PDA

View Full Version : How to revive a lousy story



scheherazade
08-07-2008, 08:11 PM
I'm often blocked by expectations that my story has to be great from the start. It doesn't help that, of the stories I've written recently, the strongest pieces are the ones that started with a great idea, or a great first paragraph, or a great first draft. I've also written lots of lousy first drafts but haven't figured out how to turn them into gold. So that becomes a big blocking factor - there's so much pressure to come up with something great from the start that it makes it difficult for me to do much writing at all.

I think what I need is some tips on how to turn a mediocre story into something great. Let's say you've written a page or two, you've got some characters, you've got a bit of a concept or a scene, but you don't have the great idea or the great first paragraph and you're still not sure where it's going. How do you take this and create a great story? I know you can strengthen a first draft by cutting unneeded words, tightening the prose, adding more tension. But that only gets you so far. How do you revive a lousy first draft into a great second draft?

tehuti88
08-07-2008, 08:28 PM
The only thing that honestly helps me is to feel a great enthusiasm/passion for the story, if not from the start, then at some point along the way. I have no reason or desire to improve a story if it's not something I'm willing to invest a great deal of energy in, and the only way I'll be willing is if it's something I truly believe or am interested in.

As for how to reach that point, I'm afraid I haven't any ideas for you. :( I simply don't write about things I'm not passionate about. I recall one time I tried to do so and the story turned out so dreadful that even other people noticed it and complained. You can fiddle with cutting words and trying to improve the style all you want, but if you don't feel a passion for the story itself, it's going to show.

I don't know if you did start out with that enthusiasm and it just died along the way for some reason (been there, done that), or if you have to write on a particular subject you just don't feel for. Either way, is there some way you can drum up your own interest in the subject? If it's something you truly care about then it's bound to show in the writing, and make it both stronger and more interesting to a reader as well as to you.

My apologies this isn't terribly concrete, I realize it might not be useful in the least! It must be very frustrating. I've been in the position of having some truly lousy stories, but when I want to redo them I always have a passion for doing so and I hope that helps make them better. The ones I don't care about anymore, I don't deal with. I can't imagine wanting to write/improve something without really wanting to.

Judg
08-07-2008, 09:34 PM
Really, that would depend on precisely what is making them lousy. Can you be more specific?

NicoleMD
08-07-2008, 10:14 PM
I'm glad you asked. I'm wondering the same thing.

I started a story and was really digging it. Wrote for four hours or so, until I got tired. But when I returned to write more the next day, that magic was gone. I forced myself throught it, wrote a couple thousand more words, then decided they were the wrong words and scrapped them. (Saved them in a different file, that is. Just in case.) I went back to the point I still had passion for the story. I think I just took it in the wrong direction. I'm still having issues, but hopefully things will work out.

Nicole

Danthia
08-07-2008, 11:30 PM
I belong to two crit groups and I teach a few writing classes, so I see a lot of first draft stories. I've learned over the years that most "bad" stories happen because there is no actual story. There's a great premise, or a cool idea, but nothing driving that idea, which is why the story falls flat.

I'd suggest looking at the work and seeing if there is an actual story there or just a great idea. Is there a protagonist faced with a problem, who must overcome strong external obstacles (and some internal ones) to solve his problem or something really bad happens? If so, then you have a solid story structure. If not, then that could be your missing piece. The best writing in the world won't make up for lack of a good story.

willietheshakes
08-08-2008, 12:21 AM
With a name like Scheherazade, I guess the success of every story is pretty vital...

KTC
08-08-2008, 12:34 AM
If I ever find mediocre in my story I start over. I'm not happy pumping 'great' into it. If it doesn't occur naturally, why bother.

Soccer Mom
08-08-2008, 12:39 AM
Sometimes, stories just don't come together, like brownies that never set up. Set aside the lousy first draft and write the story again from scratch. If it doesn't come together, just move on. Write another story. Don't keep beating yourself up about the one that wasn't great.

The Lady
08-08-2008, 04:31 AM
One of my stories was giving me jip. One day my fingers refused to write it. Instead they insisted on going back in time, three hundred years, to tell the story of her long dead ancestor. I went with it although I knew what I was writing was unpublishable (as it was.) It was a cross between an outline and a synopsis with a few scenes thrown in here and there. It intrigued me greatly as I really had no idea what was going to happen until I wrote it and I had to find out.

Two days and five and a half thousand words later, I knew his story. But also, because of his history, I also knew why my short story character had got herself into the position she was in, and several other new ingredients for the story.
I returned to my short story and this time, my fingers did want to write. And I also had a new novel idea, her ancestor's.

