When A Story Isn’t Ready

Most writers who have been at it for any length of time have the experience of a story not being truly finished. It may come to an end, but it has not yet come into itself. My version of this usually involves my initial concept being wrong. I will start with an idea in what I call the “front part” of my brain–a notion, a conceit, an image from some visual medium (painting, film) and spin it into a plot. I labor under the delusion that this is what the story “is about.” More often than not, I’m wrong.

I’m wrong because I’m going for the glitz, the superficial attraction. The truth is, I’m a better writer than that when I listen to what’s underneath the glitz. That’s where the emotional juice is, the deeper resonances, the Deborah-vision.

The symptoms of this misstep are many: characters that refuse to follow the pre-arranged script, story elements that just won’t come together, plot idiocies that are not just holes but dead-end canyons. I’ve learned how to rip all that stuff out (leaving chunks of bleeding, burning manuscript strewn about) and dig deep into the core. That’s part of my revision (re-vision, right?) process, and although with time (read: decades of practice), I’ve gotten better at writing first drafts that are less superficial and more true, I still value this process.

Throw away the chaff; be ruthless; seek the nuggets of treasure and bring them into the light.


Stories can be not-ready in other ways, too. You throw them in the infamous trunk when you’re so tired of looking at the same words, you can’t see the problems. I’ve been known to put manuscripts in the freezer to cool them off, although I doubt the physical temperature has any effect except as a metaphor. Working on something else gives “the back” of our brains time to work, for ideas to ferment and percolate and for new patterns and solutions to emerge. Alas, this process can take years, which is why it’s a good idea to dive into the next project and then the next.

I’ve been talking about a story not being ready. Sometimes it’s me, the writer, who’s not ready to tell that story. Usually this is because my writing craft isn’t adequate to the challenge. This is particularly true if the story is a “high wire act,” requiring great skill and subtlety. Or a story that plays into my weaknesses as a writer and refuses to be told in any other way. Or…something I myself am not ready to tackle, like emotionally difficult subjects.

If I try to write these stories before I’m ready, they fail just as surely as those I first described. Perhaps every failed story involves elements of story-unfinished-ness and my own imperfect skill. However, I’ve found that the attempt is always valuable. If I am willing to listen to the heart of the story and to see myself as being a work-in-progress, then I will surely receive priceless gifts. I grow as a person as well as a writer, and end up with stories I am proud of.

The photograph, Sunrise in Thailand, is by Lisa Tancscs and licensed under Creative Commons.

Deborah J. Ross has been writing science fiction and fantasy since 1982. Her novels Jaydium and Northlight, also available as an omnibus edition, Other Doorways: Early Novels and short story “The Casket of Brass” are available as multiformat ebooks here on Book View Cafe.

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When A Story Isn’t Ready — 13 Comments

  1. I sure resonate with this. I just wish there was a way to kick the backbrain into gear; I’m old enough that waiting 25 years for a story to percolate is no longer efficient!

  2. Yeah. What we need is ideas with a use-by date on the label, like hamburger. I have been writing a novel for 25 years now; only recently have the pieces started to come together. And Neil Gaiman tells of his GRAVEYARD BOOK that he had to wait until he grew into a good enough writer to write it.

  3. @Brenda — “he had to wait until he grew into a good enough writer to write it” — that’s been so true for me, as well. Not that all of my ideas when I was a newbie were bigger than my abilities, but some of them were. And continue to be.

  4. I felt that way about my most recent novel, “The Last Rhinemaiden”. It took three years just to develop to a stage where I wrote it; then I kept adding to it, layer by layer. It’s done now. I dare say if I left it ten years I might make it a better story, but maybe not.
    I have another novel to finish before the summer. This one began as a simple narrative, but it is growing… And then, I have three or four to write before the NEXT big idea. I can’t write that one now – I need to practise, and the characters need to grow into themselves, and those three novels will be time enough to develop my skills before I’m ready to tackle the big one.

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  6. Great article, that is so me. Oddly, this smacks of an authors talk at a book fair, Jonny Gibbings was explaining ‘Wabi-sabi’ I thought it was a joke, however he explained how it was an aesthetic and a belief that ‘Nothings Perfect, nothing stays the same and nothing is ever finished.’

    He is one of those guys, I secretly want to hate, To me he is so unrefined and crude, then he writes a piece on his blog and leaves you confounded. Even when sent off I think my work isn’t finished. So I over engineer it. Then revert to how it was before.

  7. Excellent post. I have been writing my first novel for a few years and my idea flourished at first with all the bells and whistles, as you described. But it had no soul. It took a lot of reading and learning from authors like yourself to realise that this was the issue. I’m still adding music and a heartbeat but I hope that all the effort finally pays off 🙂

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  10. I have afile where I note down ideas, snippets, bits of dialogue, bits od description, historical data that interests me at some point … (aka Plotbunnies Rampant) which I weed at regular intervals. A good deal of the stuff that sounded fun first doesn’t really sing to me a few months later, some ideas can be merged, some history used as foil for the Fantasy monster …. in the end that file stays pretty much the same size and what survives several weedings usually stands a chance to come to life eventually.

    When I started writing, it often took a longer time (and more words) until I realised the story wasn’t going anywhere. These days I write those 30K in my head first. 😀

  11. I have noticed a couple of things as I get to be an Old Fart writer. One is that there is still Chaff to be purged even though my craftsmanship has steadily improved. Bummer. Two is that it has become easier and easier for me to spot a dead end before I head down a given path. Happened just this month. I had thought up a story idea intended for the next Sword & Sorceress and spent quite a few brainstorming sessions on it. I wrote the outline. Yet it didn’t feel right. I’ve learned to trust that feeling. I came up with a different idea last week and I can’t wait to get to that one. There are only so many years left to me — I want to write the ideas that excite me.