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.


God: Character or Setting?

Is God a character in your story or part of the setting? Strange question, but bear with me here. If God is a character, then He needs to be treated in the same way as other characters; namely gradually revealed through the story. It’s unlikely God will have a character arc which changes Him, but a flat arc is very useful. The flat arc is for a catalyst character who doesn’t change during the story, but forces the people around her, especially the protagonist to change. Sound about right?

Brooklyn Museum-The Pilgrims of Emmaus on the Road, James Tissot

My experience is few books treat God as a character. One of my favourite examples is To Darkness Fled by Jill Williamson. Achan has been struggling with God through the first book and To Darkness Fled, the second. He has good reason to be angry with God, though God keeps showing up to preserve him. In a scene toward the close of book two, Achan is in a beautiful old temple praying, wrestling with his faith. Finally he submits himself and his life to God. At that moment the Temple explodes leaving Achan sitting in the ruins with a warning from God that things are going to get really hairy from here on out.

There are a few points to consider here.

First, God and the characters interact through the story. Things change because of God; it doesn’t have to be miracles, it could be attitudes of the characters around, a change of heart in one of the villains. God is active and at least spiritually present.

Second, God has character traits which are revealed through the interactions. This seems like a no brainer, but if you are intending the book for anybody but a purely religious audience you need to show what God is like in this particular moment in this particular time. That is harder than it sounds. Are you showing the forgiveness of God? The Love? The Call to discipleship? Trying to do too much at once leaves the reader confused, or unsure which attribute is affecting the main character.

Finally, and this is an important one, while God is present at the climax of the book, God doesn’t resolve the plot. Greek Tragedy had a thing Deus ex Machina literally God in the Machine. At the end of the play, the Gods would step in and sort everything out, making the character’s journeys pointless. If the character is to come to the final revelation of what God wants them to learn, then they must be the focus of the final struggle, not God. So no last minute conversion making everything all right, no miracle to defeat the enemy, just what God is in most of the scripture stories, a present strength for the character to live righteously.

God as a part of the setting.

God doesn’t interact with the characters. The assumption is he is present, but nothing much changes because of that presence. He is there the same way a mountain is there. An example is Uneven Exchange by S.K. Derban where all the good guys pray constantly, about everything, but while they make a decision based on their prayer, it doesn’t change them as a character.

There is no slow revealing of God in the story. The Characters’ understanding of God is the same at the end as at the beginning. God’s relationship to them doesn’t alter any more than the air or the ground changes from start to finish of the book. (if it does it’s because it’s being acted on, not because it’s acting)

Lastly, God is not a substantial part of the conclusion. The assumption is God is present, but there is neither a deus ex machina ending, nor a God present giving strength to the character in a different way than at the beginning of the story. So the character will pray about the final battle, but it won’t be a changed prayer from what they spoke at the start of the story.

Both these situation are valid presentations of God in our story. You don’t have to have God as a character to have the story be an effective witness. Your main character may already have a strong faith, and it that faith you want to show. You may be writing in a time or place in which faith is understood to be universal, so to ignore it would damage the world you’ve carefully built.

What is important is that you think about what God is doing in your story and plan how to write about Him in a way which makes your story deeper.

Plotting to save your life

You have a great idea for a book. This guy meets a girl. So they fall in love. The End.

Sounds a little boring. Maybe the girl is in love with someone else, so the guy has to bump off the other guy so he can comfort the girl. Wait, this is beginning to sound more like horror than romance. That’s cool you can just change the category. But it is still boring.

Your story has a case of linear plot. It starts here, goes there and not a whole lot more. We already have a pretty good idea of how it’s going work out so why bother?

Your story needs a talking donkey, and no not the one from Shrek. What I mean is you need something completely unexpected that derails the trip from here to there. Think of your plot as a road. Flat boring, maybe the scenery is nice, but how long can you look at scenery. So lets shake things up. Let’s turn that plot into a roller coaster.

First thing you need to do is add some urgency to the situation. Make the passage of time count. This is your time bomb. If the hero or heroine take too long the world will end, either literally or metaphorically, your choice.

Now our hero is sweating; they don’t have forever. Good, so now we make life miserable for them. What is the one thing that they really, really want? Make it impossible. Send the girl to Antarctica, have the hero come down with something really nasty. Just as he’s ready to give up he gets a sliver of hope. She sends him a postcard with a penguin on it, oh wait he supposed to give it to his best friend.

Now you have conflict. All stories need conflict. People fight with each other, with the world, with themselves. Think of it as hot sauce for your story. It adds some punch. There is nothing better than conflict for shaping a character and plot line into something that will keep your readers guessing.

The important thing to remember is you can’t just add random conflict to the story. It needs to move the plot along. Each conflict must change something. A fight between the two boyfriends won’t matter if something doesn’t shift because of the fight.

The idea isn’t to make it impossible to know for certain what is going to happen next. We don’t want totally random. Drop hints about the big blow up ending.  The story is as much about the journey as the ending, so make sure you make the ending worth the ride.  Remember that time bomb? Now your story is more roller coaster than road. People are screaming and hugging each other and it’s flying around corners and doing loops. Your story has life. It has a talking donkey, it has a PLOT.

Now once you have a plot, you will need to understand the mechanics of story. Inciting incidents, plot points, pinch points and all the rest. The good thing is if you tell a really interesting story, those mechanics will pretty much take care of themselves. The reason you want to understand them is for editing and revising. If your story is off balance, go back and check to see if you have all the pieces.

Instead of explaining it all here, I’m going to point you to K.M. Weiland’s super fantastic blog where she explains everything using movies and books to illustrate. Check it out.

Helping Writers Become Authors