I’m sitting in the waiting room at my mechanic’s, waiting to find out just what’s wrong with my car and how much it’ll cost me. Thing is — nobody knows anything just yet. Writing can be the same way. Sometimes things break down and nobody knows why.
In all my years in this crazy business, I’ve never once met another author who has not experienced the breakdown of a story at some point. Most of us have many such experiences. For every story I’ve ever published, I’ve got another bunch that never panned out because something in the story fell apart. Maybe the character didn’t turn out as interesting as I had envisioned. Maybe the plot fizzled. Maybe the whole thing was as I imagined, but some intangible quality just didn’t gel leaving the story dry and boring.
As writers, we are the mechanics of the story. We have to try to fix the broken parts. Sometimes we can tweak a little here or there, change the flow of one section or another, and all is well. Other times the damage is more extensive and we may need to replace entire parts.
I’m talking about more than just revisions. Revisions are like routine maintenance on your car. You have to do it if you want things to run at the optimum — and for writers, that can be the difference in getting published or not. What I’m talking about is emergency work. The kind of thing that is the difference between finishing the story and just having a mess on the page.
So what do you do when you know something is wrong with your story, something that might be catastrophic to the success of the tale, yet you can’t identify the problem? What do you do when you can’t tweak, change, or replace your way to a solution?
Unfortunately, the answers are not simple or easy. But then our regular readers should know by now — good writing is hard. Likewise, good writing has many approaches. For me, I employ three main strategies to try to figure out what the problem is with a troubled story.
First — Listen. I read whatever I have out loud. Just like we recommend doing with a complete draft, reading out loud a partial in trouble can often illuminate just where the problem spots are. Reading out loud forces you to approach the words with a different set of synapses. That can help you see/hear what’s really on the page as opposed to what you think is there.
Second — Butt Out of Chair. This is one of the rare times when you need to progress by not writing. You need to get away from the computer and think through what you’ve done, where you want things to go, and how you got in this pickle. It could be one of a million things and your job as a writer is to go through the story in your mind over and over until you figure it out. Take it step by step and systematically approach the material divorced from your love of the idea. Start with the characters — are they fleshed out enough or are they just “the idea” of a character? If they seem okay, go to the plot. Does it make sense? Are you making leaps of logic in order to force a specific scene in your head? If that’s okay, try the narrative voice. Is third person omniscient the best approach? What would happen if you told it from a first person POV? Keep asking yourself questions until you nail down what’s not working. Then spend more time trying to fix it in your head (and that sometimes means morphing the story into something very different from your original idea). Once that’s done, then get BIC and write.
Third — Plow Through. It sucks but sometimes you’ve just got to struggle through it, push to the end, and hope that the revision process will fix whatever is bothering you about the story. This is the least desirable solution because more often than not you’ll end up with a complete story that doesn’t work and won’t work no matter what (and isn’t publishable). If you’re lucky you’ll see the problem and have to decide whether to rewrite the whole thing (because often a small problem identified late makes for a big revision) or just scrap it. If you’re unlucky, you have a learning experience and some wasted pages.
I know you were hoping for some magic answer — just do this and all the problems will go away. As I mentioned at the start of this post, every writer goes through this. That’s the magic answer. We all deal with it. We all suffer from it. We all get ticked off at it. Even the Stephen Kings of the world struggle with it.
What makes you a writer is your willingness to tackle the problem, to not give up. Whether you like my methods or you have your own, you must keep at it until the story either works or completely blows up. That’s a big step on the path toward success.