writer of horror, fantasy & science fiction

When a story just won't ...

On my computer are stories of which I've written as much as ten drafts, but which hasn't been published and probably never will. It has to be a writer's worst nightmare: Writing a story over and over without it ever making it to publication.

Misfires

Most of my stories I've written fast and flowingly. Some of them have taken a bit more effort; I've perhaps needed to "write my way into" the opening of the story with a few false starts before I finally got it going. Or perhaps there has been a lot of revising and editing needed afterwards, perhaps even a full rewrite or two.

And then there are the stories that just won't. No matter how much I edit, or how many times I start over, and how many drafts I finish—something fundamentally simply doesn't work. It's never the idea. The idea is always great. That's why I pursuit it so hectically, like a dog who can swear he smells a bone somewhere in the yard and refuses to stop looking. I can feel the idea has something, that it can work, that it can become a cool story. It just doesn't happen.

I've tried it a few times over the years, but I've never been able to put my finger on what the problem is. All the ingredients are usually there. A strong idea, a flowing language, a coherent plot. But the thing just. Doesn't. Freaking. Work. Like a sauce breaking apart even though you've followed every step in the cook book. The oddest thing about it is that I always have a decent flow during the writing, so I never suspect anything is off before I've finished the damn thing and read back through it. I call them misfires. Even though they look and feel like touchdowns, I somehow fumble.

So, what's going on?

I'm glad you asked. To answer that, we need to go pretty philosophical, so bear with me.

I think creative ideas come from something much deeper than the human mind. You could call it a place of pure inspiration. When the idea has to "enter our world" and get down on the paper, it's bound to be disfigured by the imperfect skills of the writer. With practice, the writer can become better at conveying the story in a way that is true to the idea. But really, it's much more about getting out of the way of the flow and let the idea express itself. If you interfere too much, the story will become a product of the mind, and even though the mind is a good planner and analyst, it cannot produce pure inspiration; nothing can; inspiration can't be produced. Therefore, it easily starts to feel unauthentic reading a story that has been planned and prodded too much. This, by the way, is also the reason I don't plan out my stories.

But this isn't really a satisfying explanation for my misfires. I actually don't think it's my clumsiness that ruined the idea because I meddled with it. I could mention other stories that I have written and gotten published, in which I meddled quite a bit without it ruining the idea.

It's about acceptance

I actually don't think there necessarily is a good explanation for the misfires. Once I realized this, I got better at accepting it. The last time it happened, I really thought I had written a great story, but when I read it back to myself, I was left with an empty feeling. My beta readers had the same reaction, although they couldn't tell me what was wrong. I immediately realized I had a misfire. I didn't spend five minutes editing it. I didn't even consider starting over. I knew it would be a waste of time.

Instead, I accepted it as the price I had to pay for having such a wonderful job with so much inspiration flowing through me and so many great ideas succeeding. Once in a while it's bound to fail. I can live with that. I can't avoid it, so why worry about it?

The one exception

Finally, I want to mention an exception to the rule. The short story All birds hate me was published in Danish in 2016. But it was a very old idea, which had started out as a misfire. I wrote it back in 2003, way before I ever had anything published, and I had rewritten it plenty of times during the years, but with no luck. Then, suddenly, I got it. Maybe it just needed those thirteen years to fall into place. Maybe I finally got skilled enough to get it out the right way. But apparently, it is possible to turn a misfire around. At least once in a while.

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