So, just maybe you don't know your characters well enough. Open a new page and let them talk.


I know you can strengthen a first draft by cutting unneeded words, tightening the prose, adding more tension

I will also add that the very best way I've found to make a story that's not working work, is this. Print it out. This is only to have it as a reference beside you.

Then start typing the story completely from scratch again. I find this very freeing and all the stuff you already know because you have finished the story will (almost) effortlessly interweave itself as you go. It's a technique that's rescued many a story for me. I usually find when I do this that I reuse something like about 10% of the actual words from the old draft.

Trying to edit a draft that's not working can be like getting dressed under the bed.

Linda Adams
08-08-2008, 02:45 PM
I don't think there's an easy answer to this. Mine would be to just (borrowing an army phrase) suck it up and drive on. I had a first draft which I cringe at. I wrote it in thirty days and didn't even have a handle on what the story was about. I was excited about the idea, but figuring how to turn that into a story is taking extensive work on a second draft.

So, some suggestions ...

Save an original version of the first draft. When you work on the second draft, you may find there are scenes that you cut out that later fit in better. Being able to get them easily will be a big help.

Try outlining your draft. Go through each scene and write a sentence or two describing how the scene applies to the plot. You'll probably find places where there are holes that need to be filled in and other chapters where there doesn't seem to be a point.

Each time you work on it, resave the drafts so if you need to go back and get something you took out a couple of days later, you can easily grab it.

Try using MS's chapter headings so you don't have to think about rearranging the chapter names as you make many different changes. I'm working in 100 page chunks, and I just moved the contents of Chapter 11 and plopped them at the end so I could replace the existing chapter with something that fit better. The old part will go somewhere else, which I'll decide later. The chapter headings are really nice because I can insert a new chapter in, and I don't have to update all the chapter numbers (otherwise, I'd have points where I'd be terribly confused!).

But the biggest thing, I think, is start somewhere. If you're not sure where, pick a chapter at random and start doing something with it, even it's just trimming words.

I also recommend reading The Marshall Plan for Novel Writing. There's a couple of chapters on revising and editing that are very good. They may give you some ideas.

Ageless Stranger
08-08-2008, 03:02 PM
The only thing that honestly helps me is to feel a great enthusiasm/passion for the story, if not from the start, then at some point along the way. I have no reason or desire to improve a story if it's not something I'm willing to invest a great deal of energy in, and the only way I'll be willing is if it's something I truly believe or am interested in.


Very true. I've rewritten my current story a few times and gotten very weary of editing but the passion is still there, the drive to make this story truly complete. I like it too much, I am attached to the characters. I couldn't imagine dropping it. Passion is ultimately the greatest motivator when writing. If I lost my passion for it (which seems unlikely at this stage) then I'd probably drop it despite all the work I've put into it. If I, the creator, do not love it, how can I expect anyone else to?

Keep in mind there is a difference between lousy writing (which can and does improve if you keep at it) and a lousy story (which often cannot be improved, in my honest opinion). When I started out, my writing was truly indescribable in the worst possible sense. Now I find myself drawn into my own writing.

rosiecotton
08-08-2008, 07:25 PM
[quote=Ageless Stranger;2632717]Very true. I've rewritten my current story a few times and gotten very weary of editing but the passion is still there, the drive to make this story truly complete.'

I agree. You shouldn't beat yourself up over 'greatness' but focus only on the concrete. What sucks and why? Be honest. The hardest leap is often from the first draft onwards. Look for lulls in the work - try to spin more webs to flesh out character motivation, plot lines, etc. Be willing to discard trash even that creates much more work.

Passion for your story/novel/ideas isn't just the rush of limitless inspiration, everything going right, skipping meals, fourteen hour days, etc. It's the motivation to see the work complete and that means discipline and rigid determination even when you think the work stinks, can't be bothered, don't love the story anymore. Being able to write through these insecurities separates those who finish stories/novels from those who don't.

The magical spark comes and goes. Don't rely on it to always be there. Who's writing these projects? - something out 'there' or YOU? Once upon a time you thought your idea had legs - it probably still does. Passion sparks many ideas. Damn hard work finishes them.

If duff paragraphs held writers' back, we'd live in a world without books. Sometimes the words just don't work. There are others to choose from. Commit to completing a work. Writing sparks fresh ideas. Fear of failure doesn't.

Summonere
08-08-2008, 10:02 PM
How do you revive a lousy first draft into a great second draft?


Keep the good idea. Change the expression. Sometimes this works wonders and produces a story almost unrecognizable from the first.



I think what I need is some tips on how to turn a mediocre story into something great.


