When your story falls apart

FIrst, I must apologize to anyone who might have been startled by yesterday’s post. I didn’t realize until after I’d sent it how many relatively new blog followers I had who might not be used to me, yet. If anyone was offended, my apologies. However, as a friend of mine pointed out yesterday, my books are not G-rated nor do I post pictures of antique teacups and other froo froo things on here, and have been known to talk about my encounter with a pimp in the food court, witnessing an awkward breakup and even discussing a guy with deplorably bad habits so it shouldn’t have been too shocking.  However, for anyone who has no idea what to expect, I try to stay polite most of the time, but sometimes I wander… Consider yourself warned.

Also for anyone who is relatively new, earlier this summer I started a new blog series where I discuss what goes on behind the scenes with a novel and its novelist. For a list of topics I’ve already discussed and an idea of what else is coming, find the “What’s in a Novel” tab and have a read through the list for a better idea of exactly what goes into making a novel work and the issues novelists are faced with. I’m still taking questions/suggestions for topics.

Today, I am switching gears completely from yesterday and discussing what happens when your story derails itself.

I’ve had a few derailing moments.

In my first book, I had two slight derailments, that later led to problems, though not in that book.

An example is Lady Olivia was just supposed to be frail and sickly with a meek and slightly dull personality, NOT a cackling menace. Likewise, Liberty was supposed to have made it no secret that she had tendre for Paul Grimes. Both of these characters took a complete 180 from what I’d planned. Fortunately, this held no bearing on that particular story, but it did create changes in my plans for their stories. (Yes, it’s true, Olivia was originally intended to marry Alex. It was a subplot romance in the first book, but I just couldn’t do that to him.)

Those are minor slip ups. Things that hold no bearing on the story at hand, and just make it where a future book/story has to go in another direction. But what happens when the entire book turns to crap?

You re-write.

One of my absolute favorite books is a re-write. Her Secondhand Groom had a different (biddable) heroine the first time around. I got near the end, one chapter left I think, and the two hadn’t even kissed. Sure, they’d had to learn to adapt to one another and different lifestyles: her coming from poverty, him coming from wealth and expectations. But it was all wrong. She was so darn eager to  please and he was so passive about everything because  she was so biddable and docile. There was absolutely NO chemistry. None. Here I was at more than 90,000 words and they hadn’t even kissed yet, and to be frank, neither seemed to have any desire to kiss the other. It was awful. It was sad. It was infuriating! There really wasn’t anything about that book I could save, except the hero (and his children, naturally).

I tried to save it. I printed it out and thought, hmm, if I make her do this in chapter three, will it lead to this in chapter six? I tried and it didn’t work so my husband used it as kindling for a fire while we were on an extended camping trip and when I got home, with tears in my eyes and a grimace pulling my lips, I deleted the entire file and started over from page one. It was one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do. My motivation to even write it was slim. I just felt so defeated and overwhelmed. My motivation and momentum lost.

But there wasn’t anything else to do, but try it again. This time with a different female lead. One who was stronger and able to hold her own. One who would challenge him, therefore create tension and passion between them.

Thank goodness it worked.

Tips to salvage a landslide story:

  •  Step back–I’ve had at least four books where I got so flustered with what was going on in the present of the story that I couldn’t go forward. So you take a few days off and put it out of your mind. Read something else and go back with a fresh perspective.
  • Re-read–For some reason, the middle can get overwhelming because you know what you need to mention and have happen in order for the beginning and end to connect, but sometimes you’re just not feeling the flow of it and not remembering what you need to have happen. Re-read what you already have. Since you’re not writing it, it should go quickly enough to re-read what you have to know what you’ve already had happen, what you need to have happen and what loose ends you need to tie up. I find that printing it off to do this helps because you’re more likely to make notes in the margins and not get so caught up on simple editing.
  • Don’t be afraid of the delete key–Everything was going great and then this happened! Go back to where you think it derailed, copy and paste what you have from there on into a blank document and start again where you think you went wrong, this time having the character do just the opposite. Then later if you can reuse some of the original go for it; or you realize the original was better, you still have it.
  • Copy and Paste patchwork–If having this and this happen before or after another event will work better, then by all means, rearrange the scenes! I do this all the time. You write a really good scene, but think, wait, shouldn’t this have happened a long time ago? It would sure make things easier if it had. Then put it there. Nothing says you have to write in order.
  • Look at your outline–I don’t outline my books for the most part. I have general idea of what will happen, but how it happens is more up to the characters. But if you outline, whip it out and see where you went wrong then go back to there and fix it.
  • Starting over or deleting large chunks is not the end of the world–I used to live in fear of this (and to be honest, I still do). But if you really love the characters and believe in the story, then don’t be afraid of starting over. Take five minutes to shed your tears at the hours you spent writing a book that didn’t work out how you wanted, then start writing the book that will work out how you want.

