happy.
- When all else fails, consider attending a writing class or paying an expert for their feedback. These things will break you out of your writing rut and may elevate you to a creative level you never thought you could reach.