On Putting Things In Order

Two weeks ago I turned in a short story for an anthology releasing next spring. The story, as I turned it in, is rather unconventional. The story I started writing, however, was anything but.

The hardest part of writing sometimes is in trusting yourself and in trusting your instincts. I didn’t trust my instincts–they told me to write this story a certain way, and I fought that instinct. “No,” I’d say, “I shouldn’t write the story like that because that’s just too strange.” I’d ignore my instincts and write it the way I told myself the story should be, but it didn’t flow. I’d scribble notes on scrap paper. Or I’d go to the reservoir, skip stones, and produce three or four pages in notebooks. Or I’d sit in a coffee shop and write for hours. Or I’d hammer away at my keyboard and produce next to nothing.

Six weeks I did this. Thousands of words. Three different opening scenes. Discourses on ancient mythologies, written over and over. A scene, set at sea, with an Egyptian named Dirk. It was a struggle, every day. Writing this story was like going mountain climbing in a blizzard naked. I didn’t trust my instincts. The story was “bleh” on the page. It wasn’t working, it wasn’t going to work. And I knew it.

I finally gave in and listened to my instincts. I started again from a little more than scratch–the “bleh” versions, at least, had much of the narrative locked down, and I had the characters down but not the story’s style–and rewrote from the first line. Once I listened to my instincts the story flowed, and I came away feeling satisfied with how it turned out.

I tell this story as background. I had a mass of material from the “bleh” version of the story. It was incoherent. Some was in separate Word files, some was on index cards or notebook paper or that scrap of paper under the pile on the desk that I hadn’t gotten around to typing up because it felt wrong. I decided to put this work together into a single file. Maybe there’s something salvagable for a later project in the mess. I used almost nothing from the earlier frustrating takes on the material in the submitted story–a few lines of dialogue near the beginning, but nothing else survived.

Now this early material exists in a coherent form for future reference. There’s nothing wrong with it, but looking at it I know it was the wrong way to write the story. It doesn’t sing to me. It doesn’t feel like me. I was fighting my instincts every step of the way.

Instincts. There’s a reason why we have them. Sometimes we need to trust them more than we do. 😉

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