When Good Stories Go Bad…

Well, “bad” may be a bit harsh.  And maybe what I want to talk about today isn’t so much when a formerly good story becomes a mutant monster of epic proportions.  What I want to talk about is something I have a bit more experience with — when a good story idea starts bad.

You see, of the writing projects I’ve spent the most time on in my life, the majority found their origins sometime during my teenage years.  In the case of Down a Lost Road, I was 12 years old when I got the idea, based off a creepy dream I had.  The Grey Tide?  My earliest draft dates from when I was 10.  Oathbreaker began when I was about 14.

Now, why do I lump all these three novels into this rather unflattering category of bad-starts?  Well, the reason is obvious.

Maybe the story had good elements.  Maybe it was the characters.   Maybe the core of the plot.  Maybe the world I imagined for them.  In any case, they all had some aspect that intrigued, captivated, or mystified me.  But none of those things are enough for me, looking back on those earliest drafts, to call them “good.”  They were childish.  Immature.  Cliched.  Predictable.  They sounded like they had been written by a young person with no real experience of the world — which is precisely true.

Funny how you get a perspective on things as you get older.

At the time, I remember my dad gently suggesting that most writers take years of seasoning and maturing and experiencing the world before they get the depth of insight needed to really craft a story.  I stubbornly insisted that I was very wise, that I knew all about people, and all about the world, and I had deeply profound insights into the human condition.  At age 12.  Yeahhh…not so much.

True, I paid a lot of attention to things, to people, to events, and to how and why things happen.  But always through a 12 year old’s eyes.  Is it ever wrong for a child to make these kinds of studies, and to think they’ve gained some kind of genius understanding of human nature from them?  Of course not.  In fact, I think that if children aren’t taught early on to pay attention, they’ll have a much harder time as adults ever seeing beyond their own limited reality.

But I digress.  My point was going to be that, even though the result left much to be desired, I still found something in those stories that I didn’t want to give up on.  I’ve had plenty of weak, crazy ideas in my teenage years that I will never, ever, consider revisiting.  But some of them actually had some potential.  So, what do you do when good stories start bad?

Well, you have a couple of options.  The first is the one I am most familiar with, and the one I’m not going to recommend.   At all.  Why?  Because it’s taken me an unmentionable number of years to get Down a Lost Road into publishable form.  The Grey Tide and The Oathbreaker?  Not yet.  This inefficient method I call cyclical editing.  What happened with all of these stories was basically the following pattern:

I wrote.  Put the story away.  Wrote.  Put it away again.  Wrote and wrote and finally wrote “the end.”  Thought it was Perfection Incarnate.  Put it away to work on something else.  Then, at some later date, revisited the thing and realized what a load of immature, cliched, predictable #!@$ it really was.  So, then I would start editing.  Change a word here.  Add descriptions there.  Delete a few — notably fewer than recommended.  Get to the end and realize that my style had changed again during the editing process.  So, go back to the beginning and start over.  Lather, rinse, repeat.

After so many years, my style has developed to a point I’m currently happy with.  Will it never change after this?  No, I’m sure it will.  I hope it will.  Stagnation is nothing to admire unless you’re already perfect, which none of us are.  But has my style reached a point where I would not be ashamed to share it with others?  Yes.

The problem is the curve on the style-graph that every revision showed.  Revision 1 starts in style A, ends in style B.  Revision 2 starts in B, ends in C.  And so on and so forth.  So, getting the whole revision to reflect style X is the big challenge.

Which may be why I eventually took the plunge and abandoned cyclical editing.  It was a huge, daunting notion.  Took all my guts, all my nerve, all my will.  I decided to do…….the dreaded rewrite.  Yes, dear readers.  For all three of the novels I mentioned, I have actually taken the ginormous leap to abandon the previous model, scrap everything but the characters and maybe the shell of the plot, and rewrite.  And it’s amazingly refreshing.

I’m not sure I will ever do another resuscitation attempt on a childhood story idea.  Lost Road is out there.  The Grey Tide will perhaps always be the work dearest to my heart, and Oathbreaker is already underway.  But from now on, no mas.  I can’t spend decades on edits and rewrites.  It’s not a good way to write a story.

Maybe, just maybe, I’ll learn how to outline.

Starting out with a good blueprint is infinitely better than rethinking the design 20 billion times during the construction phase.

But that might be too much to hope for.  I’ve always been kind of a seat-of-the-pants writer.  That may never change.  But I’ve learned some valuable lessons from my mistakes.  Here’s some advice to aspiring writers:

1)  If you’re 10, or 15, or even 18, you might think you have the next Lord of the Rings issuing from your enlightened fingertips.  Let me assure you:  You don’t.  I don’t mean to be harsh.  And I’m not even disparaging your writing skills or desires or aspirations.  Just give yourself time to mature.  You won’t regret it.  On the other hand, if you think what you’ve got is a perfect and profound pronunciation on the human condition and go ahead and submit it to a candid world, you probably will regret it.  If you really care about your story, by all means write it.  Finish it.  Edit it.  And then store it away for future reflection.  In ten years or more, go back and look at it fresh.

2) Don’t do the cyclical editing thing.  If you go back to your novel after ten years and you still like the idea, but are suitably unimpressed by the style or the execution, then go ahead, dissect out the elements you do like, and start fresh.  Don’t be afraid to rewrite.  You can always keep the old revisions for nostalgia, or just in case.  If anything, it’ll be humorous for comparison purposes after you finish your bestseller rewrite.

3) Don’t stop writing.  The editing trap is especially painful because it’s not writing.  You might rewrite this paragraph or throw in a new sentence, or even a whole chapter(!), but it’s not writing.  It’s editing.  And it can have a stagnating effect on your craft, both in terms of style development and in terms of idea generation.  Plus, it can trap you into thinking that the current plot, characters, or story elements have to be final, because all you’re doing is obsessing over the mechanical structure of the work.  Take a step back.  Take a good, long, hard look at every aspect of the story.  If you’re willing to rewrite — which is writing — you’ll be amazed at how the story can surprise you.  Those “I never knew!” insights into characters and plot points are just priceless.

4) Oh yeah.  Don’t forget to edit.  But if you start strong, your job will be that much easier in the end.

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About J. Leigh

Author, photographer, awesome ninja. I only kill people in stories. View all posts by J. Leigh

One response to “When Good Stories Go Bad…

  • Don

    Some of my best ideas are from my childhood. Fortunately, I realized that they were too far advanced for me, so I wrote, realizing that they would metamorphosis many times. After I finish my current story, I plan to go back to the story that has held my mind for decades; the story of a man who clones himself. I had to go through many changes to become ready: Fall in love; Face death; Study science, history, philosophy, theology, and most importantly, become Catholic. I don’t think it’ll anger as many people as my current story. Hopefully, it’ll just make them think. And then there’s a story between the two, a story that I not only had to be a Catholic to write, but a Protestant. A story where power hungry people use science to control something they only think is a new science, only to discover that it is beyond them (both to control and to comprehend).
    Life is so full of beauty and wonder that one has to live a while to let it not just be experienced, but ingrained into one’s very blood, to their very soul.

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