From Simon: It’s Monday, so it’s my pleasure to introduce another author who has come to grace the website with a guest post. John Winter, author of numerous short stories available on Amazon, is here to tell us not to panic! Fiction going bad? Don’t delete that file, or burn that draft, instead, read on. Over to John…
You can listen to an audio reading of this podcast if you like! Just click play in the player below.
It’s all gone wrong.
Horror upon horror, your fiction has gone bad.
You look at what should be your beloved manuscript, but all you want to do is sweep it into the nearest bin and toss in a lit match.
Before you turn it into a raging inferno, stop! Think. Have you really done everything in your power to save it?
From my own experience, I know there is so much that can go wrong.
The advantage of having a great imagination is that anything can happen.
The disadvantage of having a great imagination is that anything can happen.
As fiction writers, we want our work to live in the hearts and minds of our readers. We create rules boundaries, and situations. We devise characters then set them in an imaginary world.
When something isn’t working, it can have a dramatic effect on how you feel about your work. You may consider throwing it away, or worse still giving up.
This post is about saving that fiction.
There is no right or wrong answer. Every writer has their own nugget of advice and wisdom that works for them. So I’m going to throw out a few notes, some will strike a chord but others will pass you by.
1. Give yourself emotional distance
Firstly don’t panic. Take a step back.
This is necessary for yourself and your work.
Words are malleable. You’re in control (aren’t you?!) To help you get a handle on what’s wrong put the manuscript to one side for a couple of days. You could use the time to work on something else and it may give you the headspace for inspiration to strike. Even if it doesn’t it may afford you a new kind of clarity so that when you reread, you see the words as you’ve written them.
You could also feed your muse, catch up on that book that you’ve been meaning to read, watch television or a favourite film, or skim through a couple of graphic novels. Good ideas spark other ideas and you’re surrounded by them.
2. Is your story too complex?
Can you distill a theme from the story outline and communicate it concisely?
You might be complicating your work by juggling too many story threads without a clear priority. Refocus on what’s important and leave the sub plots out until the first draft is complete. You can always go back and add them later if necessary.
You should have a clear idea how your work will end and this will vary from project to project.
If you find it hard to visualize your story, create an index card map. Start with all the important scenes and expand outwards. Depending how you organise your work, you’ll want to track various attributes of the scene: Characters involved, location, equipment, necessary skills, description of the scene, any notable state changes (such as the death of a character). I do this using different colored cards for different plot lines.
Does the manuscript live up to it? Is it thematic, polemic? Does it need impact or a slow build up?
The beauty of knowing where you are going is that you can create a map of scenes, either chronologically or in reverse.
3. Does your writing feel drawn out?
Once you are clear on your direction you can also judge the appropriate word count for the story. I recently cropped a 25k novella down to 2k because a better story emerged. You can always resurrect what you don’t use in future projects, as and when necessary.
Don’t feel precious about particular words, phrases or sentences. Don’t pad for the sake of padding. If a scene doesn’t further a character or illustrate a plot point, is it really necessary?
4. Is it the right time to write this story?
I have a couple of projects on hold because I know they require in-depth medical knowledge which requires substantial research. I don’t want them to end up like a sketch from Mitchell and Webb.
5. Are you aiming for perfection or will good enough suffice?
Have you set your sights too high? Don’t get trapped in an editing spiral that you can’t get escape.
When Top 10 selling author Lee Child was asked which of his Jack Reacher books was his favourite, he replied “my next one.” He went on to explain that in all his published books he has had to make compromises. Great advice. Striving for perfection can stifle creativity. Keep the story king, editing and refining can come later, what’s really important is finishing that first draft.
6. The world is not enough
Setting is an immense topic, which Alida Winternheimer touched on in her world building post. Many writers work from experience. Award winning Michael Marshall Smith (Intruders) visits the locations in which he sets his stories to absorb the atmosphere.
Role playing rule books can be a good source of information. Some are open settings, so fiction can be derived from them without worrying about copyright; others may contain descriptions or weapons or equipment and can be used as starting points for further investigation.
7. Do you like your characters?
If you don’t like the main protagonist, how can you be sure that your reader will? What can you do to make them more appealing? Do they have it too easy? Throw in some hardship. Give someone a hidden agenda.
Are the characters passionate about something? Are the main ones driven, compelled or forced to into action?
Do they have the requisite knowledge, or skills that they rely on in key scenes? Think about a character’s backstory, for example, if they are proficient with handing firearms, where did they acquire that skill?
- Are your characters in their comfort zone?
- Do they react in a believable manner?
- Are the characters developed relative to their presence?
- Are they challenged so that they do not coast along?
- Do they always succeed?
- If you knew them, would you like them?
- Are the relationships between all the characters believable?
- Do the characters get on well together, should they? Do they get on too well? Affairs, trust, relationships underpin characters. We aren’t anyone without those around us to judge our actions.
- Is the chosen viewpoint the best way to experience the story? Does it need to be up close and personal, so that the reader experiences the world through the eyes, thoughts and interactions of a single character, or through multiple viewpoints?
Most importantly, are the main characters interesting enough to hold your readers’ attention?
8. A problem halved
If you can explain the problem to someone then they might be able to help. Even articulating it to yourself in the bathroom mirror may give you insight as to how it can be solved.
9. It’s not you, it’s me.
Experience has shown, that sometimes all that’s wrong with your work is your current frame of mind. Take a snapshot or backup before deleting and reworking just in case, tomorrow, you want to go back to what you already had.
10. Resort to a formula.
Although there is no magic formula, it doesn’t stop people saying there is. You can find lots on the internet. Lester Dent who was an American pulp-fiction author, best known for his character Doc Savage, had a master plot for short stories.
Remember at any point you can draw a line and step away. Nothing is worthless, even the unpublished unfinished works that you create grow your experience. The characters and plotlines can be saved, re-used and reworked later.
As long as you keep writing, that’s the main thing.
Hopefully this post will give you some direction should your fiction go bad. I’ll be checking back here for comments – so if there are any questions I’m happy to respond.
John Winter is a Dark Horror Writer, who has a number of short stories on Amazon, and is currently working on a novel that should be ready by the end of the year. He is married to a perfect wife, who also happens to be a creative, and has four children.