Monday, September 19, 2011

When Something Goes Wrong

Recently, I was taking a final pass through one of my short stories before sending it to a crit partner. As I was reading it, I was struck with a sickening feeling. There was a huge -- no, an enormous -- plot hole in the story. One that dealt with the central problem of the story and basically would have left the reader saying to themselves "Uh, hey, why are they going about it this way instead of just fixing the problem the easy way."

This, I must say, is not a happy feeling. For several moments, I was convinced that there was no way to salvage the story, and I was feeling rather stunned. In fact, I was pretty close to completely setting the story aside, putting it into the "nice idea" pile, and finding something else to send to my crit partner for his review. Fortunately, I got past that initial panic reaction and thought some more. Maybe there was a way to recover the story?

I went back and re-read some of the materials I used for research on the story. I found something which had seemed irrelevant upon first reading but turned out to be exactly what I needed to justify the situation my characters found themselves in. I made some changes and sent it off.

My crit partner read the story and didn't have any concerns with the logic of the situation. He did, however, call out the section where I'd "patched" my story as being one that seemed sort of infodumpy. Looking at it again, I saw that he was absolutely right. This isn't completely surprising, as I was probably not in the best writing frame of mind when I made those changes and I was thrilled just to be justifying things. I ended up taking out almost the whole section I'd added in immediately after my revelation and putting relevant pieces back in here and there throughout the story.

So, what's the take-away here? Three big points stick out in my mind:

1) Don't Delete! I wasn't really at risk of deleting this story per se -- I have multiple backups and I tend to be a file pack-rat. However, I was so disgusted I could easily have chucked the story aside and never gone back to it. Since it seems like I've repaired it, that would have been a big mistake! Admittedly, there may be a time when you find that a story has such a major problem that it truly isn't reworkable. I wouldn't want to make that decision before giving it an additional reading after several days' time to get over the initial frustration. Even then, I still would suggest keeping a copy of the file around. There still could be something you might re-use, or you could even come up with a fix to the story months later.

2) When you realize something has gone wrong, go back and revisit your assumptions and your research. Maybe you can find something that you can tweak which fixes the damage you found. In my case, I used a technical fact about an outer-space body to bolster my story's logic. But there are plenty of other ways that you might reconsider aspects of your story. Even characterization could be a way of helping fix a story that had gone wrong. If a character had a particular trait that could be written naturally into the story and could help explain a particular behavior, that might help your story make more sense.

3) If you have to change a significant amount of text, you'll want to bear in mind that the new text isn't polished text yet. This can be especially true if, like I was, you're flustered when you write it. But even if you're completely calm, it still would be good to give that chunk of your story an extra review before you would submit it anywhere.

Obviously, this could be easier in a short story than in a novel or a series. I can't imagine how I would have felt if I'd realized that there was this type of issue in a 70,000 word novel rather than an 4,500 word short story. On the other hand, in those longer works, you have more time invested so you also have more incentive to find a fix.

Have you run into similar problems with stories once you've written them? If so, what techniques worked for you?


  1. I'm a file version hoarder too! That's only a problem with my novels when there's gazillions of different files and I want to find a cut line 8 versions ago so things are "just right."

    I also like your recommendation to revisit the research. So often there's a hidden gem or some fact that wasn't initially relevant that can take your story to the next level!

    So glad you were able to fix your story!

  2. I always keep a "OMITS" document for my novels. Although I rarely use what I've cut out, I find it easier to slash away text knowing it's still accessible.

    I have found that when I feel totally frantic to submit something, as in "RIGHT THIS MINUTE or ELSE!," it's usually best I sleep on it first. Or at least wait an hour or so... Inevitably there's some major, obvious type-o or something...hidden beneath my panic. ;) Passion is good, but patience is necessary. I learn this lesson repeatedly.

    Thanks for the great post!

  3. PS I'm not able to post using my WordPress account on you blog for some reason... Could be something on my end -- just a heads up.

  4. Glad you liked the post, August, and sorry to hear about the WordPress difficulty. I see WordPress as a commenting option in the drop-down on the blog here, but maybe there's something I'm just not aware of that's making it wonky.

    Thanks for the heads-up.

  5. I am in this particular situation now! Loved your take away, will have to try it on my own ms :D

  6. I try what you mention in your post. Being flexible to some change makes the biggest difference. Beside, you never may start "fixing" an issue but you're soon inspired to so something that improves it even more.

  7. Hi there, Hope you are well :-) If I've already introduced myself I apologise. I can't keep up with who I've said Hi to and who I haven't. I am in your Fantasy Group. I'm just trying to catch up with everybody slowly but surely :-).
    Fab blog.
    Eve x

  8. Ms Saba, I hope that it works for you. Good luck with it!

    Angela, indeed. If you just say "Well, it's broken and I can't change it" then you're stuck good.

    Eve, thanks for stopping by to say hello!

  9. This happened to me about 90,000 words into my WIP. I remember sitting in my living room thinking, "Why the hell didn't this character just SAY something?" Which I was convinced would change about 75% of the novel. After weeping in despair for a good 30 minutes, pacing my apartment and breaking things (slight exaggeration for effect), I realized it was a fairly simple fix. I went through a similar dilemma when I realized the pacing in the first half of the novel was borked.

    Essentially from both these experiences I learned the same lesson you did: Occam's Razor. The simplest fix is often the best. I made the first issue into a plot point and rearranged several scenes to fix the second issue.

    What you said about being in a poor frame of mind is very relevant, I think. In Draft 1.0, I was just happy to be justifying things, too, but now it has to make sense to other people. I try to be forgiving with myself for borking it the first time around and look for the most straightforward fix when I have to put the story back together again.

  10. Great post, Michael! I am a file pack rat too and had to laugh at that description, fits me to a tee. I'm glad though as there have been times I've been very glad to have those files! This is a helpful post to keep in mind as I'm working through my novel, thanks for sharing. :)

  11. Great comments, Vivien, especially your point about the simplest fix often being the best! Thanks for stopping by and I'm glad to hear that you were able to recover things in your WIP.

    Julie, we file pack rats have to stick together! :) Thanks for stopping by, and good luck with working on your novel.

  12. I have a separate file where I put any paragraph or sentence that I cut, just in case I want to go back and use it later.

    Writing Through College

  13. Great advice - I think we've all found ourselves in a similar situation at one point or another.

  14. Hello, fellow Beginning Blogger campaigner here, finally making my way through the blogosphere.

    File pack rat--um, guilty as charged. Your idea to check the research again is brilliant. I have had this situation happen, thankfully only in a short piece *phew*. I ended up with a rather large rewrite, but hey, it was good practice!

  15. Thanks, Samantha, Nicole and Elizabeth for stopping by and commenting!

  16. Another fellow file pack rat! Yay!

    I have had those "oh crap!" moments many times. I'm having one right now (which is why I'm on your blog instead of writing - taking a quick breather).
    The fix is easy, but not quick. Implementing it is going to take adding quite a few new scenes. So writing, checking consistency between old and new scenes, and then of course, polishing, polishing.

    It's so good to know I'm not alone...

  17. L. S., thanks for stopping by!

    Yes, you're definitely not alone in this. I'm glad that you came across this post at such a fortuitous time for you and hope that the fix to your story goes well.

    Best of luck!