Just Write the Story

 

Have you ever felt like every idea you currently have your finger on totally…sucks? That you may never have another good story idea?

I’ve been struggling with a short story for weeks and weeks. Not struggling with a single, specific story, but with FOUR beginnings of stories as I try to distill one. This isn’t a situation I’m used to, or particularly like. (I’m sure that I’m the only one this has happened to, right?) As those beginnings rolled around in my head, I’d stop to type out a page. Then stop. The idea never quite made it past another couple paragraphs.

This may be the absolute worst part of being a writer. Or at least being a writer under deadline.

I decided to get help from my resident writer guy/bedfellow. (Paraphrasing ahead because in real life conversation is rarely linear–something to remember as you write fiction. Think of the following as a kind of passion play. On writing.)

Me: I need to talk about something. [Trying not to sound too dire, yet going for serious. Because I am.]

Husband: Sure. [Isn’t he nice?!]

Me: So I’ve been trying to work on this story for a long time now. I just feel like–I don’t know–like I’ll never be able to write another short story again. Like I’ll never have another good idea. They’re just gone. [Confession: I know it’s a bit of a whine. A cry for help because what writer wants to EVER feel this way?]

Husband: Yeah, that sounds tough. You sound like you feel pretty bad. [I love empathy, don’t you? Yes, we’ve both had plenty of practice with, um, professional listeners.]

Me: *sigh* It’s a horrible feeling. What if I never have another decent idea?

Husband: That’s unlikely. But you could always get a job at Dairy Queen. [We are both big DQ fans.] Somebody–I don’t remember who, maybe someone we interviewed–mentioned they teach your Bug Man story in their writing classes all the time.

Me: That story just came to me all at once, you know? In one big piece. It was a giant gift from the sky. I don’t think I really had much to do with it. And then a couple of my stories got nominated for prizes. How can I write another story and have it not be as good? [This is a real feeling, y’all.]

Husband: So what if it’s not as good? [You can see who the Devil’s Advocate is in our house.] You just have to write a story.

Me: It just feels like the end of everything. [Apocalyptic scenarios are my specialty.][Intentionally ignoring the suggestion that my next story might not be as good as my former best. My currently fragile ego obviously can’t take it.]

Husband: You think you’ll spend the rest of your life not writing? [Why doesn’t he sound more alarmed, I want to know.}

Me: If I don’t have any ideas, I can’t write. Short stories, anyway. [Note to editor and agent: the current novel is going FINE] I don’t think I’ve ever felt this way before. It’s scary.

Husband: Yeah, that’s not really true. [What? Is he kidding? Calling me a liar? Them’s fightin’ words.]

Me: What do you mean? [Trying not to sound indignant because that would only refocus the discussion on a non-issue and listening would quickly cease on both sides. That’s what a professional listener might say, anyway.]

Husband: I hesitate to tell you this, but you say this every time. Short stories, novels, whatever. Especially if you have a deadline. [I am speechless for a long moment.] Sorry, but it’s true.

Me: Really? [I’m experiencing a glimmer of familiarity, to my surprise. But it’s…uncomfortable.] Seriously?

Husband: Yep. Every time. [Similar scenes from the past threaten to overwhelm me, making my brain spin like a spiral cartoon graphic from old Batman or The Monkees shows. (Yes, I’m that old, and if you don’t remember them I pity your loss!)]

Me: Maybe…I guess. [I’m awesome at poker. You never know what I’m thinking.]

Husband: You should probably go write the story.

Me: You think I can? What if it sucks? [Please don’t say it could suck.]

Husband: It could definitely suck, but I don’t think it will. I’m sure they’ll take it. [!!!!!]

Me: They’re not going to want it if it sucks, though. [Logic is surely on my side, right?]

Husband: You don’t get to be the judge. You just have to write the story. You usually think your work is no good until someone else likes it. Or publishes it. Go write the story. [He’s repeating himself. Could it all really be this simple? Hope fills my head, displacing the cartoon chaos. I’m finally remembering…] So what’s for dinner?

Yes, Husband was perfectly correct. I do go through similar throes sometime during every project. It’s a crisis of confidence that appears to be part of my process. It can come right at the beginning, and/or sometimes when I’m about 3/4 in. I wanted to share this little drama with you to let you know you’re not the only one. I know there are writers among us–TKZers on both sides of the screen [cue creepy image of ALL the TKZ contributors stuffed into the back part of my Mac, typing away diligently]–who NEVER have a crisis of confidence. And more power to them! The rest of us have to wrestle with our work and stories until they become clear in our vision.

You won’t ever run out of ideas. I promise.

Oh, I found my story the next morning. It’s a synthesis of two of my story ideas, plus an added murder. [Of course there’s a murder–maybe two!]

