Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Sabotaged by My Own Story

One of the more annoying things that can happen to you as a writer is this: realizing that the thing you’ve been working on for two months is utter crap.

Yeah, it happens sometimes.

In the best circumstances, you’ll have an idea for a story and you’ll sit down to write it and everything just clicks and it comes out pretty damn good.

In the worst circumstances, you’ll have an idea but you just can’t get it to come together right. Very frustrating, that.

I’ve just spent almost two months trying to hammer out this particular story—the second Hawthorne adventure. And two months is a LONG time to write a short piece. It shouldn’t have taken more than a few days, tops. I kept going back to it every morning, trying to make it do what I needed it to do, but the characters just kept mulling around pointlessly, the prose absolutely refused to be anything other than listless and boring. And yet I kept at it, trying to revive what was becoming increasingly more apparent as a corpse.

You notice how I'm refraining from strong language right now? Refraining, because if I start cursing and spouting obscenities I'm likely to keep doing it all day.

It was a decent idea, one that I would be loath to toss away entirely. But my execution of it was just a giant fumble from the get-go. Maybe I over-thought it. Maybe the various elements clashed too much. Or maybe it just wasn’t ready to be born yet. I don’t know. Whatever the case, it was a total disaster.

Some writers (including me, I like to think) have a sort of built-in sensor that tells them when a story isn’t working. Sometimes you won’t even know why, exactly; you’ll just feel it. And once that intuition sets in, it’s almost as if the story is DELIBERATELY keeping you from moving forward. Like it knows better and is trying to sabotage you for your own good.

So what do you do when your intuition finally has enough of you fumbling around in the dark and comes to the surface long enough to tell you to put on the brakes?

Accept it, I guess.

Put it down, move on to something else. Maybe let the idea foment for a while and come back to it later.

So that’s what I’m doing with this particular story. I’m turning it loose, letting it get its shit together. Hopefully we’ll hook up later and work things out.

If you’re one of the four or five readers anxious for the next Hawthorne adventure, don’t worry, another one is on the horizon. Just not the one I’d originally intended.

In the meantime, I have some other projects I need to get to, projects that my frustrating struggle with an obstinate story had been holding up.

Writers: what do YOU do when a story stabs you in the back and refuses to cooperate?


  1. I do the only thing you can do, set it aside. Once you shove it in a drawer, your mind is free. You can work on other projects, but if the story is worth anything, your mind will be playing around with ways to fix the problem or show you where the story needs to go instead of where you want it to go. Sometimes the characters know better than the writer :)

  2. For me, it's simple; when I read my stuff, if it doesn't flow smoothly it ain't working. Keep the premise for the story for a later effort. Throw this one out and wait a few days(weeks) before trying it again

  3. I still fumble around with an idea for a novel that I've yet to get right. Three tries so far, and I still love the idea but the execution never works out. I just keep the idea around, work on other stuff, and try again when I get an idea that I think might work for it. Someday.

  4. Heath, I set aside 100 pages of a novel I was working on 15 years ago for the same reason. It was going nowhere, the characters were just sitting around passively, and nothing was really happening. It was about a guy whose mother had kept a family secret hidden in a locked box, so when she died, he learned of its contents about the same time people were trying to kill him. Sounds like it can't miss, right? But it did.

    Until two years ago, when I was working on THE GHOSTS OF HAVANA, and I ran into a brick wall. I remembered that long-ago abandoned idea and presto! I grafted it into the current novel (same contents in the box) and I was off to the races.

    Moral of the story: a good idea never dies. It just needs time to find the proper home.

  5. It sounds you're on the right track by setting it aside. I just had to junk a new novel because my beta
    reader didn't like it. I trust her judgment that much. Thanks for sharing your frustration. I'm not alone.

    Ed Lynskey

  6. I wrote the first quarter of a fairly long and complicated thriller a few years before The Gamblers and it just wasn't working. The idea was great, the story was a grabber, but my prose just wasn't happening, so I set it aside.

    When I was in Thailand last year (about seven years after the first abortive attempt) I started writing it again and it's flowing pretty well. I'd like to think my prose caught up with the idea. That somewhere along the line I found the right rhythm and the story started telling itself.

    I think you're right to set it aside for now. When you look back on it in a few weeks or months, you'll find you know exactly how you need to tell it.

  7. Happened to me with the second Lowell Sweeney story. It was good in my head, but it just wasn't good on paper. Flat, unoriginal...all that jazz. For shorts especially, it works or it doesn't. I was working for a story for a now secret project this month. Worked on a 3000 words piece I ended up finding execrable and wrote another 2700 words one, who was very different, but satisfying.

    Anyway. All of that to say I feel your pain.

  8. I guess this is the blocks a writer has. I read the other comments and they all make sense, right. I think your next will be great. I look forward to it.