It, Bury It, Let It Live
– A Workshop
2002, By Holly Lisle
short story or novel has not been going well, or maybe you've even finished it
but now discover that you hate it. At the moment of your greatest frustration,
you conceive a delicious plan -- you'll print it out in triplicate and feed each
copy into a fire one hated page at a time.
this is your situation, you have my sympathy: I recently tanked 283 pages of a
novel that was going to all the wrong places, and even with a brutal deadline
hanging over my head, I've never been so happy to see something go. Never been
at this stage of dissatisfaction with your work? Don't worry -- if you keep at
it long enough you'll get there.
question, though? If you burn the thing, will you hate yourself in the
take a look at what you want to cook and see if there's anything in it worth
saving. Answer the following six questions, actually taking time to write
down the answers to each one (don't just do them in your head) -- and keep track
of your points for each answer.
Where's the theme?
you write down, right now, in ten words or less, the theme? If you can, do
it. (Examples of theme are: Love conquers all, good triumphs over evil,
young man overcomes weakness to find himself, etc. ) If you knew your theme
right away, give yourself ten points.
- If you
don't know what the theme is, can you locate some possible themes as you
read through the material? Write the possible themes down as you find them.
If you find one or more possibilities, give yourself five points.
- If you
don't know the theme and can't find signs of a theme, give yourself zero
What's the story?
you sit down immediately and write one sentence that sums up the story? Do
it in thirty words or less. If you can, ten points.
certain. Can you get the story in three sentences and under a hundred words?
one sentence nor three will untangle this thing and sum it up in a coherent
fashion. Zero points.
Who's the hero?
you name the single character who matters most to the story, and write down
in one or two short sentences what this most important character wants or
needs most of all? And is fulfilling this want the main point of the story?
Ten points if you have all of this nailed down. Subtract five if you can
list the single character and his needs, but your story is not actually
about fulfilling them.
not, can you limit the story to two most important characters? Can you write
down in one or two sentences their most compelling needs and wants? Is the
story about fulfilling them? You get seven points if you get the characters
and their needs, and if the story is about meeting those needs. Subtract
five points if the story is about something other than meeting the most
compelling needs of the two main characters.
- If you
can do all of the above, but have to do it for three or more main
characters, you get two points. If your story isn't about meeting the needs
of your crowd, you don't get any.
Where's the conflict?
you find conflict (defined as the character or characters dealing with
obstacles that stand in the way of their meeting their compelling needs) on
every page? Look. If you have to, look with a microscope and a pair of
tweezers, and on a disposable copy of the manuscript, go through with a
highlighter and mark every instance where conflict occurs. (Note that
conflict is not thinking about problems -- it is dealing with them.) If you
have marks on at least 80% of your pages, give yourself ten points.
- If you
have marks on at least 50-79% of your pages, give yourself five points.
- If you
have marks on less than 50% of your pages, your characters are spending too
much time thinking, traveling from place to place, and drinking tea and
coffee. No points.
Why does it matter?
you write out, quickly and clearly, why this story matters, and to whom it
matters? Are your reasons convincing? Do you care about them? Will anyone
else? If you could write out reasons, and they mattered, either to you or to
anyone else, ten points.
- If you
had a hard time with this, but you finally came up with something, and you
think with a bit of work the story could matter to someone, five points.
- If you
had no reasons why the story might matter, either to you or to anyone else,
or if the only reason you could come up with was that it would make you some
bucks if it sold, zero points.
What do you love?
there sections that, even though you're frustrated with the material,
absolutely sing for you? Are there places where you can read through it and
catch a taste of magic, a promise of wonder, something that makes you yearn
to know what happens next? Ten points.
there things about it that you like, characters that you care about even if
you're not sure what to do with them, images or scenes that seem, if not
compelling, at least pretty close? Five points.
that you love, nothing that you like, nothing that makes you want to go on?
right -- that's the whole thing. Add up your points. Let's go over the final
40-60 points -- Let It Live
tired, you're frustrated, you've put a lot of yourself into the story, and you
are too close to the material. Back away from it for a while if you need to, but
have faith that you have at least the bones of something that, with revision, is
going to be worth your time. It might not even need much revision.
20-39 points -- Bury It
it in a drawer, or slip it into your "I'll Get Back to This" file on
your hard drive. Let it sit. If it starts to call to you and you start having
dreams about how you could really bring the thing to life, go for it. Resurrect
it, rework it, and be glad that you saved it. If you never manage to get back to
it, you haven't lost anything but a few kilobytes of hard drive space or a few
square inches in a drawer.
points -- Burn It
really. Burn it. You are flailing at a dead horse, and if you keep up, you'll
manage to burn yourself out on writing over something that isn't worth your
time, your passion, your hopes, your effort. Watch it go up in flames, sing,
"I'm Free, I'm Free, You Miserable Monster!" and move on to something
that isn't eating you alive. (You can still keep a back-up copy on your hard
drive, if you want, but file it under "Toxic Tales of Pain and Woe"
and then just don't go there.)
a project loose is hard. You've already put work and blood and sweat and hope
into it, and walking away is admitting defeat. But, honestly, sometimes you do
lose one and not even endless rewriting will bring it to life. Writing is like
everything else -- sometimes doctors lose patients and sometimes marriages crash
and burn and sometimes businesses fail... It's a part of life. Learning to tell
a dead story from one that can be patched up and sent out into the world is a
critical writing skill. Without it, you can lose yourself and your writing
forever to one bad book that just won't let go.