Fix Bad Stories by Getting Rid of Yourself

I’m one of those writers who scribbles before going into the office each day. The sort you read about, who suddenly make it big and has this wonderful tale to tell about struggling and fighting for their art. Someday, maybe that will be me, but today I’m still the weird guy who spends too much time locked up in a room by himself.

Wouldn’t it be stranger if I spent lots of time locked up in a room with someone else?

The theory is, if I work alone long enough I’ll eventually come up with a really great story. I’ll let you know if and when I get there, but in the meantime, let’s talk about bad stories and what we learn from writing them.

You are the one you love

One secret to uncovering a bad story is to look for yourself between the lines.

Having written some pretty dreadful stories, I can say with some confidence that the worst stories are the ones you love the most. These stories are your darlings and you will find that they are usually about you. This is why you fall in love with them after all.

How easy is it to identify with a main character when that character is you?

The problem is that no one else wants to read stories like this. No matter how interesting you think your life is at that particular moment, your innermost desires are probably something of a snoozefest to the rest of the world. To everyone else, your miraculous story will be little more than a heap of ravings.

When you are cranked up emotionally, the writing seems to come very easily. The words flow and flow without end. You don’t have to be in a foul mood either. An extremely beauteous moment can inspire some really massive tracts of prose, most of which will be crap.

This isn’t to say that you should strike it all. In fact, there are bound to be core ideas and even a few phrases worth keeping.

Getting the You out of the story

Editing the author out of the tale takes time.

You begin by putting the story away for a few days. Work on something else while the story rests. Whatever you do, do not send it to friends for commentary.

Spare your friends the pain of getting four emails in twenty minutes as you repair your work. Rare is the friend who will read your work twice with serious enthusiasm.

Once you have allowed the story to rest, begin by rereading the story as you would any other story. Don’t mark up the text or begin rewriting sentences in your head. That’s writing not reading. If you can’t read it without revising, then the story is probably a bit too fresh in your mind. Set it aside again.

Assuming you make it through the story without the urge to grasp the pen or dash off to the keyboard, you will have your first real impression of the story. You should also have sufficient distance from the emotional wellspring in order to see the good and bad parts more clearly.

“He was sitting at the cafe…”

What you are looking for are the telltale signs of too much thinking and too little action. Characters who walk around the house at night. Scenes where characters are driving in a car. People waiting at the train station or sitting in a coffee shop.

“But that’s what my story is about!”

I’ve said that before too. Lots of times. What I’ve learned is that there isn’t a story in sitting in a coffee shop. Sitting in a coffee shop is sitting in a coffee shop. A story is something that happens to someone.

If your characters spend lots of time in places where nothing is happening, they are probably serving as outlets for your own emotions instead of their own desires. Strip away all of their thoughts from the story. Boil it down to the action.

Here’s a method I’ve tried before with some success: copy all of the non-action into another file, pull out character names and such, then read it. Does it sound like a journal entry? If so, delete it. All of it.

Undoubtedly a bit of the thinking will creep back in as you work your way through the story for the fiftieth time. Don’t be paranoid about it.

Too much of a good thing

When you first start writing, the process of revision seems like a painful chore. You might even shirk it in the name of artistic integrity. Eventually, you learn that art is revision, a continuous cycle of experience, impression, skill, and that magic whatever that we often call imagination.

And then, if you’re like me, you get addicted to it.

I revise so much that nothing ever gets finished. But it gets worse. I revise so much that a good story turns bad. This is where I need to practice a little balance.

Above I told you to put away your emotion-fuelled story to let it cool off, here I’m going to tell you to do the opposite. You see, when you edit too much you take the life out of the story. In the heat of composition, you might order events in your story in a non-linear fashion. Then, after a load of editing, your rational mind takes over and you reorder the lot into a perfect timeline. The problem is that this perfect timeline is dead, empty of passion. The resulting story may seem technically perfect but it might as well be a research paper for all the human depth it contains.

This is just one example of what can happen when you over-edit. You can also strain your prose by layering on too much fancy hooptedoodle or weaken it by allowing yourself to be too informal. You can crush the life out of your dialogue with a single misplaced bit of action. You can ruin a good exchange with a long monologue. You can ruin a monologue by trying to turn it into exposition.

