For about 7 months now, I’ve been working on a new novel. It was coming along. That is to say, I was adding new words to it fairly regularly, and a few weeks ago I passed the 40,000 word mark. Ordinarily, this would be when I’d start thinking about buying the Prosecco. It looked like the finish line was in sight.
There was just one problem. They were the wrong words and this was the wrong finish line. Somewhere between the strong opening chapter and the last sentence, the story wandered off in the wrong direction. Several wrong directions, in fact.
Sometimes I let a story go where it wishes. I figure there’s a tale that wants to be told, and I’ll see where the narrative leads me. This time, though, I gave the story too much freedom and it just ambled about in circles like a bored racehorse.
For the past few weeks I’ve been wrestling with the certain knowledge that the story as it stands is bad. Not merely dull or uninteresting. Bad. Not all of it. The opening 2-3 chapters are good. The plot is gripping, the main character unusual, and the settings well drawn. Then I get to chapter 4 and…pee-ooh!
Not that I reached this conclusion all at once, you understand. No, I had to go through the 5 stages of grief:
- Denial. My story is NOT bad. How very dare you? It’s good. It’s fine. It’s not awful…
- Anger. How the hell could I have gone so far off the rails? What’s the matter with me? Why did the Universe treat me so mean?
- Bargaining. I’ll keep on going and maybe the Muse will take pity on me and show me a way of avoiding the dreaded rewrite. What do you say, Miss Muse? I’ll write three new short stories if you’ll show me how to fix this monster? Pleeeease!!
- Depression. Sob! I can’t write. I can’t do anything. Just pass me the chocolate and wine…
- Acceptance. So, Chapter One…
I’m being facetious, but not very. Realising that a work of fiction is just not working takes a lot of self-awareness and guts. Eventually, though, you have to accept that it’s not where it needs to be. Then you’re faced with the next problem. What to do about it?
You don’t have many choices when you’re faced with a situation like this. These are the only ones I’ve come up with:
- You can tell yourself you’re crazy and keep plodding on in hopes that you can turn manure into gold. Good luck with that.
- You can take a break. A very long break. You’ll get back to the story one of these days. You just need time to think. Did I mention I realised how pongy my story was several weeks ago?
- You can scrap the lot. Even if the concept and the characters are good, the structure is so bad you really are better off binning it and doing something else.
- You can read the manuscript and figure out when the stinkiosity began. Then fix it.
Which brings me to gumption traps.
In Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, author Robert Pirsig discusses “gumption.” This, he says, is what drives us to do something difficult or important. Without gumption, we cannot finish the job, whether the job is fixing a motorcycle, or writing a novel.
When something goes awry in our efforts to complete a task, we can lose our motivation or confidence to get the job done. That is called a “gumption trap.”
As with other things in life, how we respond to these setbacks depends on our determination and commitment. Here are some things that may help:
- Admit the problem exists. If you try to pretend otherwise, you’ll never fix it.
- Acknowledge that you’re feeling deflated. “Gumption Traps” catch all of us from time to time.
- Realise that getting out of the trap won’t be easy. The question is, how important is the task to you.
- Try to see the positive. If you’ve worked on the project and made some progress, try to celebrate the good things about it. Even if you must scrap the entire thing, you can still learn from your mistakes.
- Try to remember what attracted you to the project in the first place. If you can find something to enjoy about it, you may be able to regenerate your enthusiasm, and so escape the trap’s clutches.
- And when all else fails, take a deep breath, pull on your big girl’s pants, and get on with it. Art, like all other worthwhile endeavours, takes hard work and sacrifice.
“The obstacle is the path” — Zen saying
Once you accept the situation and see it as an opportunity to develop creatively, the depression and frustration should lift. You’ve still got a lot of hard work ahead, but this is part of the life you chose. Embrace it.
I’ll be rewriting Chapter Four if you’re looking for me.