Sometimes it can be done. Other times it's hopeless. In other words, sometimes a story is as good as it's every going to get, so call it finished and move on.



Let's say you've written a page or two, you've got some characters, you've got a bit of a concept or a scene, but you don't have the great idea or the great first paragraph and you're still not sure where it's going. How do you take this and create a great story?


Sometimes this is called floundering, and you flounder for pages before you hit upon the right mark, at which point you charge full speed ahead, only later tossing out that floundering. Floundering isn't always useless, by the way. Sometimes it's how you figure out what you really need to write, or how it needs to be written. Then there's this:

You can only produce the best story you know how. "Great" is usually up to someone else to decide (and then only once the story is finished). Then again, sometimes it serves to have an idea first, and to proceed from there. Now, what constitutes an idea differs from person to person. Mostly, though, an "idea" is both "what the story is about," as well as "that which sufficiently motivates you to write a story." An idea might be a character, a theme, a situation, or a particular ax you want to grind. In turn, these "idea" things find themselves concretely expressed in whatever happens on page one, which leads to a series of actions and events that comprise plot. If all goes well, this plot is a natural outgrowth of whatever happens to page one.



How do you revive a lousy first draft into a great second draft?


Replace the bad parts with good parts. Still, if the engine in your story is a Smart Car 3-banger, and you put a Bugatti Veyron body on it ... it's likely that many may like the writing, but not the story. This would be known as putting style over substance. You want both style and substance.

So if the idea is good, the structure works, but the writing isn't smooth or expressive, work on the writing. If all else is sound, but the structure is clumsy, nonsensical, or broken, then fix the structure. But if the idea is rotten, nothing else you do anywhere else along the way will help. (That said, I'm not sure there are rotten ideas so much as what is done with them can be rotten.)

scheherazade
08-09-2008, 08:17 AM
I belong to two crit groups and I teach a few writing classes, so I see a lot of first draft stories. I've learned over the years that most "bad" stories happen because there is no actual story. There's a great premise, or a cool idea, but nothing driving that idea, which is why the story falls flat.

That sounds about right. But with the most recent examples I can think of, it almost seems like the opposite is true. My "strong" stories have been ones where I didn't have much idea about plot to begin with, and I just sort of played around, maybe pulled a plot out of what was happening, just rolled with it. I'd like to be more plot-driven but I don't get a lot of plot-driven ideas. But recently I did come up with a pretty good idea based on a "what if" extrapolation of a real-life experience. However, when I tried to write it it was pretty stilted - maybe too much emphasis on the plot and none of the whimsical exploration that apparently is my writing strength.

So I mean... as a concept I certainly have more passion to see these plot-driven stories on the page than to see something come out of this vague notion (eg "a man has an obsessive hobby") that I tend to use to drive a more exploratory story. It's almost like if there's a story I slip into a story-telling mode... lots of telling, lots of narrative, not so much exposition. On the other hand, if there is no story, I can't write anything BUT exposition, because there's really nothing to tell.

scheherazade
08-09-2008, 08:22 AM
If I ever find mediocre in my story I start over. I'm not happy pumping 'great' into it. If it doesn't occur naturally, why bother.

See, but that's my problem. If I feel like I'm wasting my time writing the stuff that isn't fantastic, then there's more pressure to be fantastic, which means more performance anxiety, which means I'm less likely to sit down and write. How do you handle that? Or do you just start a page, and if you don't like it just start a new one? That could certainly help me get over the phobia of starting.

On the other hand, some people write stories that don't get interesting until page 5 or chapter 3 or whatever. That probably happens more often with amateur writers, but I wonder if you stick with a story you don't love, whether eventually you'll get bored or frustrated enough to dig up something good out of it. Necessity is the mother of invention.

spike
08-09-2008, 03:35 PM
See, but that's my problem. If I feel like I'm wasting my time writing the stuff that isn't fantastic, then there's more pressure to be fantastic, which means more performance anxiety, which means I'm less likely to sit down and write. How do you handle that? Or do you just start a page, and if you don't like it just start a new one? That could certainly help me get over the phobia of starting.

On the other hand, some people write stories that don't get interesting until page 5 or chapter 3 or whatever. That probably happens more often with amateur writers, but I wonder if you stick with a story you don't love, whether eventually you'll get bored or frustrated enough to dig up something good out of it. Necessity is the mother of invention.

Here are some ideas that I use:

1. Are you sure the idea is ready to be written? I like to let ideas percolate for a while before I start writing. I just play with the idea (usually when I'm walking my dogs, or doing my laundry, or any other boring task) for weeks and months. I bring up scenarios, what ifs, whys, etc in my mind until an idea is distilled. Then I'm ready to write it.

