Friday, August 26, 2011

WHEN A GOOD STORY GOES BAD

Something is wrong with my work in progress. Something is wrong with my baby.

It started so well, with an idea that wouldn’t leave me alone. What would have happened if an A’lle ship crash-landed in what is now southern Quebec three hundred years ago? How would the settlers of 1711 have reacted to the aliens? Would the survivors be treated as “devils” in the ultra religious world of the settlers? Would they adapt to each other? And if they did adapt, how would history change as a result?

From that background Constance emerged, demanding that I tell her story.

It is 1911, and she is the first A’lle investigator, part of the constabulary of St. Vincent, and she must contend with a society that treats her people as second-class citizens and a Church divided between declaring the A’lle devils or God’s chosen.

Then an A’lle boy is murdered.

I began to write the story, full of the heat of creation. Then my first novel, On Her Trail, was accepted at Carina Press and I had to set my baby aside to do the edits, copy edits, cover blurbs and design info... the “stuff” that accompanies publishing a novel. Once that was done, I picked up Constance’s story again. Before I could get more than a few chapters written, Carina accepted my second novel, The Shoeless Kid, and I had to put Constance aside once more.

Finally, after Shoeless was released and the attendant busywork was over, I returned to Constance, determined not to stop until I’d told her story. And I wrote my heart out... 40,000 words, 55,000 words, 80,000 words... until I finally stumbled to a stop, no longer able to ignore the little voice telling me I’d taken a wrong turn.

I was having trouble forcing myself to the keyboard, when before I'd looked forward to getting back to the story. I couldn’t figure out what Constance would do next, when before her actions and decisions had flowed seamlessly from the previous scenes. And worse (I shudder to admit it), I was getting bored.

Something was wrong, wrong, wrong.

So here I am, so close to the end I can almost see the finish line. But I’m on the wrong race track. I’ve been talking with writer friends, brainstorming ideas. I’ve printed the story-to-date out and am reading it, trying to pinpoint where I took the wrong fork in the road. I feel a little sick to my stomach, honestly. What if I can’t find what I did wrong? What if Constance remains forever trapped in the wrong story?

Are you a writer? Does this ever happen to you? How do you avoid or fix it? If you're not a writer, have you read any stories where the writer took a wrong turn? Where a good story went bad?

Marcelle

28 comments:

Toni Anderson said...

I totally understand. And once you get on the wrong track you can't get off. You are stuck because you may as well start the real story again. But, perhaps this story is not 'that' story. Perhaps you have 2 stories going on?
I find it helpful to ask someone I trust to read it and tell me what they think.

MaureenAMiller said...

I'm crying both from your picture and from your tale. Now we all want to hear what happens to Constance.

Shirley Wells said...

I feel for you, Marcelle. I've had a story grind to a painful halt many times, but never when I'm so close to the end.

As Toni says, I'd ask someone I trust to read it and see if they can pinpoint where it went wrong. Perhaps it hasn't gone wrong at all. Maybe it's only gone wrong in your head.

I for one am eager to know what happens to Constance!

Marcelle Dubé said...

That's good advice, Toni. It *may* be a different story, but I suspect it's just gone off the rails. I've been talking it over with writer friends and have found where I think I pricked the story and let all the air out. :-)

Maureen, I want to know what happens to Constance, too. It may be a while before I have an update, however!

Shirley, you make a good point. I've discovered that writers are the worst judges of their own work. For instance, on another story I had completed and set aside a few months ago, I reread the first scene and realized that what I had thought was a sparkling, engaging scene really, really wasn't. :-( Fortunately, that one is easy to fix!

Shawna Thomas said...

Oh yes! I have a story just like that. My character's name is Catori. She's solid, good premise...and something is wrong. I'm only 40K in but it's a rough draft with the major plot points sketched out.

Other writers are an excellent sounding board because sometimes they can see what you don't. Play the what if game. What if Constance did this, what if this happened and see if it helps.

Good luck!

Rita said...

It’s your subconscious telling you something is wrong. Take a break. Do something you would not usually do. Something that will heighten one or all of your senses. Change a problem scene’s POV. Revisit who your characters are. Do they act true to their nature? You will figure it out.

Marcelle Dubé said...

Shawna and Rita, I think you're both right. I love the idea of playing the "what if" game with Constance and seeing how she'd react. And Rita, I will step away from the story. One writer friend tells me I've been in critical mode too long and may need to work on a short, creative piece. You know, to rinse the palate.

Douglas Smith said...

Hi Marcelle. Not sure if this would work for you, but I start with characters first for any story and figure out what I want their arc to be, their journey. This is separate from plot for me. If I know my character well enough to do that, I can usually figure out where they make a plot decision that takes them off of their arc.

Best, Doug
www.smithwriter.com

Marcelle Dubé said...

Thanks, Doug. Does that mean that you do an involved outline? Outlining never seems to work for me. I usually start with a premise, a precipitating "what would happen in this case" kind of scenario and only then do the characters present themselves to me.

Elise Warner said...

Marcelle: I love your plot and look forward to reading the book when it's published. I'm sure once you've cleansed your pallette,the wrong track will turn into the right track. I usually think about my problems before I go to sleep and turn them over to my subconscious.

Marcelle Dubé said...

Elise, all I can say is that I must have the world's laziest subconscious.

Joan Kilby said...

