How Do I Stick with a Story Even When It Seems to Suck?

Quoth “Serling”: I have long struggled with committing myself to any one idea. I’ve finished some stories but most were long ago. Ideas are not a problem; but as soon as I start working on one my enthusiasm dwindles and I abandon the tale for another. So I never accomplish much. How can I remain devoted to seeing a story through from start to finish?

Oh, Serling. Any writer who DOESN’T have a folder of abandoned titles, first lines, character sketches, first chapters, half-starts, or entire works is a sociopath. Perhaps a literal one, someone who thinks their every word is gold because they have no empathy for an audience.

The likely source of your problem is that you have an excess of this empathy, a sense of literary taste, which you are applying too early and too broadly.

To diagnose what’s going on here, I think you have to listen for the cause of your dwindling enthusiasm, which will likely be different by story. My dwindlers tend to be these:

  • I have no idea what to do next in this thing” is the most common for me because I’m an exploratory writer. My remedy is usually to write “What would be the next interesting thing that could happen in this story?” and talk myself through the plausible possibilities.
  • This story has gotten boring to write” is the second most common issue I have personally, and it usually comes when I forget (or lose touch with) what interested me in writing the story in the first place. This, too, I tend to solve with talking to myself in a journal, asking “What was the original appeal of this idea? A character? A situation? A setting? A feeling? How can I put more of that into the work?”
  • Something doesn’t feel right” is another thought that haunts me, and usually I track that down to fearing the inevitable stage of any creative work where it feels thin and flimsy, like only the skeleton of an idea. That’s a completely natural feeling, and it can only be cured by continuing to throw words at the story until you reach a critical mass of detail and feeling.
  • This story won’t be any good so to continue is a waste of time” comes up less often than it used to because of four quasi-Zen ideas I’ve been clinging to lately in my work:
    • This story will only suck if I decide to quit while it still does. I can fix almost anything, even if it means deleting everything but the three good words out of 10,000 that I’ve written so far.
    • Every story feels like a mess until a sudden shiver of recognition about 98% of the way through writing it.
    • My professional judgment about the whole story is suspect because I don’t have a whole story yet to judge. I just need to do the next good thing and rip out the previous bad one.
    • Who cares if I “waste” my time writing a story that doesn’t sell? It’s not like I’m neglecting dying children in my charity pediatric cancer practice for my writing.

There’s a lot of self-talk and journaling here, and I’m sure some tougher-minded professionals would scoff at that. They get their feedback from their peers or editors or agents or a bottle of gin, and I get some of mine from there, too.

(Not gin because I’m not an elderly man in the 1920s. Jameson’s.)

But when something goes wrong in my work, it is almost always a deviation from MY original intention or love, and another person can’t really help me with that. I have to go back to the source, spelunking down to the shriveled little weirdo in the center of my heart who sent this idea up to my brain in the first place.

To do this kind of inner dialogue means being a good writing friend to yourself. It means going from “This sucks and I’m a terrible writer” to “Huh. I wonder why this sucks and what we can do about it.” It means not taking any particular sentence or paragraph or even scene too seriously. It means seeing your work as an experiment you’re running instead of your last chance to be loved.

It means, most of all, telling yourself that the only way to fail at writing is to browbeat yourself out of doing it. 

One last idea I’ll leave you with is that all art in process makes a tremendous and terrifying mess. Go into any sculptor’s studio or baker’s kitchen and witness the excess required to make something beautiful.

This computer was designed by a genius and is the prototype of some of the most elegant machines ever invented. It’s in the Smithsonian now.

Writing is no different, and I would estimate that I’ve written about 10,000 earnest words of fiction for every one that’s been published. That’s not counting logs, journals, essays, blogs, letters, and hoaxed emails at work.

The novella I just finished is in its eighth version, counting a short story, a novel, a Master’s thesis, a revised novel, and a complete reboot. 

That’s just the cost of doing business. There are always second and third and fourth chances, and nobody has to see them until the one you like.

You just have to lessen the pressure on yourself until you get there.

What Tools Can Help Me Keep My Writing Organized?

Quoth Tom: How do you keep your larger writing projects organized? Do you use Word, notebooks, sticky notes, or some other tool, like Scrivener or Ulysses to keep everything straight (characters, plotlines, etc.)? My larger writing projects eventually turn into a tangle, which often become a chore, instead of a joyful, creative exercise.

