Tuesday, February 25, 2014

What's Wrong with Your Story? You Already Know.

As I was panning for ideas on writing, I came up with this gem. You already know. This came from a freelance editor (whose name I can't recall). The most common response she gets from professionals when she offers her biggest points of criticism is, "Yeah. I guess I knew that."

And you probably know what's wrong with your story, too. I'm not talking about typos or dialogue that needs sharpening. Good stories that aren't quite ready have other problems. Missed logic. The wrong starting place. Weak endings. Awkward back story. Secondary characters who take over or flit in and out. Dodged emotions.

All of these are fixable, but not without pain. It's tough to take a finished manuscript, completely rewrite a fifty-page section, and repair whatever that breaks in the rest of the work. A subplot-ectomy can be almost impossible without causing nerve damage. Killing off a favorite character or deleting the first three chapters? Agonizing.

Here's what I did: I took ten complete longer works and forced myself to quickly write what I feared most about each of them. I noted the unthinkable, without allowing any arguments. It was a little like going to confession, and that gave me the idea of listing problems to reflect on.

Big Ugly Story Problems
  • The story starts in the wrong place - It needs to begin as late as possible.
  • Beats are missing - These can be generic story beats or those for a specific genre, like romance.
  • Undigested back story - Those things the reader may need to know, but stated too baldly. (Or maybe they really don't need to know them at all.)
  • Tension that slacks - This can be because of a weak back story, plateauing stakes, or fun scenes that just don't belong in the book.
  • Experiments gone awry - For me, this comes from playing with structure or fancy prose.
  • World-building mistakes - Problems with logic, or rules made up during drafting that don't quite add up.
  • Tone and mood shifts - Inconsistency, often caused by inserting humor, passion, and sudden changes in pacing.
  • The ending doesn't satisfy - Too fast, too slow, illogical, not set up properly, too obvious.
  • Muted emotion - Not going as far with emotional responses as the circumstances and character dictate (often to protect the writer).
  • Pulled punches - Avoiding extremes and not going as far as the premise or set up suggests (often to protect the protagonist).
Yes. I found all of these among my works. Some stories have more than one. It's a very difficult thing to recognize, and it's even harder to accept. My suggestion is that you 1) examine your own stories for these problems, 2) force rank from worst to least all of these so you are certain you have really thought about each one, and 3) accept the first or first few problems as real and get to work on them.

This might be a way to get to "Yeah. I guess I knew that" without outside help so you can bring your writing to the next level. As a special bonus, if you have a half-written manuscript you still love, this approach might give you a clue as to where to fix it.

Oh, by the way. Please feel free to add to my list. And if you come up with good ones, I'd be delighted if you'd share them here.

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