When It’s Not Quite There

This won’t be terribly original, I fear. If there’s one thing even more true than the complaints that all stories have been done before and that it’s really difficult to come up with a story idea, it’s that it can be – in fact, it mostly is – really difficult to translate the story from your mind to the page and be happy with the way it turns out.

All three of these whinges could be quite neatly placed under the heading: Writing Is Hard. And perhaps I could conclude my comments there, because, as I said, none of these points is new and it’s a sin to write boringly if one can avoid it. So I shall attempt to write interestingly about a subject that has been dealt with by others with more insight and facility with language and indeed more learning than I could ever hope to have.

The best place to begin is with a recent piece I wrote. I almost wrote “recently finished” but you never really finish, do you? Some things will remain unfinished, with the literary equivalent of a painter adding a tiny stroke every time she walks into a room and sees a certain canvass leaning against the wall. Some painters make small ‘corrections’ even when a work is hanging, sometimes even in a museum, which now owns the painting. It can be difficult to know when a story is finished, and perhaps some seem more complete and whole when the major architecture of the writing is done than others. What I mean is that we will always have to edit – to rewrite the thing so that it flows better, and correct mistakes of spelling and grammar and fact, and in this process it is often the case that when you think this kind of superficial editing is over it really isn’t and you should go over it a few more times. There’s always something which should be altered. Well, almost always. There will often be a sentence of paragraph which has been written one way and you decide it should be changed and so you change it, and then a little later you change it back. This to and fro can keep going and the best solution can sometimes be to remove the whole section.

Sometimes you get the point where you have smartened up the piece as much as you can – and I always think of the phrase “You can’t polish a turd”, when it comes to my own work – and there is still something wrong. In such cases the problem is more of a structural one or is in some other way more serious than the placement of a comma. In my experience – and this is all about my experience – you usually get to a point where you become relatively happy with a story, where you decide that what you have done has weaknesses and is not an example of first rate writing, but it is very good and within the limitations of your skills and experience it is somewhere near the best you could do. The next story you write will be better, you think, but this one is alright. On other occasions though it doesn’t work and you don’t really know why. The problem is with the logic of the thing, the structure of the plot, the voice, or maybe the tense. It can be made better. It can be made better if it is subjected to radical surgery, which may involve breaking it up into little pieces and putting it back together in a new order or it may need an entire section added or removed. Sometimes you need to cut out the beginning. Sometimes what you have is a story without a beginning. Sometimes what you have written is a sort of preamble to the real story– the interesting story that you should write – and what you should do is pick up from where you left off and write what happens next to the protagonist. (It can even be that you’ve got the wrong protagonist and you should have focused on a different character.)

Working out what to do can be tricky and the writer who has just ‘finished’ might not always be best placed to know what to do. Some people suggest putting the story away for a day or a few days and coming back to it. Returning to a story which isn’t quite right with a fresh mind can be exactly what the problem needs, and the solution to the problem can be a more creative one when you aren’t locked into the rhythms of the prose and the flow of thoughts you were trying to get down onto the page as you were writing any more.

This recent story has a number of problems. Basically an idea occurred to me, and it seemed like it could make a good story, but I’m not sure if it really will or if I’m just not the writer to tell it. The structure is in three parts and it’s about a character getting what they think they want and then that kind of backfires and the recriminations or results which flow from there. The first part is the set up, and although it’s far from perfect – there’s some description which isn’t really necessary but I kept it in as I like it – it’s the best part, I think. Then the second part, where the good thing which turns bad happens, is almost perfunctory, as if I became bored with writing it, which I sort of did in a way. Perhaps it was more that I didn’t see how I could convey these events in only a few paragraphs, and may have even doubted whether I could have conveyed them at all, and so you have a section with no action which follows a section with some superfluous description. The last section was supposed to be brief and feature a conversation with only a few comments by the two main characters. Now something didn’t quite work with this section and it seemed to be necessary to keep writing and adding things until the conversation ended up being about twice as long as it needed to be, and almost a little bit funny (well, wry perhaps), when that wasn’t the original intention, and the result is that something which was intended to have a few things implied now has them explained and it doesn’t really work either.

In fact, the whole thing doesn’t really work. I wonder whether the original idea was actually any good now. And I wonder again whether I am capable of making a story from an idea and putting it on a page, and I know I am but, well, it does make you ask questions of yourself.

Not sure what to do next, but there will be more editing and thinking after I’ve let the thing rest for a while. Laetitia has read it and she has some thoughts, which I am looking forward to hearing, as her critical faculties are very fine indeed. There mostly won’t be one solution, in these cases, as you can do a range of things which can help or perhaps nothing will help if it’s beyond saving, and it is comforting to know that leaving it, forgetting about it (almost), is quite permissible and can be the best thing to do.

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Published in: on January 21, 2014 at 7:35 pm  Leave a Comment  
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