So, dear TKZers, tell us a story about your crises of confidence. Do you have predictable panicked moments? Or do tell us how you’ve managed to avoid them!

 

 

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About Laura Benedict

Laura Benedict is the Edgar- and ITW Thriller Award- nominated author of eight novels of suspense, including the forthcoming The Stranger Inside (February 2019). Small Town Trouble, her latest book, is a cozy crime novel. Her Bliss House gothic trilogy includes The Abandoned Heart, Charlotte’s Story (Booklist starred review), and Bliss House. Her short fiction has appeared in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, and in numerous anthologies like Thrillers: 100 Must-Reads, The Lineup: 20 Provocative Women Writers, and St. Louis Noir. A native of Cincinnati, she lives in Southern Illinois with her family. Visit her at www.laurabenedict.com.

25 thoughts on “Just Write the Story

  1. You usually think your work is no good until someone else likes it.

    That’s what’s always lurking in a little shot glass on the back table of my mind. Will my readers like it enough. I think this is how it is for the majority of professional writers who’ve been at this a long time. We want each book to be better than the last, we know more about the craft, and the bar gets set higher.

    I love it that Dean Koontz has a special library in his big house, the shelves holding editions, foreign and domestic, of his titles. He goes in there at the start of a project, looks around, and says, “I’ve done this before. I can do it again.”

    • I have a special shelf in my house just for the writing books of James Scott Bell. I’m sure those books have made a huge difference in the lives of writers everywhere, as they have in mine. I love your Mike Romeo protagonist and all the philosophy references in your books, too. Keep doing what you’re doing!

    • Jim, I’m very relieved to read this, and really appreciate your honesty. Because you are one of those writers who makes it look so damn easy. I have a couple shelves that are probably 1/1000th of what Koontz has. I’ll pay better attention to it.

      • That reminds of one of my favorite lines from one of my favorite movies (The Red Shoes):

        Boris Lermontov: Don’t forget, a great impression of simplicity can only be achieved by great agony of body and spirit.

  2. I submitted the first twenty pages of my WIP to workshop at Cuyahoga County Library Writer’s Center. Almost immediately “Kill your darlings” blasted through some internal PA system and I was sure I should have deleted about a third of what I submitted. Then I told myself I’d worked it over so many times, they can tell me if the pacing is too slow. So I won’t know for three weeks whether I’m putting my best work forward or not.

    • Ugh, submitter’s remorse. I hear you, Eric! Remember that pretty much every published novel on the planet has a writer behind it who wishes they’d done something differently.

  3. I have that crisis in the middle and toward the end of each book. As a pantser, I’ve often forgotten what I wrote in the first 10 chapters and I’ll think, ‘this story is lame’ after 50,000 words. Then I’ll go back looking for something I said earlier in the book like “he took the red boat to a pier” so that I reference it correctly later in the story and I’ll be pleasantly surprised by my snappy dialogue.

    • Isn’t it great how our subconsciouses keep track of things for us? Surprising oneself is truly one of the great pleasures of writing. Thanks for the reminder!

  4. Laura, see, you CAN still write a terrific short story and this post is it!

    This line made me smile:

    “Husband: You think you’ll spend the rest of your life not writing? [Why doesn’t he sound more alarmed, I want to know.}”

    Your wise, understanding hubby doesn’t sound alarmed b/c he already knows the answer. He might as well ask: “You think you’ll spend the rest of your life not breathing?”

    He’s definitely a keeper!

    • Thank you, Debbie! I’ll take this kind of lovely encouragement anytime!

      And the perennial teenager in me only has to imagine someone saying I shouldn’t or I’m not allowed to write to get me to run straight for the keyboard. Even if it’s myself, lol.

  5. Thanks for this post, Laura. It really resonated with me.

    My mother is a perfectionist. Even her junk drawers are organized. The neighbors used to call her “Antiseptic Jean,” because her house was so clean. She never worried about unexpected company dropping by, because she could entertain at a moment’s notice. It didn’t take me long to realize that I have too much going on in my life to live up to her impossible standards for housekeeping. Yes, I often have a stack of books of my coffee table, and much to my husband’s chagrin, I might have a couple of pairs of shoes that aren’t in their proper places in my closet. My doggie may have some toys on the living room floor. I’ve learned that this is an acceptable way to live for most people. I don’t leave dead food or dirty dishes lying around for days or anything too egregious.

