In a post last week, I talked about how I’m going to take a little break from novels and try to boost my writing morale by finishing a couple of short stories. I decided to work on a paranormal horror story that has been sitting in my WIP folder for…wow, for like six years.
Here’s the thing about it. It’s 6500 words long, which is a little longer than my typical short story, and it’s got pretty good characters and an interesting premise. But it’s plot is…how shall we say this? It’s plot is like a maze with no solution.
Reading through the first draft for the first time, I just found a half-way written plot riddled with inconsistencies and no clear sense of direction. So why is this?
Because “Pantsing” Alone Doesn’t Work For Me.
When I first started writing, I took every word in Stephen King’s On Writing book as gospel. Everything he said in that book made perfect sense to me, and most of it still does. But one part that doesn’t is where he shoots all over outlining. And again, I get what he’s saying–that outlining can take the fun out of writing and maybe even kill your creativity, so you should just write at the seat of your pants, as the kids say.
And that was how I started. I got a lot of first drafts done without any pre-writing, planning, or outlining. I told everyone that I discovery-wrote Holy Fudgesicles. (Only I realized later, I didn’t; even though I had no formal written outline, I did plan all of the major scenes out in my head before I wrote them.) But none of them were very good, and they all required an insane amount of clean-up. I have definitely changed my tune about outlining in the recent years, and if you’d like a little more in-depth talk about that, check out Planners and Pantsers episode of the podcast (Cheap plug!) to see what works and what doesn’t work for Scott and me.
Ah, so where was I? Oh yeah, this short story I had from several years ago was written without any plan. (Ooh, yuck, I just slipped into a passive voice there.) But still, this story, with it’s interesting characters and frightening scenes, just pretty much went nowhere.
Reading it was like getting to see a forgotten part of my past. I opened up the door to a time where I knew very little about writing (as opposed to now, where I know at least a little bit) and was just pantsing it, exploring, and learning the craft.
It was actually kind of cool, but also kind of depressing.
Cool, because reading it taught me a lot. I was able to pick out errors I used to make and remind myself to continue not making them. Cool because there still is a good story buried under all of the other stuff that I will clean up and start submitting. But depressing for that same reason: I have to clean it up.
So clean it up.
This is how we learn how to become better writers. We take a broken project, identify all of the problems in it, and then fix them.
There are a lot of ways you can do this. One way is to trash the whole thing and start over with a similar setting and group of characters. It’s that whole “There are no good writers, only good rewriters” or something. That’s not how I do things, but it might work for you.
What does work for me in a case like this is to open the document and read it while making comments whenever I find a problem. And problems there were. I found lots of inconsistencies and plot holes, and also parts where the story just got off track. I could definitely see parts where I just got stuck and made something up, therefore taking the story in a direction it shouldn’t go.
In the end, after everything was marked up, I started going through and fixing things. And now I’ve got a fairly decent first draft. There are still a few more scenes to finish writing, and a lot of technical cleanup, but for the most part, I have a completed first draft now. And that is never a bad thing.
So, in closing, I think you should try this too. Pick out one of the oldest unpublished, unfinished stories you’ve got. Read it, find all of the problems, and fix them. Even if you ultimately can’t use the story, it’ll still be good practice for your editing skills.
What kind of abandoned stories lie in your WIP folder? Have you looked at them lately? Leave a comment and let us know!