Usually when this happens to me (and it happens at least once every book) it's when the character has done something out of character for the sake of the plot or because it seems like an interesting tangent at the time but gets me too far off the spine of the story. Then I read through and try to pinpoint where the story went wrong, which you're doing, and think about theme and what the character really would do. Good luck, It sounds like an interesting story.

Marcelle Dubé said...

Thanks for your good wishes, Joan. A Very Good Writer I know would tell me, rudely, to get out of the way of my story. Maybe I'll try that next. :-)

JB Lynn said...

You poor thing! I hate the feeling of knowing I've gone in the wrong direction with my story, but not knowing where it happened or how to fix it.

For me, only time helps. Suddenly my mistake and the solution become clear.

I hope you don't have to wait too long for your moment of clarity and that Constance is on her way again soon!

Marcelle Dubé said...

Thanks, JB! I helps to know I'm not alone and that many writers experience that same problem. And it really does help to talk it out with other writers.

Wendy Soliman said...

My advice, for what it's worth, is to walk away. Leave it for a while. Stop thinking about it, (I know, like that's gonna happen!), but try. Trust me, it works. x

Rachael Johns said...

Marcell - late to the party as usual (being down under) but this post is VERY fitting for me at the moment. You could be telling my story. I had the same interruptions after making my first sale and I've recently gone back to a story that I absolutely love. Well I adore the premise and I'm sure it could be really really good but it's just not working for me at the moment. I'm wondering what exactly it is and whether I should keep going or throw in the towel. I need a crystal ball. Sorry I don't have the answers but really glad to hear I'm not the only one going through this :)

Marcelle Dubé said...

Wendy, that's exactly what I'm going to do. I re-read it to the halfway mark where something snagged and now I've put it aside to let my subconscious (the lazy bugger) work on it for a while.

Rachael, don't get discouraged. There's a lot of great advice in the comments here and I've found it very useful. Maybe you need to cleanse your palate, too, by working on something else?

MattMooreWrites said...

David Nickle once said stories are Rube Goldberg machines. Plot, setting, characters, theme—all must balance to produce an effect.

Boredom comes from (1) being to familiar with the story or (2) your character lacks motivation, which stems from lack of tension in the story.

So, what's out of balance? Map out how character is driving plot, and plot is driving character. If Constance is unmotivated or confused, it's because nothing is driving her. So, up the stakes. Not one boy, but several are killed. Several more are missing. Etc.

Or, cut your losses, walk away and start something else. In time, Constance will reappear and tell you what she wants, or won't. But don't waste too much time when you could be working on something else.

Claudia Del Balso said...

When that happens to me, I take a break. I mean, I set it aside, put it in a drawer (like my mentor says) and it actually helps. You said you've put it aside a couple of times. Well, perhaps distancing yourself from your WIP (just for a bit) it'll help you clear your mind and come up with fresh ideas.

Charity Girl said...

I had the exact same thing happen. I got to 75,000 words and gave up though I loved the heroine and her story. The problem for me was that I was trying to write a particular type of story and the character, Perdita, just didn't suit that. I had a really strong sense of her but not really the right plot to pull her along the path. I'm leaving her to compost and I think I'll come back to her.

One thing I've found really helpful is getting to know my characters inside out. After I completed a first draft of my WIP I realised that the hero was quite inconsistent. I started writing bits and pieces of flash fiction to get to know him better - incidents from his past, that had shaped him. Once I'd done that his motivations became much clearer to me and I understood what situations he needed to be in to develop.

I love the concept of your Constance story, it's wonderful. I hope you do finish it - it demands to be told!

Marcelle Dubé said...

Hi Matt--I'm not willing to walk away. I may have to wait until I grow as a writer to write Constance's story, but I will eventually finish her story. I think you're right in that I need to up the stakes for her.

Claudia, I've put it aside (again) and have been furiously jotting down ideas. So there's something to be said for distance!

Thanks for the encouragement, Charity Girl! And I hope you find your way, too, with Perdita's story.

Debs Carr said...

I hope you manage to get this story back on the right track again.

I remember being at a talk with Penny Vincenzi and she said that when she starts to get bored with a story and feels like she's on the wrong track, she goes back to where it was still working in the mss and takes it from there.

Marcelle Dubé said...

Hi Debs--thanks for your good wishes and for sharing Penny Vincenzi's advice. If you're bored and you're writing the darned thing... well, that can't be good.

Wynter Daniels said...

I think we've all been there. When that has happened to me, I take a break to reread some of my favorite craft books - Goal, Motivation and Conflict by Debra Dixon, Scene and Structure by Jack Bickham. Good luck!

Marcelle Dubé said...

Thanks, Wynter, and everyone, for the support, sympathy and advice. It's comforting to know I'm not alone.

Clare London said...

My God, sorry I'm so late to this one! I hope the trusty team have helped you find a new way forward?

It's happened to me, though. It's a fine line between a story you happily return to now and again as a treat, to suddenly becoming the millstone around your neck.

Sometimes I take the characters and write an unrelated scene, or something much later in the arc. But it has to be a scene that excites me, and kickstarts my love for the characters all over again. Then I'll go back and see what's dragging in the plot.

And of course, if I'm *really* stuck, I CUT viciously *mwhahaha*. A lot of my logjams or false paths are because I try to be too clever and over-complicate things.

Anyway, best of luck with her! :)

Marcelle Dubé said...

Hi Clare! Thanks for dropping by. I really like the idea of writing a scene out of sequence--which is really counter-intuitive for me. It really would pull me off the road and force me to look around. Good advice, Clare!