    Somehow, though, my mother’s perfectionist standards are hard to escape in some areas of my life. One thing I’ve learned about writing fiction is that the perfect idea doesn’t always come and clobber you over the head or make itself known immediately. Writing non-fiction is so much easier. There aren’t infinite possibilities. I always say “write something you love,” but I think the most important words are to “write something.” Writing that isn’t perfect can be fixed. If you “write something” every day, I think eventually the somethings will turn into better somethings. Better somethings will turn into pretty good somethings. Perfection is the enemy of “good enough” sometimes. When you’re undecided, sometimes you have to pick a path and go with it. Perhaps deadlines can be a good thing, because they keep you from having too much time to dwell on things. You’ve got to get it done or else. When you have no time constraints, you’re left to stew. If you aren’t careful, insanity can ensue. But I learned a new word today: psittacine (of or relating to parrots.) Happy writing, Laura. I have a faith in you. Your books never disappoint.

    • Joanne, I composed a lovely, long response to you this afternoon, and then my Internet connection pooped out–or at least the server stopped responding–and all was lost.

      You and I definitely have similar housekeeping styles. “It didn’t take me long to realize that I have too much going on in my life to live up to her impossible standards for housekeeping.” This line really touched my heart–how liberating! My mother rarely criticized my housekeeping, but I’ve always had that critical voice in my head that said I could never get things “right.” Many years ago, my (obviously) wise husband asked me if I wanted to be remembered as an excellent housekeeper, or a woman who wrote memorable stories. That was a huge eyeopener. (Newbies: take heed!)

      You’re so right that a critical voice is tough to silence when writing. But we MUST do it. Even if we have to remind ourselves and fight it every day. Even when some days it means we write nothing. Which is where your excellent mantra comes in: WRITE SOMETHING.
      Truly words to remember.

      Thank you so much for your insightful comments. I know many writers will take away much wisdom.

  6. I think we’re married to the same guy.

    It helps that I also have a co-author. When one is down, the other is the life preserver keeping the whole thing afloat. Kelly always gives me a variation on the Koontz thing: We’ve been here before. We can do this.

    But I have learned that some ideas are just…bad. And you have to let them die. 🙂

    • I haven’t read any of your books yet, but I’m curious about how two people can write in one voice. You two must have a special connection. What book of yours would be a good place to start?

      • Oh, hi Joanne!
        Thanks for asking. Maybe I should write a post about this. People are so suspicious of “book by committee” but it’s surprisingly easy for us.

        Anywho, you can begin with any book, although many folks prefer to start at the beginning with a series. So I’d recommend Dead of Winter. THanks!

        • I’d be interested in hearing more on co-writing as well, as someone recently approached me about doing just that. I’m sure there are a hundred different ways to divvy up the work & decide who does what, not to mention how to get yourselves in sync, but any tips in this area would be greatly appreciated.

      • We obviously have excellent taste in husbands!

        What a great support system you and your sis have. My BFF and I find that we are rarely on the same side of that teeter totter at the same time, so it does balance out.

        Here’s to identifying bad ideas very early on!

  7. This crisis is so familiar. I’ve worked on it and now it only happens every time I sit down to write. Really. So, when I wake in the morning I compose a sentence and write it down. Then I ask myself, what comes next. And so on. Pretty soon I have 1500 or so words. Now if I can do this every day, I’ll have a system.
    You are not alone.
    One other point. I get inspiration from this from G.K. Chesterton telling us why we must write: Fairy tales do not tell children the dragons exist. Children already know that dragons exist. Fairy tales tell children the dragons can be killed.

    • Why we must write…hmm… that reminds me of another scene from The Red Shoes, when a prima ballerina is asked why she must dance:

      Boris Lermontov: Why do you want to dance?
      [Vicky thinks for a short while]
      Victoria Page: Why do you want to live?
      [Lermontov is suprised at the answer]
      Boris Lermontov: Well I don’t know exactly why, er, but I must.
      Victoria Page: That’s my answer too.

  8. All. The. Time. With each new project, spiraling doubt overshadows logic and writing capabilities. Until one day it doesn’t. No idea how or why this happens. Alas, I guess it’s part of my process, too. Sigh.

  9. I’ve got four fantastic ideas and I’ve made attempts to develop all of them. Sadly, I can’t turn a one of them into an actual story. I’ve got a booming premise for each. I’ve got characters more human than myself and more interesting by orders of magnitude. I’ve got great scenes running through my head for each. Yet, I have no stories. I tried to pants it once for my favorite (I’m generally a hardcore plotter) of the four, just to get one started, and my efforts came to a grinding halt at about seventy pages. I am stuck.

    • About seventy pages can be a sticking place, for sure. My advice is to push through and just make stuff up whether it feels relevant or not. You’ll get past it. Alternately, jump to another scene in the future. You might be starting in the wrong place. That happens.

      Find another writer–or a just a good listener–to blue sky some ideas. We are often too much in our own heads.

      Go!

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