Of course it is. It’s yours. Nobody can nor should they tell you it’s not worth the time to try to save it.
But when it isn’t ready to come out into the light, when it doesn’t really have a shot as is — because on this website and in my story evaluations, this is about PROFESSIONAL-level storytelling — someone absolutely should tell you it needs… whatever it needs.
Really, though, sometimes that assessment in the harshest degree — even when it’s fair and accurate — is more an issue of semantics than it is a pronouncement of death. Even when it is.
Because anything can be revised. Sometimes, to the point where absolutely everything in the proposed story has been rethought and rebooted. Because someone on the other side pointed out why it wouldn’t work otherwise.
Like people with a pulse, stories require certain minimum elements, essences and chemistry to work. Only here it’s a matter of opinion — someone’s opinion — that makes that call. The idea, the goal, is to arm yourself with the ability to make that call.
Even doctors in the ER have to make that call on patients… the point at which they “call it” and put away the paddles.
Which poses a rhetorical question:
In the case of a story that has been completely rebooted, have you just “saved” the story, or have you used the experience of the former story to lead you to a better story?
It doesn’t matter what label — first aid, polish, or resurrection from the dead — you put on the resultant reboot process and product. What matters is understanding when and why this discussion applies to you, and then, what you need to do about it.
Sometimes the news that your story isn’t good enough is the best news of all. Because you probably thought it was good enough. The dispenser of that verdict has just, in some combination, given you new hope, a plan, and the saving of several months of pain and/or work.
Even when the thing is dead on arrival.
Whether you listen, or not, is your call. It, and what you do about it, is a call that makes or breaks your writing dream.
My Job Sucks Sometimes
As a story coach I get up every day to stare down the throat of stories that need help. It’s the nature of the story coaching beast… if it didn’t require coaching it wouldn’t be on my screen. That’s why I charge money for this (in addition to the result being invaluable to the writer), because sometimes it’s like trying to turn a 98-pound weakling into its proud parent’s vision of it becoming a first round draft choice… like, soon, after a few more pushups.
And yet, the only way to take that kid/project to that level is to whip up a Captain America level resurrection (you’ll recall he was, literally, a 98-pound weakling who died, then was rebuilt in a lab and zapped back to life, complete with a new body, a new brain and a new mission in life). That kid wasn’t “saved,” he was essentially replaced.
Make the leap from that analogy to a story that isn’t working at it’s most basic defining level… and you’ve just joined the conversation here. Save it? Try to breath life into it by medicating the symptoms instead of the cause?
Or do you reinvent it? That’s the author’s opportunity.
Here’s what I believe to be true: at the end of the story coaching day… no, every story cannot be saved.
More often than I care to say (and you really don’t want to know), the degree of help required to make a story viable leans into the aforementioned analogy, a story so lacking in weight (while burdened with the misguided hubris of its creator) it’s like a newborn brought into the world without bones or muscle or — again, much too often — a brain.
But dang, that thing was so cute back at square one.
The problem is this: writer has what they believe to be a cool notion for a story… but it’s challenging, complicated, even out there, so writer makes some leaps, asks the reader to suspend logic and belief, then faces more stretches and concoctions just to connect the dots… and before you know it you have the CIA coming to a shy 14-year math whiz (the hero of this story) with an alcoholic parent to save the world because, gosh darn it, there just aren’t enough really smart and capable people sitting in windowless rooms in a CIA facility that can actually save the world after all.
If your wimpy teenage hero has to hack into National Security servers to get the information required to save the world, when all the police and secret agents and military might on the planet haven’t been able to do just that… then odds are your story is Dead on Arrival. It’s been stretched and bent and contrived to death.
It’s like lying. You tell one, it’s a whopper, and then you have to keep heaping lie after lie after lie on top of it to justify the pieces of the original whopper just to seemingly hold the whole teetering facade together. But oh, that first lie… it was so beautiful. If only it were true… and so, you bend all logic and reason to make it true in your story world.
But here’s the deal: you really can’t turn a really bad story idea into a really good story, or a really non-heroic protagonist (you wouldn’t believe how many unpublished “heroes” there are out there with backstories in which they are insecure, unloved, timid, frightened and disconnected… newsflash: Superman came out of the womb with powers beyond what any human could imagine)… without replacing that idea and that backstory with a better one.
Bend all you want… but it is that bending and stretching of logic that kills your story as much as the eye-rolling nature of the premise in the first place.
The trouble with this whole business — the business of writing publishable fiction, fiction that sells — is that this is a moving, imprecise, often invisible bar we’re reaching for here. This is why everybody who tries doesn’t get there.
It’s why professional storytellers — those who have earned the nametag not because of track record, but because of the craft at their command – do.
The sweet spot for all of this resides at the intersection of concept and premise.
Which leads to a dramatic question. Which connects to a hero called up to answer and resolve that question. Which, when perceived as compelling without the need to bend it into something else entirely, becomes the DNA of a story with a shot.
Somewhere in that simple equation writers are deluding themselves into believing they’ve broken the code. When in fact, their ship is taking on water and won’t make it out of the harbor into the open ocean of an unspooling story.
When you write a story, you are owning the conceit that you know what others will find compelling. Think about that for a moment… and then look in a mirror and ask if that’s you.
Revision is common.
It’s expected. A part of the deal. A fulfilling phase of the storytelling journey.
Unless it’s an attempt to breath life into the stillborn by bending and stretching the capacity of a reader to believe. Into an equation that doesn’t add up, and won’t mean anything if and when it does as a result of all the bending of the math required.
Unless the thing is just plain dead already. If it is, you need to hear it from the perspective of a professional, someone who knows the difference between a player that belongs on the field and one who needs to stay in the concession stand.
What’s frustrating about my job — I think this just turned into a bit of a rant — is that I keep getting stories sent to me that are in, or have both feet already dangling toward — that abyss from which there is no return.
The ONLY THING that can prevent that — for you, for me, and in general — is a heightened awareness of what makes a story work. Which is a story sensibility that arises from, is built upon, the mechanics of how a good story is assembled, and how it is fueled by a concept and a premise (they are different… recognizing that alone is half the battle) that has enough energy and potential and fresh air in its DNA to give the story a shot at a future.
It is, pure and simple, story physics. Dramatic tension arising from a compelling (key word, right there) dramatic question, leading to a hero who must DO something in pursuit of a worthy goal, with something blocking the straight line toward the goal. That’s it, in the proverbial nutshell.
When the goal is to render those narrative physics onto the page, it happens only from a solid foundation of storytelling craft (what I call the six core competencies of storytelling) that seizes that concept/premise promise and molds it into narrative gold.
The trick resides in recognizing what that winning concept/premise DNA consists of (hint: I just told you what it consists of), then summoning the requisite craft to bring it to fruition over the arc of a story that is artfully assembled and rendered.
You can get all six of the core competencies right… and the story can still sink like a stone tied to the foot of a protagonist who never stood a chance. Just as you can put makeup and clothes on a store mannequin or a corpse that looks like a person, that is in fact beautiful and mesmerizing… but it still can’t walk across a room.
That’s the thing about a good concept. Many stories can arise from it. Only one of them is your premise.
Our job is to pick the right one, the best one. The one that stands a chance in hell in a business in which there really isn’t one, if the statistics are to be believed.
Click HERE or HERE (for a shorter, less expensive level that focuses on concept and premise) to learn more about holding your story plan up to the harsh but liberating light of analysis from a story coach who won’t judge your story, just the DNA it’s built upon.
Prices for story coaching will increase on May 1, 2014. Those who opt in now will lock in the current fee, regardless of when the submit the materials involved.