When to Deep Six that story.

Writing may be a hobby, but if you’re publishing your books or stories, you have a responsibility to produce a quality story. I’ve got lots of articles on how to do that. What I want to address today is what to do when a story is awful.

I’m not talking normal first draft awful, but awful in the way that makes you stare at the screen and wonder What am I writing?

Now I know most authors go through this point somewhere in their story, mostly in what I call the swamp. That’s the hardest part of the book to write. No flashy battles, no introduction of interesting characters. The swamp is about the character flailing around in the final efforts to chase the LIE before they give in to the truth.

So how do you know if you’re stuck in the swamp or your story is awful?

I ask myself a few questions.

First and foremost – is the concept solid? The idea of basing a story on La Traviata featuring telepathic aliens and vampires might have looked great when you started. But can it carry an entire story or is it an extended gimmick? The easiest way to check is imagine your story without the characters being aliens or vampires. Will it still work? If it does, you’re writing a gimmick not a story. The way to fix this, if you want to is to make sure that being alien or vampire is essential to the plot, not in a side show way, but as it is involved in a major plot point way.

Second – Maybe you’re working the wrong character. The sidekick is a lot more interesting than the MC. You sigh every time you bring the MC on stage.  Maybe you’re secretly rooting for the villain. Examine your protagonist. Are they really the right person for the job?

The fix, and KM Weiland deals with this brilliantly, is simple. So go have a look and come back, please. 3 Ways to Choose the Right Protagonist

Third – do you have all the pieces of the plot in place? I’ve seen authors miss the inciting incident, or have it right at the beginning. Plot points out of order or missing entirely. Outline your story, just hitting the major points. Even ending the story before the mid-point. Have you covered each point? Have you made the scene do the right work? Again, KM Weiland talks about structure in great detail, so if you haven’t bookmarked her blog, you might want to.

Lastly – are you writing only one story? This might seem to be a strange question, but I’ve seen it happen. The author was creating two perfectly fine stories, but tried to cram them into one book. Not all melodies work together, and if your story is feeling like two bands playing different tunes. Look at your structure again. Have you doubled up on any of the parts of the structure? There should be only one inciting incident. The fix is to go through the story and separate them. Put one aside, work on the other, then go back. Let each breathe on its own. It can be a lot of work, but in the end, you have two books not one.

I’m going to give you a case study. I’m working on a short story where the main character is a troll. It also needs to show him as fair, generous, and kind. It was fun to write, but the further I got into the story, the worse it got. I was changing scenes so much I had trouble remembering everyone’s place. Then I got stuck and had no idea what had gone wrong.

The concept still intrigued me. Part of the story told of the troll’s coming to understand himself and his place in the world. Making him the antithesis of trolldom worked, and was necessary for the story to work. He’d learn and move toward a more complete view of the people around him. Particularly compassion for the trolls.

The troll needed to be the main character, it was the entire point of the story. But I had two other characters I really liked with very cool backstories. Their interaction got in the way of showing the troll’s character. I needed to move away from them. This is a short story, not a novel, there’s no room for two more strong characters and their story.

I outlined the story, refocusing on the troll as the one who acted at each of the plot points. The other characters had their part, but I’d severely cut them back. I expect they will show up in another story, or the short will become a novel and I’ll have time to develop them the way they deserve.

I ended up renaming the first version with Deep Six in the file name, and rewrote the story following the outline and keeping a laser focus on the main character. I’ve arrived at the point where I’d given up in the first run. I’d thrown the MC off a cliff. But the reason this time moved the story forward and it became a turning point in the story. More importantly, it no longer functioned as just a fun thing to do to my character.

The second run at the story is flowing much better and I know how I’m going to get from where I am to where I need to be for the finale. The story has been rescued from the drawer and given new life.

In summary, a story may be truly awful, but only if you go through these three steps, and it’s still awful, should you give up on it entirely. Even then, don’t delete, you never know when some chunk of that awfulness will be exactly what you need in a new setting.

I never throw anything out. Words don’t take up a lot of space on your hard-drive, and there is no worse feeling than wanting that snippet and finding you no longer have it.


Preparing your manuscript for editing

Preparing your Manuscript for Editing Workshop

This the outline I used for a workshop to help prepare writers to make the most effective use out of an editorl

What is editing?

  • Content/Structural Editing
    • Foundational issues: Plot, character, tone, structure, world building
  • Copy/Line Editing
    • Prose, sentences, paragraphs, pacing. Word use and over use.
  • Proofreading
    • Grammar and spelling


Foundational Self Edit

  • Using an outline as an editing tool.
    • Lots of people will talk about writing with an outline, but they can be great tools for editing. If you aren’t sure about your structure and arcs, putting the bones down in an outline will help you check things, and balance the space between major points.
  • How technical with story structure do you need to get?
    • There are countless books and blogs dedicated to story structure, KM Weiland’s Helping Writers become Authors is one of the best with lots of examples.
    • If you are an outliner, you’ll want to mark the major points of your plot arc and character arcs so you have that going from the start.
    • Don’t get focused on structure to the detriment of your story. I’ve seen people warp their story trying to make it fit a structure they’ve read about. The story needs to come first. If you work on telling the story well, most of the structure will take care of itself.
  • Are your characters well rounded, heroes with flaws, villains with good sides?
    • Another popular tool for writers is character sheets where we fill out their favourite colour and what they like in their coffee. The problem is once we have that information, we want to include it all. What is important is what makes your characters human. Does your hero make mistakes, get angry, hurt people? Why not? Perfect characters are boring. Ones who struggle internally as well as externally will hold the reader’s attention. The same is true of villains. Too many times the villain is all bad, which makes it easy to cheer for their downfall, but doesn’t add much tension to the narrative. Make your villain a hero with an opposing goal to the MC’s and you have a gripping story.
  • Does everyone have sufficient motivation for their actions?
    • I say everyone, but most important is the villain’s motivation. Why are they opposing the hero? What will they get out of it? I read somewhere there are several classes of villain. The greedy villain, the power-hungry villain, the insane villain, and the scariest, the saintly villain.
    • Knowing the motivation doesn’t mean explaining it, but letting it come out in action and dialogue.

