Monday 10 August 2009

When a good story goes bad - Anne Rooney

How many abandoned ideas does the average writer have? Not finished books that never sold (we all have some of those), but ideas that never made it to the finishing line.

When a new idea strikes, it's always so seductive. It trails its peacock-feather tail in front of you, casts 'follow-me' glances over its shoulder and poses provocatively in the half shadows. You can't quite make it out, but it's pregnant with promise. How can you resist?

But some of these pouting beauties are just flirts. They have no intention of bringing anything to fruition. They get no further than a scribbled note, an idea of a title. Then off they sashay, perhaps to strut their stuff in front of someone else, or maybe to dissolve back into the ether.

Others look as though they will hang around, but after a brief acquaintance it's clear the two of you aren't really suited. You might have worked up a character outline, and sketched an episode or two, but the excitement has gone. The idea which looked so tempting is actually rather dull. You don't make another date. Or maybe you're just messing around while waiting for something more alluring to come along.

Sometimes, though, you get seriously involved. Time passes. You move from the outline (if you write one) to the research and the writing. You pour your soul into it, invest your time, neglect your loved ones. And then the idea goes bad on you. It was messing you around - it's not really serious about this book thing. It's not ready to settle down, or certainly not with you. You mope around, weedle, try to please it in different ways, offer it a new setting, a new voice, a different font (that often brings out a story's true colours), an extra character or scene. But still it sulks. It doesn't call. You leave it on the desk(top) and get on with something else. But you keep coming back to it, drafting plaintive texts to try to rouse it. You set aside time for a nice evening together with no distractions and hope that you can rekindle the magic that has gone from your relationship. It might make a little effort to rouse itself but you have to admit that really it's dead. You're poking at the corpse. Time to move on.

But it's difficult to know whether a story is really dead, really irredeemable, or whether it's just hit a rocky patch (see Linda's post yesterday - this always happens at some stage). I'm lucky - the fiction I write is relatively short. If I give up on a story, I haven't generally invested months and months in it. But even so there is that pang of longing - what if it had worked out better? What if I'm wrong and it could be saved? Am I giving up too easily? Is it just playing hard to get?

Yesterday I gave up on a story that seemed a really good idea four or five months ago. But it went stale. I went back to try to revive it, but I think its condition is terminal. Maybe it's just in a coma and if I sit with it for long enough it will come round and smile and we can carry on from where we left off... But I don't think so. Time to turn off life-support.


Nicola Morgan said...

I huuuugely identify with this, especially at the moment. I think one of the arts of being a writer is being able to certify the death of one's own idea. You can't keep pumping air and medicine at the patient - just have to let it go.

Linda Strachan said...

Loved this, Anne. Yes, some ideas are just so tempting, but underneath it all they are a disaster waiting to happen. Unfortunately you often can't really make that decision until you have taken them for a bit of a walk first!

Meg Harper said...

Oh yes, I so agree! This year I wrote a whole novel which even I can see now is rank - but I had to get it out of my system before I could move on. Not surprising I hardly make any money!

Nick Green said...

I have this idea I keep returning to every two years or so. I know I shouldn't; as you say, Anne, it's a sordid affair that will never go anywhere. Or so it seems. (Great metaphor, by the way.)

Still, with one such idea, I was able to cut one single character out of the aborted story and make her the star of a different, successful one. Sometimes these 'bad ideas' can be test tubes, for breeding materials to be used elsewhere.

The creator of the doomed SF show 'Firefly' had this classic quote on the subject: 'At what point does resuscitation become necrophilia?'

Gillian Philip said...

I love this post. It's so true, Anne. I especially love the picture!

I don't think anything should ever be thrown away, even when the love affair goes bad. I've cannibalised more unsold short stories than I can count, and they usually work better when turned on their heads and inside out, and had new limbs sewn on.

And Firefly - at least the corpse was reanimated as Serenity. If we couldn't have Firefly, at least we got a good movie (well, I liked it).

PS I always wondered how the script love-child of Joss Whedon and Russell T Davies would turn out. Maybe not as fab as I imagine but I'd still like to see it...

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Rebecca Gomez said...

True, not every story I start is destined for greatness or even to be finished. But it's all a part of learning, so I have to remind myself that, even when I have to kiss a story good-bye, it is a good thing.

K. A. Jordan said...

But then there is that ONE story - you run across it by chance while looking for something else - it's been shelved for years and years.

A smoldering look - a pass of the pen - then oddly enough something really wonderful happens. Something special and the affair is off on a new tangent.

It doesn't happen very often, but it's worth it to keep a copy of the old stuff - just in case.

Paul Lamb said...

I had a short story about a decade ago that fizzled out just as you describe. It since transformed itself into a 100,000+ word novel that I've nearly finished.

The idea was great. It was the writer's technique that wasn't smooth enough in his callow youth.

Katherine Roberts said...

Anne, you've perfectly described the hidden side of writing that no one ever seems to understand unless they also write themselves.
I also have many ideas that have never borne fruit... proposals with no text, stories without beginnings, characters without plots, plots without characters... I sometimes wonder if there is something wrong with me! Perhaps if I had more self-confidence, I would nurture them all as far as publication... but perhaps not.

There is, after all, only a limited number of books a writer can write in their lifetime, and of course we all want these books to be the most meaningful books for us, whatever that might be. I think this is the main reason why so many ideas "go bad" on us. As time passes, it becomes ever more important to sift through the silt and find the gold... so keep looking! It'll be worth it when you find it.

Mary Hoffman said...

I loved Serenity too, Gillian! Chiwitel Ejiofor, mmn.

And I know what you mean about ideas Anne. But sometimes I keep mine on a back burner for years, decades even and then when the moment is right they spring into life, like Stravaganza.

You must know when to give up but when to look again and something and see if it has matured unconsciously.