Monday, July 16, 2012


by Kathleen Bradean

It's hard to pick which story has given me the most trouble. I have many unfinished short stories on my hard drive. Sometimes a concept seems really good, but executing it is a whole other issue - and do I ever have an execution horror story.

This is the tale of a novel that gave me fits and frustrations galore before I finally soldiered through. I've mentioned this novel before on the Grip before, but here's the history:

Last year, I decided to take the NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) challenge. 50,000 words in a month. Some writers can whip out that word count in a month easily, but I'm a slow writer. Some days - some weeks - one sentence is huge progress on a story for me.

I talked to veterans of NaNoWriMo, and many told me that they prepared well in advance. You're not allowed to write the first word until November 1, but that doesn't mean you can't think about what you're going to write. I'm not an outliner, at least not a formal one, but I always go into a story knowing where it will start and where it will end. It's the stuff between that's a murky soup of intentions, themes, and snippets of scenes. But Nobilis Reed told me about the snowflake method for outlining and I decided that I'd make my NaNoWriMo experience as much about trying new methods and challenging my comfort zones as it was about cranking out the word count. So I made a detailed outline.

(Lesson learned on outlines: I still loathe them. I'll never do one again (to that level). But the beginning steps of the snowflake method taught me a few useful things, so I suggest taking a stab at those even if you're a dedicated pantser.)

One November 1, I started writing. The good thing about the snowflake method is that every night when I got home from work, I knew exactly where I was in the story and where it had to go next. So much of my writing time is spent staring at the blinking cursor in Word trying to figure out what happens next, or pacing in the back yard, pulling on my bottom lip, mulling over what "true" reaction my character would have to what just happened. Since I'd already done that before I started typing, I could go directly to producing word count. And it worked. I finished my 50,000 word count with half a week to spare.

But the story was wrong. It was simply unreadable. I suppose a very forgiving reader might have put up with it, but from my viewpoint, it wasn't the story I intended to tell. That happens a lot, believe me. Stories take off in unexpected directions. But there's a difference between telling an unexpected story and a piece of crap.

So in December, I rewrote it. Not editing. No, this was writing the whole thing from scratch. Rewriting a 70,000 word novel is not something a writer undertakes lightly. You want to salvage something from your work. I chucked out everything and started fresh.

Two months later, I finished. It still didn't work. Can you imagine the frustration? I was sick to my stomach for a couple weeks. "Oh, it's not that bad," I told myself. Then I'd read it and realize it was. There was no fixing it.

This is why I'll never be an outliner. Yes, the outline made it possible to finish that story in the allotted time, but it also didn't allow me to recognize when things weren't working and tweak the story as I was writing it to fix the plot problems. There was no flexibility. Some writers can write to an outline. More power to them. But I'm not one of them.

So here I had a 70,000 word novel that I'd written twice already and it still didn't work. Meanwhile, I saw calls for submissions that I wanted to write for and, oh, I had a real life, and we were heading into my hell months at work.

But I believed in my main character. I just knew she was The One. She had a fascinating story around her, and it was up to me to find it. For months, I tried to convince myself to move on, but every story thought I had circled back to her. On the other hand, I didn't want to commit novel writing time to something that would never work. I had never rewritten an entire novel once, much less twice.

I spent some time mulling over the problem. My main character was so strong that she overshadowed everyone else on the page. The other characters drifted to fit the reaction she needed, but it made them inconsistent and lacking in definition as "real" people. Also, while the main character was fascinating, and would be no matter what she was up to, the plot sucked.

 What to do? A sane person would have walked away from the mess and gone on to something more satisfying.

I suppose I'm not entirely sane.

I tossed out everything and sat down to version three. While bits of original plot remain, they're more thematic than events. I changed the starting point of the story. I changed the end. I discovered things as I wrote. While pacing in the back yard, I asked myself "what would a smart person do right now if this were happening to her?" Not what would she do to fit the plot. What a real person would do. The answer came with a jolt of clarity that not only illuminated that scene, it showed me the path through the murky middle of the novel to the end. As a writer, I live for creative moments like that.

That novel is on submission to a publisher right now.


After four months of not writing anything except Oh Get a Grip posts, this sentence floated into my mind earlier this week:

The morning QuiTai woke completely sane, she knew Petrof was dead.

I'm 12,000 words into the next novel in this series. I think, maybe, I've finally got this problem child in hand.


  1. I relate to this a lot, because this is the way I write. When I read about you doing the third overhaul and it suddenly became meaningful this is the part I always think of as finding "the soul of a story". I think a lot of writers miss that chance because they don;t go through that overhaul process, too often we just edit and spell check. I think to find out what a story is really about you have to run it through the keyboard a least a couple of times. Dostoyevsky rewrote "The Idiot" five times from scratch, and that was writing longhand. I think that's the way to do it.


  2. Grace - Poor Dostoyevky. He probably wrote by hand! Thank you for telling me about him. It makes me feel better. But at the time, I felt like the proverbial 100 monkeys at typewriters. "There's a novel somewhere. If I just type enough words, I'll find it!"

  3. Kathleen, you deserve a lot of credit for persistence. This is what makes a "born" writer. (I'm not sure those exist.)

  4. Jean - I'm a born something. Masochist, maybe.

  5. When a character won't let you go, be grateful. Yeah, I know this was a hellish experience, but you're fortunate to have the passion that fueled your rewrites.

    And I really hope the book gets accepted! (I'm not sure which version I read - but I loved it!)


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