Copy Self Edit

  • Does each scene have its own internal structure?
    • Just as stories have a three act structure, your scenes should begin somewhere, move through some conflict to a resolution.
  • Do fights/love scenes/chases etc have their own plot?
    • Like scenes, these events need their own structure. Also each fight etc needs to increase the stakes leading up to the finale.
  • Does each scene move the story forward?
    • If a scene doesn’t move the plot or character forward. Rewrite it or chuck it.
  • Pacing with paragraph and sentence length.
    • Pacing is important. The length of chapter, paragraph, sentence will either speed up or slow down the story.
  • Beats vs Speech tags
    • Do your dialogues become talking heads? If a reader were to read only the dialogue scene, would they know about the setting, mood, etc?
    • Beats are snippets of description or action or thought which highlight and enhance the words being spoken.


Using Search to look for overused words.

  • Control F is one of your best friends. It will help you find out that you’ve used ‘really’ 149 times in your book. Make a list of the most commonly over used words: just, only, that, really, actually, was, were

Using grammar programs

  • There are a number of grammar programs out there, from the grammar checker in Word to Grammarly to Prowritingaid.com They have their place, but like spellcheckers, they don’t replace careful reading. What they can do is point out where you have too many pronoun starts, or consecutive sentences which start with the same word. They will help with the overused words and to a greater or lesser extent with sentence structure and length. All of them have free versions and they are worth trying.


  • Reading out loud.
  • Reading backwards.

Why you still may want to hire an editor.

  • After all this work, why hire an editor?
    • Editors aren’t attached to the story, so they will see things you miss. They may also spot your habits and point them out so you are aware of them.
    • Editors will know story structure and point out where it needs work, and how you might fix the problems
    • Editors are enthralled by darlings.
    • Working with an editor will make you a better writer.


How to hire and editor and work with them.

  • Just as there are publishers who are scams, there are editors who will take your money and give little or nothing back.
  • Not every editor is the same. You need to be able to work with this person and trust their advice.
  • Get a test edit, preferably get several editors to do test edits on the same section of work. I prefer the first 5k (which is a huge test edit but I have my reasons). This test edit should be free and no obligation. Read through all the comments and pick the person who is going to grow your story. I’ve had more than one client tell me they picked me because I made them cry. Not that I was mean, but I saw so much more in the story than the people who told them everything was brilliant.
  • Negotiate a schedule and process. If you have deadlines, tell your editor up front.
  • Ask questions, argue. The editor is not always right. This is your book, and in the end, you decide. The editor should be able to adjust their work to fit your vision of the book. You want your book, only refined, not your book the way the editor would write it.
  • Pay for the work. This person is taking hours of their time to work through your book. They deserve to be paid on time and without griping. If they are too expensive, you are better to find someone else than try to talk them down.



Pain and Writing

Over the years I’ve dealt with being fired, poor, homeless, not to mention  time as a single parent after my wife’s accident left her unable to parent for the better part of a year. There’ve been some real highlights too, the resurrection of our marriage, the continuing joy of being a parent and now a grandparent. Through all that and more I have been an author and reviewer. None of it stopped me from writing though some caused more turmoil for my characters.

The first thing to slow the flow of words is the literal pain in the neck which I carry around as a daily challenge. Think of a mild migraine headache which started some five years ago and hasn’t let up since. If I listed all the things I’ve tried in that time I would double the word count for this post. Let’s just say, if you’ve thought of it, I have tried it.

So what does this have to do with writing? Imagine my capacity to get through the day as an eight ounce glass of water. In a normal day I might use four to six ounces to do the things I do, including being a loving husband and an author/editor. The left over goes into a reserve which I can draw on during family crises or NaNoWriMo.

Dealing with the effects of the pain takes about two or three ounces. Not too bad, I’m over some days and under others. Problem is I don’t sleep well, so my total capacity is lowered to five or six ounces. On a good day I have nothing left, on a bad day, I’m overdrawn.

What happens now is I take the part of the day between the cracks and I write. Mostly working on my client’s books to not fall too far behind. That’s important, as I need the editing money to pay the bills, not to mention my commitment to help those authors with their craft.

In the remaining cracks, in the car or grocery line, at a coffee shop waiting, in the wee hours of the night when sleep is scarce, I write my stories in my head. Over and over and over so I won’t forget them. Then with five minutes here or ten minutes there I type them into the computer.

I’m a writer, I write. That sounds trite until you’ve spent ten minutes staring at the screen trying to remember what you blocked out at the store. Yet the words build up, the story takes shape. I achieve a few victories, book are published, reviews suggest people like them. Also I take new blows which threaten to knock me down. I’m on long term disability for the pain and depression. It’s not only hard to move, but hard to care. I’m single again as after seventeen years, my wife has decided again, she doesn’t get what she needs from our marriage. All of it goes into the stories to be transformed.

I’m a writer so I write, even when it is impossible to write I write. I’ve typed pages with my eyes closed because of the pain. Because I’m a writer.

When I die, my heirs will find unfinished stories on my computer.

One last thing about writing and pain, I believe my writing is richer, has more depth. I know pain so I can write pain, my characters can be twisted by life and still be whole. And one more blessing yet, they may find their way free.

And in that second, that moment of transported joy, I become free too.

I am not made out of my pain, but out of the stories I’ve been given to tell.


Alex McGilvery   visit me at https://alexmcgilvery.com