Sometimes, no matter how much you want it, a story just doesn’t work
Just over a year ago I ordered these shoes (points at picture) from Tigerbeat Republic. They were the most awesome shoes; environmentally friendly; so light it was like you weren’t wearing shoes at all; and cute enough to pass for dressy. I mean, I have worn Doc Martens to pretty much every place I have ever worked on the grounds they are comfy, so ‘dressy’ isn’t a make or break factor for me usually — but it was nice!
I wore them non-stop for a week, then I tripped over my own foot (it happens), and the straps tore completely out of the foam sole. The most painful part was that I loved them so much, but they were unsalvageable and, honestly, I am clumsy enough that if they couldn’t survive a mild trip it didn’t make sense to buy a new pair.
That is – taking into account some artistic license – situation I found myself in with a short story I was working on this week. I loved the concept, I loved the characters, I loved writing them – but the minute I tried to squash them into the constraints of this story they all sorta fell apart. No matter how much I loved it or poked it, eventually I had to accept that it didn’t make sense to invest any more time in this particular story.
And, man, that’s hard. It is even harder than admitting I am too much of a klutz for cute sandals! So I thought I would have a chat about how I work out if a story isn’t working.
Now, ‘it’s not you, it’s me’ might be one of the most loathed of break-up tropes, but in deciding if I am keeping a story on life support it is a good notion to check. Is there something perniciously wrong with the story and that is why I am having trouble writing it: characters I don’t actually like, a plot that is trite, the niggling notion that it might be a bit problematic if I actually looked at it harder? Maybe just that what I’m trying to write is the wrong format for the story I want to tell.
Or it could be down to me. I might be having a bad week, feeling pressured by a deadline, or just having a raging outbreak of imposter syndrome (never mind ‘I can’t believe people think I am a writer’, some days I can’t believe people think I am capable of adulting in society). Am I self-sabotaging on a perfectly good story, in other words.
If it is me, then I can use cryogenics to extend a story’s lifespan. I stick the ailing wee beastie in a drawer (a digital drawer these days, although I know one author who swore by actually printing out and freezing her manuscripts as a sort of psychological shortcut), and come back to it at another time. It can be as simple as a change in the seasons making me more amenable to the mood of the story, or space giving my brain enough time to go ‘well, this tweak would fix the thing!’, but a story that was like carving words out of a block of salt with my finger-bones last time I looked at it can become the easiest thing in the world to write when I go back to it ‘later’ (however, long ‘later’ turns out to be).
On the other hand, if the story is flatlining, sometimes I just have to bite the bullet and pull the plug on it. It hurts, but in the long run I can’t invest so much of my time in a story that it becomes negative equity. Sometimes, no matter how good it looks in my head, a story just dies.
That isn’t the end though. I am a keen recycler, and once an appropriate mourning period has passed I will stripmine the dead story for parts. Not always, sometimes. If the whole thing was just a bad, bad idea, that bugger just needs to be buried in a lead coffin to stop it contaminating other stories. Usually, though, I can get bits out of it: a character I like, turns of phrase that are good, odds and bods of research I can use for other stories.
In the case of the Dead Story that I said goodbye to this week? It started out as a short story, but the characters were too good for a once and done excursion. I have all the backstory for the characters worked out in my head, ideas for other stories that they want to appear in, and basically they needed a book not a short story. I couldn’t fit enough into a short story, and I was also holding back on some great wee character notes because ‘no, I need that for the book if I write it’. So the short has been mothballed, and I have an outline for a novel that I want to work in once I finish the ones I am working on!
There you have it, the life and death of an unnamed (I suck at titles, suck hard!) short story.
Oh, and by the way, check out my awesome cover! I just got it back from Anne Cain this week, and I am sooooo chuffed with it. I like to think of it as an early birthday present (which is next month!).