Story Salvage: Finding the Opportunity in Failure

From SWFA:

It’s often noted that in baseball, making an out 70 percent of the time is considered all-star play(1). Although every writer’s experience will be different, writing often seems to offer a similar success ratio in terms of failed stories. Sometimes that failure also comes fast, which gives you the opportunity to start over, but when a novel or other work collapses much deeper into the process, it can be brutal. You wake up in a cold sweat one night and realize the grim truth: The book can’t be saved. You’ve revised, re-worked, and re-imagined. You’ve rounded it through your beta readers and covered an entire wall of your house in post-its and notecards like a crazy conspiracy theorist, but the book simply doesn’t work(2).

A failed book stings, but the healthiest thing you can do is to see failure for what it truly is: an opportunity. There’s probably a lot of good material that can be salvaged if you know how. Here are five strategies you can try on any failed story.

Extract a short story

Okay, so your planned fifteen-volume epic fantasy has a million words, a hundred named characters, and nothing even closely resembling a coherent plot. You’ve already lost your youth and some of your sanity to this project, so consider carving out some of the best scenes and character moments and shaping them into short stories. There’s a thriving market for short fiction in almost every genre, so if you can pull a few particularly sharp sections out and polish them up, you’ll at least have something to show for your efforts—and perhaps a few more publishing credits to your name.

Trim to a novella

Sometimes a novel starts off hot and you write a terrific early section, and then you fall off a creative cliff and the rest of the novel is a terrifying process of grabbing at every conceptual branch that swoops up towards you(3). An obvious strategy is to surgically remove that first section and see if you can revise it into a novella(4). The key here is to ensure that your novella has a shape to it, that it has a real ending and doesn’t read as the first part of a longer story.

Mine it for the basis of another, better novel

Failed novels aren’t monolithic slabs of bad writing. They’re a complex mix of good and bad writing. If your story launched with an exciting buzz of this might be genius and is currently hovering at this might be the worst thing I’ve ever written(5), take a breath and go through the story to identify the good stuff—the ideas that make you excited all over again—and reconceptualize them.

Link to the rest at SWFA

4 thoughts on “Story Salvage: Finding the Opportunity in Failure”

  1. Without seeing any of his prose so that I can make useful comments, he may not see that he is not being consistent in the “resolution” he is using in Story. Thus he sees a mess without understanding why.

    – Someone used the example of “South Park” in describing “resolution”.

    South Park isn’t actually animation, the characters are icons being moved about. That is more than enough “resolution” to tell the Story.

    When he suggests pulling out material for a short story, or novella, or changing the genre, he is pulling prose out and seeing it in a new form, which forces him to make the prose more consistent for that new form.

    I suspect that he went into too much detail in some parts, and too little in others, and when he tried to edit the prose he did not see the inconsistent “resolution” across the whole.

    – Laying out cards on the wall, gives the illusion of consistent “resolution”.

    If he laid out the cards, then laid out the pages to match the cards, the uneven “resolution” would have popped out. Some cards would have only a couple of pages, while others would be a dozen pages for that card.

    The Silmarillion is a “very low” resolution story. LOTR is a “medium” resolution story. The modern Fantasy is at “high” resolution, going into far more detail than LOTR. Which is why most modern Fantasy uses a lot more words describing less story arc.

    The Time Mercenaries by Philip E. High is less than 50k, yet it has the same story arc as LOTR. If The Time Mercenaries were written today, “medium” resolution would be about 500k, which would still be “compressed”. To meet today’s expectations, it would have to be written to “high” resolution and be 1m words.

    I look at The Amber series by Zelazny.

    The first was written for the 70s at “medium” resolution, while the second was written for the 80s at “high” resolution because the market demanded more words for the same story arc.

    Then look at Duma Key and Doctor Sleep.

    They each compress time at different stages, skipping along at the different points, then slowing down at the end, going into “high” resolution describing the final battle in detail.

    • Good point on detail choice (resolution) and how it changes by genre and through time.

