I have been hacking one heck of a tough time with this story that I’ve been working on. I started the story months ago. I got through about 70% of the first draft before realizing there were some serious problems.
Over the years, I’ve developed a fairly standard process for how I work on my stories, mostly by trial and error. I eventually landed on the process similar to how Stephen King works, which is to write a first draft telling myself the story, and the second draft telling the reader the story. Coming from a software development background, my story drafts all get version numbers in their file names. So, the very first cut at a first draft is version 1.0. If I need to start over taking a different approach in the first draft, it becomes 1.1. The first cut at the second draft is 2.0, and if I need to start over with a different approach there it becomes version 2.1, 2.2, etc. You get the idea.
Since I’ve been using this method, I’ve never gone beyond 1.3 in the first draft before nailing it, or giving up… until now.
Last night, I began draft version 1.7 of this story I’m trying to write. Yes, I’ve restarted the story seven times. Version 1.0 grew to about 12,000 words. That was the farthest I managed to get. Each subsequent attempt has been stalled well before reaching that point. I’ve tried lots of different approaches (well, 8, if you count the first one) and none seem to work.
In the ordinary course of events, I’d tell myself that this meant I simply wasn’t ready to tell this particular story and move on to something else. Indeed, I set this story aside to work on other things–but the idea of the story kept coming back to me. It don’t know if this makes sense to non-writers, but this story is screaming to be told.
I mention this for two reasons:
First, I don’t want to give the impression that just because I’ve figured out a way to write every day, means I write well every day. Nor does it mean that the words flow easily every day. With this story in particularly, it has been difficult to come to the keyboard each night because I’m afraid that I won’t make any progress, or that I’ll be forced to start over yet again. But I still write. I still force out the words, although it is sometimes like pulling teeth, and sometimes, even though the story isn’t working, new little facets emerge that help provide a new angle to what I’m trying to do. Perhaps the most important thing to take away here, is that, for me, even though fighting with a story like this can be frustrating, it is still fun. It’s a challenge. How am I going to pull it out in the end?
Which leads to my second reason for mentioning this. Throughout my career as a software developer, there have been numerous times when I’ve been thwarted on a problem by some thorny code or algorithm. Sometimes, I’ve just given up and looked for some other way to solve the same problem. But occasionally, I come into the office determined. I sit down in front of the computer and mutter, sometimes aloud, “I’m not budging until I’ve solved this problem.”
What I’ve noticed about these times is that it takes a little while, and a fair amount of frustration to build up this level of determination, but that once I hit that mark, once I sit down at the keyboard and mutter my incantation, I usually come up with a nifty solution before the day is out. Determination feeds inspiration, which in turn, frees me to think more clearly somehow.
I suspect the same is true for storytelling. And while there are times and places to give up on a story, this is not one of them. I like this story too much and I really want to tell it well. So I am now attempting to bring that same determination to getting this story right as I do to coming up with creative solutions to coding problems that irritate me. I’m turning the frustration I’ve had with this story into a challenge.
To that end, I’ll mention that the title of the story, which will likely be a novella, is “Strays.” If (when) the story sees print some day a year to two from now, I want to be able to point back to this post as an example that even the tough stories, the ones that seem like they will never work, can be bent into shape eventually, with enough effort and determination. The process may be frustrating at times. You may find yourself thinking, why do I bother? But for me at least, even the frustrating parts of telling a story are fun.