Fighting with a Story

I have been hacking one heck of a tough time with this story that I’ve been working on. I started the story months ago. I got through about 70% of the first draft before realizing there were some serious problems.

Over the years, I’ve developed a fairly standard process for how I work on my stories, mostly by trial and error. I eventually landed on the process similar to how Stephen King works, which is to write a first draft telling myself the story, and the second draft telling the reader the story. Coming from a software development background, my story drafts all get version numbers in their file names. So, the very first cut at a first draft is version 1.0. If I need to start over taking a different approach in the first draft, it becomes 1.1. The first cut at the second draft is 2.0, and if I need to start over with a different approach there it becomes version 2.1, 2.2, etc. You get the idea.

Since I’ve been using this method, I’ve never gone beyond 1.3 in the first draft before nailing it, or giving up… until now.

Last night, I began draft version 1.7 of this story I’m trying to write. Yes, I’ve restarted the story seven times. Version 1.0 grew to about 12,000 words. That was the farthest I managed to get. Each subsequent attempt has been stalled well before reaching that point. I’ve tried lots of different approaches (well, 8, if you count the first one) and none seem to work.

In the ordinary course of events, I’d tell myself that this meant I simply wasn’t ready to tell this particular story and move on to something else. Indeed, I set this story aside to work on other things–but the idea of the story kept coming back to me. It don’t know if this makes sense to non-writers, but this story is screaming to be told.

I mention this for two reasons:

First, I don’t want to give the impression that just because I’ve figured out a way to write every day, means I write well every day. Nor does it mean that the words flow easily every day. With this story in particularly, it has been difficult to come to the keyboard each night because I’m afraid that I won’t make any progress, or that I’ll be forced to start over yet again. But I still write. I still force out the words, although it is sometimes like pulling teeth, and sometimes, even though the story isn’t working, new little facets emerge that help provide a new angle to what I’m trying to do. Perhaps the most important thing to take away here, is that, for me, even though fighting with a story like this can be frustrating, it is still fun. It’s a challenge. How am I going to pull it out in the end?

Which leads to my second reason for mentioning this. Throughout my career as a software developer, there have been numerous times when I’ve been thwarted on a problem by some thorny code or algorithm. Sometimes, I’ve just given up and looked for some other way to solve the same problem. But occasionally, I come into the office determined. I sit down in front of the computer and mutter, sometimes aloud, “I’m not budging until I’ve solved this problem.”

What I’ve noticed about these times is that it takes a little while, and a fair amount of frustration to build up this level of determination, but that once I hit that mark, once I sit down at the keyboard and mutter my incantation, I usually come up with a nifty solution before the day is out. Determination feeds inspiration, which in turn, frees me to think more clearly somehow.

I suspect the same is true for storytelling. And while there are times and places to give up on a story, this is not one of them. I like this story too much and I really want to tell it well. So I am now attempting to bring that same determination to getting this story right as I do to coming up with creative solutions to coding problems that irritate me. I’m turning the frustration I’ve had with this story into a challenge.

To that end, I’ll mention that the title of the story, which will likely be a novella, is “Strays.” If (when) the story sees print some day a year to two from now, I want to be able to point back to this post as an example that even the tough stories, the ones that seem like they will never work, can be bent into shape eventually, with enough effort and determination. The process may be frustrating at times. You may find yourself thinking, why do I bother? But for me at least, even the frustrating parts of telling a story are fun.

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  1. I just started writing short stories again pretty recently after a long (20 year) hiatus, and it’s been really interesting to figure out the best way to go about it (still in process). I tend to be very planned, but I’m learning that (for me) I have to pretty quickly jump into the draft, and (try to) solve the problems with it on the other side.

    The other hard part for me is showing people my work at its most unfinished (first draft, from my head), but that’s the time when getting structural/overall feedback is the most useful.

    1. Steven, first draft is always just for me. It’s me telling myself the story (since I don’t plan ahead or outline, beyond having an idea of how the story will end). In the second draft, I try to make it an interesting story for readers, now that I know what happens. No but me ever sees my first drafts. What my beta-readers see is my second draft, and what editors see is usually the third (although sometimes the fourth) draft.

      Congrats on starting up with short stories again!

      1. Thanks – I wrote short stories in college, but for a long time after that it was novels or nothing. Getting back to speculative fiction (and revisiting how much I dig SFF short stories) is what made me take it up, again.

  2. Loved your post!
    You’re so right. I also do this quite a lot.
    But my main breaking-the-ice point is when I throw off the keyboard and take out my notebook and pen. How that pen flows in my hand! I think I’m either addicted to using the pen and paper, or I’m just medium dependent – medium being the tablet, the pc, the laptop, the mobile and the notebook-pen combo.
    I love writing, and literally, WRITING, as in on a notebook with a real pen.

    I’ve even started using this method in my official work! When I pick up a pen and notebook, there’s no stopping me! It’s incredible the way the pen keeps on moving in my hand. When I type, my fingers are pretty fast too – my colleagues keep telling me to “quill the quake” – the table rocks so hard – but the words somehow seem to form less sense and are less interesting and intriguing than when I write on a notebook.

    I really don’t know what it is, but now that I’ve found the enemy of the writers’ enemy, the writer’s block, I’m never letting go of it, unless I’m sure I don’t need it anymore.

    Thanks for a great post!

  3. I recently finished writing a non-fiction work (called When Computing Got Personal), and one thing I noticed – and continue to notice – is that it’s the hard bits, the bits you have to rework and rethink over and over again, that often come out the best. If the words just slip out perfectly formed then, unless you’re on a real winning streak, they’re probably not worth reading.


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