Writing — When Things Go Wrong

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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.

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8 comments to Writing — When Things Go Wrong

  • Yeah, I tend to read it aloud and then walk around, pacing back and forth. I’ll go to the thinking room (bathroom…the place where many find they can think…). I talk to myself…out loud…and sort of answer myself. Yeah, it’s strange. My daughter used to ask me if I was talking to her and I had to explain that I was talking to myself and it helps me work out a problem. Now she hears me and asks me if I’m trying to think of something again.

    I think if I was doing it in mixed company I might get visited by people in white coats. 😉

    Reading it aloud to someone else, or having someone you trust read it can help too. Sometimes an outside perspective can see the sticky spot that you missed.

  • Young_Writer

    I hate when things go wrong and you have to go through and fix every little detail. That’s the worst part of editing.
    My thinking place is in the woods near my house. I’ll bike up- with my pack full of pens and my notebook. I treck through bushes until I get to my cozy little clearing. Plot ideas and entire novel ideas alike find their way into my head. It’s actaully the setting from one of my my urban fantasy novel.

  • Daniel — After much consideration over the years, I’ve determined that the reason a lot of people would think writers are crazy if they were to see what we do is because, quite simply, we are crazy. So rest assured that should you ever be carted off by men in white coats, chances are either a) one of us will shortly join you, or b) you’ll meet a fellow writer already in there.

    YW — The fact that you are already biking around with notebooks and pens shows me you’ve got the right attitude toward all this. Most writers carry some sort of notepad everywhere. You just never know when the ideas will come. Having a special place for thinking is wonderful. Soak it up as long as you can.

  • Good post, Stuart. I’d like to add a fourth thing to your list, if you don’t mind. And that would be this: check with a trusted friend. Sometime we get so lost in our story that we can’t see it objectively. Okay, okay, frequently we can’t see it objectively. We know what we meant, but it’s harder to know what actually came out. That’s when a friend can really come in handy. Whether they are a writer or a reader (readers are often better), they will see things we can’t. Don’t over-do it, but when things really bog down, Stuart’s butt-out-of-chair might be the first step to phone-in-hand.

  • Wow, that’s a lot of italics…

    oops

  • All right, too weird. I just went out to dinner with my younger daughter, and when we came out of the restaurant we discovered that my car had been hit in the parking lot. So I’ll be the guy in the service station soon….

    Excellent post — and you’re right: I think I’ve had at least some problem, minor or major, with everything I’ve ever written. It’s just part of the process. Nothing works perfectly the first time through. I would add to this list of possible solutions, Retrace Your Steps: Sometimes you can find the problem that got you off track by going back through your major plot and character development points. I’ll often find that one small decision can have huge, and at times damaging, ramifications for all that comes after. Retracing my steps from narrative marker to narrative marker can help me find that point where things turned sour.

  • Ed and David — good additional points, both of you. Since this really is a universal problem among writers, I suspect the list of ways to deal with it is enormous. And David, sorry to hear about your car. I had a blown head gasket, so hopefully, your cost will work out to only a fraction of my bill. If only the damage had been a tad worse, I would’ve scrapped the car and bought a new one (mine is 15 years old). But as expensive as it is, I just can’t justify the switch. However, if my book sells for the gazillion dollars I keep hearing that writers make, I’ll be all set! :)

  • Stuart, sorry so late in posting a comment — I’ve been away from the desk this week. But my 2 cents go for the Butt Out Of Chair. It’s what I do. But to clear my brain and let me see things … er … clearly, I have to stay busy while I’m out of the writing seat.

    I cook. I clean. I dust. I steam the floors. I vacuum the house, the RV, the truck. I groom the dogs. I clean out my closet and rearrange it. I transplant plants. I garden. I paint walls. Not all of these every time, of course, or my home would be an organized, clean place. It isn’t. But I do as many as I need to allow the brain to unclog and start to function. It’s as if all the physical organization rearranges something in my brain and when I get back to the writing problem, I can finally see it and correct it.

    If anyone wants to try this method, I offer my house and cleaning supplies. Really. I’m generous that way. :)