2. Allow your first draft to suck. Your first draft is just to get the story, characters, plot down on paper. Don't worry about that great paragraph or first chapter. Many writers, after finishing the first draft, realize the story actually started in a later chapter, and those initial chapters were more of a background for the writer. Or that the story changes and the initial chapters are no longer relevant. Odds are you will trash that first chapter, so let it suck.

3. Try writing the ending first. This will give you a goal (get the characters there). Don't worry if the end changes in the writing, it was only a device to make the characters move. Your story will dictate its own ending.

4. Read the thread Learn Writing with Uncle Jim (http://www.absolutewrite.com/forums/showthread.php?t=6710)

5. Remember that writing is work. The great idea is the fun part, but making it into a story is very hard work.

6. Outline. Now I don't necessarily mean the outline you used in school. There are as many types of outlines are there are writers. I'm fond of using index cards and writing scenes on them, then going back and connecting the scenes and filling in motivation.

7. If you really get stuck, stick it in a drawer and work on something else. Then go back after the story has rested and see if you can't find the magic.

8. Storyboard the story. Draw a picture for each scene, as if it were a movie. Stick figures work.

9. Join a writers group. I mean a live, in person, group. meetup.com is a good place to start. Check the local libraries and bookstores. Writers love to discuss writing problems.

10. Join a critique group (I prefer live ones, but internet ones can be good too). My theory of critiquing is that you learn very little from the feedback on your own writing, but you learn so much by carefully critiquing someone else's work.

Just some suggestions, ymmv.

Andreya
08-09-2008, 09:57 PM
hm. I kinda have the 'opposite problem'

I have a bunch of great beginnings to short stories, & then I kinda got tired & bored of them all - so my idea would be to next time (if I have another great idea lol) to just finish the damn thing! Like with songs, if you just have a stanza or verse here, you'll never have the whole thing.. so the idea is to 'just finish it' & then you'll have a bunch of not-so-great & a few great stories/songs - if you don't finish & keep obsessing how bad they are, you'll have nothing lol. That would be my tiny 2p.

Also, to not give yourself pressure.. Write a 'bad story' just for fun. Make it as bad as you can, so you can keep chuckling along.. Do all the 'wrong things' (that you can think of) &/OR give your characters the WORST possible problems, so they really have a hell going against them.. (Or, imagine yourself into one of the characters' shoes/or all of them, one after another, & write from there... What would you LOVE to see happen, what would you HATE?... This kinda kept my stories alive, as long as it did.. :))

I do realize that my biggest obstacle to fun writing is RL interfering - eg I keep saying to myself 'What's the use of writing, there's no real $$$ in it, etc'... That's what really kills my writing lol When I did it just for fun, it was a blast! (& good too..)
If you're not really having fun as you write it, not really sure if the readers will too...

What helps drown 'the voice'/'inner critic' in your head... radio (with cheery music you like, possibly related to what you write.. ie different for an action-packed scene, different for something cheery than for something thrilling/horror... ) I was suggested wine too.. lol (maybe chocolate? hmm.. but don't overdo it! lol)
I liked writing by the TV, watching silly shows I enjoyed, & using ideas for a spin-off in space, or such... :) /it has to be shows you really enjoy though, & possibly no other RL interferance from humans or loud refrigerators or such../

I haven't been able to bring myself to finish things lol... Also, sometimes after I kept fiddling with the things the stories actually lost some of the pizzaz... so... (don't listen to others too much - one person can really dislike & veto one thing, another can say they'd be delighted to have that in.. still haven't figured that one, lol.. worst thing is to have it stop you from writing/editing lol - like it did me... :) ) For me, writing is much easier than editing... Do keep the two separate.. like two different personas.. Do the writing (free-flow, just for fun), THEN do the editing (inner critic can revel in this one:))... don't try to do them at the same time...

If you 'try' to write a BAD story & fail, you might actually write a very 'good' story!! lol

timewaster
08-10-2008, 06:25 PM
[quote=scheherazade;2629863]I'm often blocked by expectations that my story has to be great from the start. It doesn't help that, of the stories I've written recently, the strongest pieces are the ones that started with a great idea, or a great first paragraph, or a great first draft. I've also written lots of lousy first drafts but haven't figured out how to turn them into gold. So that becomes a big blocking factor - there's so much pressure to come up with something great from the start that it makes it difficult for me to do much writing at all.

I ditch the stuff that isn't working and find something new. If I am not inspired by an idea I don't see why anyone else should be. If I'm not passionate about the thing at the beginning, I don't write it.