Yay! A question about tools. I love talking about tools because every single tool holds within it the promise that FINALLY, writing will be easy.

Hunter Thompson might have had the right idea. Wrong stance, though.

I’ve tried writing in a million different ways, and what’s working for me now is this odd combination of things:

  1. Writing the initial lines, scenes, or even chapters of a work in Word, a plain text editor (like Sublime Text or even Evernote), or by hand with my twee fountain pen in a journal.
  2. Each time I return to that work, I read a little of what came before, tinker with a few things, and then ride that momentum a little further.
  3. In general, I try to write the story in order, though sometimes I’ll think of a dramatic moment and write it at the very end of the document.
  4. Eventually I get stuck, at which point I either write by hand in a journal or type in a blank document, “What the fuck is going wrong here?” and then I answer my own question until I feel a sudden spark of recognition and jump back to the main file.
  5. If a story grows beyond my ability to remember names or places, I’ll often create a secondary document (or a heading way at the bottom of the main one) where I list out things I need to remember.
  6. Sometimes, the sheer weight of stuff I’ve already written intimidates me so I’ll do the day’s writing in a file I call “workbench.docx,” working on the next small specific bit which I’ll then paste back into the main document.

That sounds really complicated, and at least one writer reading this is thinking, “But Scrivener can do all of that for you AND massage your [preferred flesh or appendage]!”

I’ve used Scrivener and done well with it, but I’ll admit that it feels very portentous when I open it, like somewhere I’m blasting a trumpet and crying, “TODAY I AM WRITING IN THE APPROVED TOOL FOR DOING SO!” That node structure on the side of Scrivener with all those folders and scenes and index cards and character sketches just looms in my imagination, even when I hide it.

(I am a total fucking weirdo, though.)

I need as little as possible between me and the next blank page, and for 90% of my writing process, I’m happily chugging along in Step 2 above using Word.

Given the question you’re asking, though, I would say that something like Scrivener (which now has a Windows version as good as its Mac one) is almost certainly what you need. You can include images and notes and videos, and it’s all nicely organized.

My caution for you, though, is this:

The less that stands between you and the words on a page, the better.

In much the same way that you’d, say, treat someone’s cancer, I’d start with simpler interventions before going full-on chemo. Some of those simpler interventions might be:

  • Writing in a single Word document using the Heading 1 style to break it into sections or chapters. Then you can open View > Navigation Pane and go immediately to any heading. Maybe those headings could be “Characters” or “Maps” or “Random Shit I Don’t Know Where to Put Yet.”
  • Writing in one document for the prose and another for notes. That might also be a physical notebook or folder.
  • Trying a product with a similar idea as Scrivener but executed a little less like the cockpit of a 747, like Novlr.org. It’s cloud-based, has a simple interface, and gives you all the organization you’ll likely need. Dabble also looks interesting, and so does Living Writer.
  • And if you need it, by all means dive headlong into Scrivener. Sometimes you’ve got a big enough lawn to need a tractor, and there’s no question Scrivener is heavy duty.

(Someone at Literature and Latte is thinking, “So do we link to this as an endorsement or what? This fucker is all over the place.”)

The reason I propose this escalating series of tools is because it’s so easy to get mired in finding the perfect one or spending way too much time setting it up or mutating your work to fit the tool instead of the other way around.

As my friend and mentor Jeffrey Ford often puts it, “What am I, a fucking bricklayer?”

At the crux of it all is finding the tool that will get out of the way of your creativity while enabling it. That will require some experimentation and some open-mindedness. You may well work best with a deck of index cards or sticky notes.

Robert Pirsig wrote Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance in this heavily-fucked up Apple II. George R.R. Martin still writes in WordStar 2.0 in DOS, which seems to jibe with the modernity of some of his other views. Hunter S. Thompson gonzo-ed by spelling out each word with rounds from a .357 in sheets of plywood. Henry David Thoreau pontificated Walden in, like, sheep’s blood or Google Docs or something.

In each of those cases, they wrote until they get stuck and then found the simplest tool to get unstuck. Your instinct to follow what’s still fun and easy is a good one, and as you accumulate a large box of tricks to save your bacon, always choose the one that’s energizing instead of exhausting.

Scrivener can help! But then, so could amphetamines. Who am I to judge?