The story nemesis

I don’t know about other writers, but I have a story nemesis and it has done a lot of damage to my writing time and confidence this year.

A story nemesis is that one story you really want to write, but no matter how hard you try, no matter how many different approaches you take, it just doesn’t seem to work right. The idea for my nemesis story came to me while I was driving eastbound on Interstate 10, approaching the transition ramp to the 405-northbound, sometime in the summer of 1998. It’s one of those ideas that caught fire with me and blossomed almost immediately. Writer friends will understand this feeling. You want to drop everything that you are doing and write the story. “Professional” writers–those writers who have developed a professional level of discipline–know better. They’ll finish what they are working on (or what they’ve been contracted to work on) and add this to the list of potential projects.

I was still trying desperately to be a writer and was 9 years from making my first professional sale.

I would work on the story in fits and starts, never getting very far. Until November 2009. It occurred to me that perhaps my problem is that the story was too big for short form. Perhaps what I needed to do was expand it into a novel. So for NaNoWriMo 2009, I decided to do just that. I’d done NaNoWriMo once before, in 2008, but never finished. (I think I gave up after 25,000 words or so). I “won” in 2010 and ended up with about 55,000 words of a novel based on my story nemesis idea.

But once NaNo was over, the story had flagged and I wasn’t sure where to take it from there.

I tried again the following November. I didn’t look at the original story but started from scratch with the assumption that I hadn’t gotten it right the last time. I did better. I wrote nearly 65,000 words before things started to feel like they weren’t going anywhere.

I decided that maybe I wasn’t a novelist and should stick to short stories. I thought I could cannibalize a lot of what I’d written in the novel attempt and make them into a series of short stories, novelettes, etc. Last year, I managed to put the nemesis story out of my mind for much of the year and focus on other things. But this year it came back and it has been taunting me since May.

Looking through my records, I see that I have been working on a short version of the nemesis story since January. I’ve written one other story this year, a very short one, but otherwise, my attention has been turned exclusively to the elusive story that I can’t seem to tell. In May, I had drinks with the editor of Analog and he asked me when he was going to see something else from me. I pitched him the nemesis story and he seemed to like the idea. Since then, I’ve been trying to write it. I can’t seem to let it go. I keep telling myself that it will be a good story–a great¬†one. But I just can’t get it out right. I keep changing scenes, rewriting and rewriting and rewriting. I change voice or point of view. I change tense. Nothing seems to satisfy me.

While I was out doing some shopping this morning, I told myself that I would give myself the rest of this week–the last week of my paternity leave–to complete a draft of the story and then I’d give up and move on. I thought I’d write a blog post about the experience to help exorcise the demon story. And then I realized: what am I going to do in a week that I haven’t done in the last 3 years? I am kidding myself. I need to jettison the story today–now!–and story work on something else, something different.

And so I am casting the nemesis story aside. I’ve done this before and it has reared its ugly head, but now I am going to do my best to ignore it. I had a goal of completing 12 stories this year and making 30 submissions. So far, I’ve completed 1 story and made 11 submissions. It’s pretty pathetic. And its not because I have a dearth of ideas. On the contrary, I’ve got a nice list of ideas for stories. But I’ve been distracted and taunted by the nemesis story all year long. I’ve let it consume that vast bulk of my available writing time.

It’s time to move on.

A nemesis story like that can be damaging in other ways than being a time sink. Not being able to get the story right has made me feel like I’ve regressed in my abilities. I realize, now, that is probably not the case. I’ve just been so absorbed in the one story that I’ve gotten into a rut that has left me feeling like I can’t tell a story. Moving onto other stories should help that. The nemesis story was longer, too. I’d estimated it coming in anywhere between 15-20K works and that may be too much for me to handle right now. I’ve done okay at shorter lengths, keeping to 7,500 words or under and maybe that’s where I should stay for a while until I get my groove back. That’s fine, too.

Finally, the rewriting has been the worst. I had developed some good habits over the years, one of which was not to rewrite at all in the first draft. Make notes, sure, mark a scene for deletion, sure. But no rewriting. It becomes (for me) a vicious cycle. Once the entire first draft is down on paper, rewriting becomes much easier because I can see the whole thing. I seemed to throw that rule out the window with the nemesis story and it cost me a lot of lost time.

The story that I think I am going to work on next is one that is not quite as “hard” science fiction as the nemesis story. It doesn’t take place in space, and while it does take place in the future, it is somewhat more focused on the characters than the sweeping events in the background, the way the nemesis story was. Hopefully it marks a good change of pace from where I’ve been.

I don’t know how many stories I’ll actually be able to finish before the end of the year, but right now, I’m trying to keep it simple and just focus on finishing the next one. I has been a long time since I’ve had that feeling satisfaction, doing one last read-through of a final draft before sending the story off to the first market on the list. That is what I am aiming for now, and you can be sure I’ll let you know when that happens.