      One example that quickly came to mind was Asimov’s NIGHTFALL original vs the ASIMOV/SILVERBERG novel version. Both work, both serve the same ideas, but the original is more concise and focused, the latter broader and more detailed. Which is better? Depends…

      Also the genre/market/medium matters. Note the following screed trying to compare streaming novel adaptations to vintage broadcast series.

      “I was watching Amazon’s action TV show Reacher when I realized something. The newly streaming eight-episode series is about a tough guy rolling into a small town and opening a can of whup-ass on the local bad guys. This, I thought, is The A-Team. To be precise, it’s a single episode of The A-Team.

      Season 1 of Reacher covers only one novel from the series of books on which it’s based, and season 2 — just confirmed by Amazon — will presumably do the same. But in the 1980s, TV heroes walked into a whole new adventure every week.

      In other words, what takes Jack Reacher an entire season of hour-long episodes, the A-Team used to do in an hour (minus ad breaks).”

      Easy to see where the plaint falls flat: old-school series aren’t remotely close to modern streaming shows. The former relied on simplification and short hand whereas modern series are *expected* to be nuanced and explicit. “Show not tell”.

      Choosing the proper level of detail (“resolution”) is tricky and the wrong choice can render a story either a boring bloat or an unsatisfying shell.

      Sticking with video, there is the recent example of Warner bros. JUSTICE LEAGUE. The teatrical release was so concerned with length and gutted out tbe dramatic heart of the story in favor of “fast paced action”. In contrast, the director’s cut ran almost twice as long and presented the same general plot but allowed the characters motivations and personalities to drive tbe narrative. Same story but the first was shallow and disjointed and the second more consistent and nuanced. The first was a collection of action scenes stiched together while the latter is a holistic narrative.

      Not an easy thing to figure out the level of detail the story and its (potential) market demands. A romcom is unlikely to thrive if given all the nuance and detail of a dramatic character study nor is the latter going to fit into the typical romcom word count.

      Which is probably a long-winded way of saying that word count straight jackets help no one but knowing which narrative focus to take isn’t easy nor immediately apparent. A story progression might demand more detail than originally intended forcing a decision to either descope or follow the narrative’s demands and deal with the consequences later.

      Resolution is a nice way to describe the choice.
      Worth remembering.

      • Yes, that’s what I’ve been trying to understand. I could “see[1]” what was there but could not find the right terms to capture what I was seeing.

        That is what the “streaming” article was pointing out, and what you have mentioned many times. Most classic miniseries, the Novel-for-Television from the 70s and 80s would make more sense assembled as a long movie. That’s how Snyder’s Justice League started out, then they simply put the episodes together as one long movie.

        Then you have Clavell’s Shogun which was a nine-hour miniseries, so had to stay a miniseries with episodes watched over time.

        Look at the Dresden Files TV series. They made the mistake of doing episodic, ABA structure. They basically ran out of material. Where if they did Dresden Files today, they would do one book per short season and give the character room.

        Look at season one of Star Trek Picard. That is a ten episode season that covers one story arc rather than the classic ABA structure. I watched all of Next Generation, many times, and can barely remember any of the episodes. When I see an episode now, I do not remember it. That’s deeply disturbing when that happens.

        If they had done Next Generation following the Picard format, you would have many ten episode arcs, that are memorable, rather than hundreds of episodes that I can’t remember today.

        [1]Look at a very high “resolution” photo of a face.

        The greyscale is hyper-real in detail.

        – It shows a lot of “character”.

        Slide down the web page and you will see some of the photos in color. They do not have the same amount of information as the “greyscale”.

        There is one guy in both greyscale and color, compare the two and see that the color appears to lose detail, lose “character”.

        When you see the dancer, they are trying to capture the “form” rather than focus on “character”.

        – See the problem I have with putting this into words.

        Then you have the classic Bosch, where he packs story after story into a small confusing space.

        I still don’t know how to characterize that. This is like the Arabian Nights rather than a novel, and can be overwhelming if each small story is not given room.

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