How to Finish a Dead Story You’ve Lost Interest In
Snakes are ectothermic (cold-blooded) and requires heat from an outside source. A frozen mouse can cause damage to the snake’s internal organs if it is not thawed first.
Disclaimer: No rats, snakes, or Plotters were harmed in the making of this blag post, although the author did turn their stomach a bit watching videos of a snake eating. Everything is learning.
You’re half-way through your story. You did the fun bits at the beginning, and maybe some of the boring middle bits, and then, because you were losing interest, you skipped ahead and did the end, because that’s what a lot of People On The Internet recommend: skipping around to do the fun scenes first.
Only now the fun scenes are done and you’re stuck with filling in all the gaps. You have three choices: slog, panic, or start something new.
- If you pick “slog”, then congratulations! You are likely a Plotter1, someone who makes outlines and then… checks them off? From a list? I guess? (I don’t really understand how outliners write, to be honest. I suspect witchcraft.)
- If you picked “panic” then you’re probably one of the many, many people who are still trying to figure out what your process is. Godspeed. The only way to truly understand what your process might be is to try everything once, except incest and Morris dancing.
- If you put down the half-finished story because it is now DEAD to you, D-E-D, and nothing will ever give you the motivation to start it up again, then congratulations! You are likely a Pantser and/or a snake.
See, one of the big goals of NaNo is to have a completed novel, not just 50,000 words; and so in the last week of November when I started to get bogged down in the beginning-middle of one of the episodes2 of Fletcher & Cooper I skipped ahead, 100% pantsed the ending, then continued merrily on to Episode 5 which had far more action and undead shrimp. (Also trained orcas and eagle-bears.)
But that left me, in December, needing to go back to Episode 4 and write the middle bits. Except I didn’t know what the middle bits were because I’d pantsed the ending instead of letting it develop logically. I had to infer plot points to join the beginning and the end, but I also had to incorporate whatever else was needed to drive the main plot/character arcs so that Episode 5 continued to make sense (because why make more work for myself).
I did what I usually do in these situations: take Marc out for coffee, explain the whole tangled scenario to him, and then either in the process of explaining to him figure out what I need, or we brainstorm, often while startling other coffee drinkers with out-of-context snippets of plot talk3.
The coffee meet-up was a success; many diagrams and notes were taken; detailed explanation in hand, I sat back down at my compy in January and then proceeded to do absolutely bupkis.
The story was dead. DEAD. I could not get my brain in gear. It was awful. Some days I’d drag a couple of paragraphs out like a browned Christmas tree up a flight of stairs but most days I would sit and stare at the screen for far, far too long before giving up and working on something else instead.
One night I tried explaining this frustration to Cutie, about how knowing too much about a story’s particulars kills all creative impulse for me, and after a few dead ends I stumbled on the metaphor of a snake refusing to eat a frozen rat. Snakes prefer their food alive, you see, and that means hot or at the very least “more than room temperature” and so cold rat = dead rat = uneaten rat. The story was now too cold; my StoryBrain(tm) refused to have anything more to with it.
Perhaps I could have figured out a less gruesome metaphor but the advantage to this one in particular is that it comes with its own built-in solution: snake owners have to thaw the rodent so that the snake finds it acceptable4.
So now “all” I had to do was figure out how to “microwave” the durn thing. Hooray! A problem I can solve!5
The same week I received my first request for a full manuscript from an agent, I finally figured out how to microwave the rat and it was, surprise! part of the metaphor all along: namely needing to trick my brain into thinking I was working on a new story. (Because StoryBrains are dumb.)
How to Microwave a Dead Rat of a Story
(The Victoria Feistner Way)
- Turn off WiFi. Your StoryBrain does not want to work on this story. This story is cold. It is dead. It wants to work on something neeeeew. Or failing that, surf the intertubes and pretend that counts as working.
- Close the door. Put on headphones. Sequester yourself away where-ever you can. Minimize any and all distractions. Focus your StoryBrain only on what’s in front of it. DON’T GIVE IT AN EXCUSE TO STRAY OFF-TARGET.
- Fuel up. You can’t do this alone; take this with you >receives coffee<
So far all of these steps could apply to any focus-work session but here’s where it gets tricksy:
- OPEN A NEW DOCUMENT. Start with that fresh, shiny blank page. This is a new story, okay, brain? A neeeeeew and shiny story. Look at it! So shiny! So smooth! Oooo. >dangles the shiny<
- CHANGE YOUR ROUTINE. Do you listen to music? Switch it up. Listen to something completely outside your oeuvre. Do you hear that, brain? New music, for a new story. Do you usually write on the compy? Switch to a notebook, or vice-versa. Write in the morning? Try late at night. Etc. Stand on your head, I don’t care. You do you.
- THINK OF THIS STORY AS SEPARATE. That old story? It ended at the part where Fletcher and Cooper left to track down the Fake!Livingstone. It’s donezo. This is a new story, with a new beginning/middle/end. Think of it in those terms, okay, brain? Shh, shh, look how shiny and unresolved everything is!
- WRITE FAST, NOT GOOD. As much as brains are dumb, they aren’t that dumb. After a while your StoryBrain will realize, “hey, wait, this rat is DEAD, you’re trying to feed me a DEAD RAT” and then you will be left where you started. So don’t worry about writing well, just worry about getting it done. You can’t edit what you haven’t written, so just write garbage, with all the adverbs and passive tenses and copulas you want, because you can fix it later in post.
Obviously Your Mileage May Vary but it definitely worked for me: I got four thousand words done on that Friday alone (which I live-tweeted, because #5KFriday). Several thousand more got done over the weekend, and last Monday I officially edited the ending I wrote back in November to incorporate the twist I discovered (thanks, tricked Brain! You did good!). Episode 4 is complete and seamlessly flows into Episode 5. HOORAY.
After weeks of having an unfinished Ep 4 hanging over my head, it’s glorious to feel like I can just write whatever I want again. I might dive back into Episode 5 and finish it off so I can start Episode 6; or I might take February to work on some short stories so I have more to submit this year.
I hope this method ends up helping someone else. If it does–or if you have your own method for microwaving the rat–let me know in the comments, or on twitter!
- Plotters and Pantsers as terms have come under a bit of heat lately since they are not very accurate at describing most people’s writing process, but as an outlier who generally writes by the seat of my pants (indeed, often getting surprised by my own work) I’m going to continue to use the terms.
- Just to complicate matters, Fletcher & Cooper is more or less being written as a series of novellas, called Episodes, each of which take place on a particular World Tile and have their own plot/story, but which also come together to drive the main plot forward. Sort of like a miniseries. Don’t Do The Simple Thing, that’s my motto.
- “I mean, yes, okay, obviously I will kill the kid if I have to, but I’d rather not. But I will. If needed. Where’s the bathroom again?”
- As it turns out, microwaving a dead rodent is not the go-to method for pet-snake owners. Thank god. Good thing this is still just a metaphor and doesn’t need to be scientifically accurate.
- Spoiler: it would take me several more weeks of frustration before I cracked my head on a solution. On the other hand I did write another novella and a bunch of editing so it’s not that bad.