Basically, there are lots of ways to mess up during the process of revision.

I don’t have a formula for you to fix these problems. It’s trial and error mostly until you gain the experience to know when a piece is done, or rather good enough.

When good enough is good enough

As a new writer, you are going to be wrong about when a story is good enough to be good enough. I know that might not be what you want to hear, but really you have to trust me. What you think is good enough is probably still crap.

Not being good enough doesn’t mean you have to hide yourself away for years and years until it gets to be good enough. By all means, send out the story to editors and get their reaction. Who knows? You might find out that it really is good enough. You might get lucky.

I spend a lot of time polishing. I’m not talking about grammatical errors or punctuation here. I’m talking about wordsmith stuff. I wanted to be a poet when I was a younger, so the shape of words and sentences means a lot to me, which in turn means that I’m always tinkering with things for my own pleasure.

At some point, an experienced writer recognizes that there is nothing they can do to make the story better. In fact, any more work they do is likely to weaken the story. So, even if the story isn’t perfect, it’s good enough and out it goes. The only real measure of good enough is acceptance for publication and the general reaction of readers. If readers enjoy it and want more, the work is definitely good enough.

The You who never was

So, as I’ve somewhat poorly demonstrated, you, as the author, can be in the story from an emotional standpoint. The words of the characters can be your words, their thoughts and feelings a reflection of your own. In addition, you can show up at a deeper level, turning the story into your own personal toy, a playground for your linguistic talents (or lack of thereof in my case).

Yet, this isn’t the worst offense. The worst offense is when you doubt your own ability to tell a story so much that you fail to write it at all.

You can’t fix a story that hasn’t been written.

Self-doubt is the worst sin that a writer can commit in the name of fiction. Of course, like most of the really good sins, this is one you can’t help but commit over and over again. It’s the writer’s nature to doubt themselves. This is what encourages you to drive forward and find out what lies behind that idea or that character.

Where are they going? What are they up to? You won’t find out unless you write the story.

This is why I always take heart when reviewing the really bad writing I produce daily. Even if it is truly horrid, I know that I am at least writing something. I am creating instead of stagnating.

5 thoughts on “Fix Bad Stories by Getting Rid of Yourself

  1. This is incredible advice and the last point socked me in the gut. Ah the sign of a great blog post, hits you where it hurts. So, thanks and now I’m off to write that story.

  2. Strange. At least half the advice in this post is exactly the opposite of the advice I’d have given, and the other half is phrased in very different language. But I like everything I see here. This is what I love about writing–there are as many “right” ways to go about our craft as there are “wrong” ways, and most of the time the two categories overlap.

    Thanks for the post–I’ll be keeping an eye on this blog. And happy writing! (Or, if you’re THAT kind of writer, then miserable drunken writing!)

  3. This is what I love about writing–there are as many “right” ways to go about our craft as there are “wrong” ways, and most of the time the two categories overlap.

    Absolutely, Sam. This is what makes it fun for me too. At the end of the day, each writer must find their own way.

    I used to be the miserable, drunken writer, but it never really stuck because I couldn’t take myself that serious for very long. Any frustration I have these days tends to be due to a lack of time to write and the amount of mental energy my day job consumes. That said, when I am writing, I’m really very happy.

    By the way, blood tastes like copper because of hemoglobin, which in turn contains iron. So maybe, writing is like chewing nails? 🙂

    P.S. I’ve added you to my list of feeds so I’ll be keeping an eye on you too! Thanks for stopping by!!!

  4. You should know that I was drawn to this post by some guys in a writers group I’m in. Their students at the university where I teach, but they’re damn good writers and I like to sit with them as equals. Anyway, this post of your spawned a massive, rambling back-and-forth via e-mail among the writers group, and I’m currently writing my own response to their dialogue. If I can talk them into it, I’ll see if we can compile the whole thing into a fat e-mail and fire it at you soon.

    Thanks for generating such wild discussion. And thanks for hemoglobin! I love details like that.

  5. Wow! You made my day, Sam!

    If you can pull the email together, I’d love to see it.

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