For anyone reading this wondering how on earth a character doesn’t behave or how a book can go wrong because uh, aren’t you the author, the creator of the character and the one dictating their destiny? The answer is simple, to have a really good story, you have to be in touch with your character and characters do NOT like to be put into boxes. They have minds of their owns, too, and they have past experiences that shape their behaviors. Sometimes it just means authors have to dig deeper to find the reasons behind their behaviors or why they won’t stay on script and modify the story to suit the character’s desires and personality.


FUN FACT: In my first copy of Her Secondhand Groom, Henrietta Hughes, Juliet’s sister, was the heroine and Juliet didn’t exist. Henrietta had gone to school, was highly attractive and all that, but had no flare. I had a friend ask me why in Her Secondhand Groom didn’t Henrietta try to make more of an effort to snag Patrick or protest that her sister was marrying him. My response was, “Henrietta had already had her attempt at a marriage with Patrick and it was so awful, she didn’t want to make another.” I think Juliet and Patrick suit each other very, very well and I’m glad I was forced to go back and rewrite their story.

10 thoughts on “When your story falls apart”

  1. I tend to find myself doing the copy and paste thing a lot. I’ll have a basic idea where everything is going and the part I’m working on does work for the moment, so I wander somewhere else in the story . . . Or the series. Of course anything I write for later stories is subject to eventual change since events that happen in one lead to events that happen in others happening or not happening.

    And boy do I know about characters not wanting to cooperate. I never really thought about why they did that, but I think you’ve explained that very well. Thanks. I’d wondered. Sometimes thy frustrate me with this. Sometimes they delight me with it. I am working on a scene for a fanfic that was supposed to be an audible sparring match. Turns out it can only end in the death of a character. Which is okay, since that character was supposed to die anyway, but it was supposed to be later. On the other hand another character was supposed to die sooner rather than later and will now be dying in the same scene the other character decided not to wait for. Not sure why they did at, but it works and I’m having an interesting time with this.

    On the step back, don’t step back for too long. I don’t know how many stories I have put away for a while and redound years later and wondered where was this going. If you plan to step back for more than a short while, take notes as to what you plan. Even if you end up going a different direction it’s frustrating to wonder.

    That made me laugh about Henrietta. There was one point where I wondered why Henrietta was being such a log, lying around doing absolutely nothing while everyone else was active, so it’s interesting to learn it was probably because she had no interest in Patrick whatsoever, because she knew where that would lead. Talk about your hidden back story.

    1. I have a series of books that I started writing one, then suddenly I realized that subplot I was working on was good, but it would be BETTER in book two… So snip, snip, snip out it went of that one and is in a “to write” file for the next. Happens to me all the time.

      Characters have a mind of their own, and I’ve found things work out better when you listen to it and not try to force them to do what you want them to. They have personalities, too!

      You’re right, don’t step back too long. The longer away you are, the harder it’ll be to start back again. That’s why I’d only say a few days if writing is something you do all the time or is your career. You can stretch that out to a few weeks though if you write more slowly or writing is not an activity that consumes the majority of your day. In other words, step back for the amount of time appropriate for your normal schedule and how much time you generally spend writing.

      The thing about Henrietta is I felt she had NO real spark. At least not one that Patrick could ignite. I didn’t even want to try to convince myself that maybe it would work between them if I made her get jealous of Juliet. But in the end, that wouldn’t have worked because she wasn’t the kind to get jealous and fight for what she wanted–that’s Juliet who does that. Juliet’s the fighter and it needed to be her who’d get to spend the rest of her days putting him where he belonged: right beside her.

  2. I know I have said this before in an email but I loved Secondhand so much better the second time I read it. I really liked it the first time but there was something about rereading it that really just spoke to me. I knew you had to rewrite most of that story but I didn’t know it was practically the whole thing. Patrick definitely needed Juliet and not her sister.
    Didn’t Wallace also not cooperate with you in his book?

    1. Wallace pulled a fast one on me in Chapter 2 and I threatened him that if he did that again, I’d rename the book, Her Impotent Groom. Fortunately, because this change happened in chapter two there wasn’t any deleting and rewriting necessary. I just had to change my plans a little.

    1. I’m honored you liked the tips since I seem to find your writing tips extremely helpful!

      I, too, hate it when the story falls apart. But every time it’s happened to me, I’ve learned later that it’s for the best.

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