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Overworking a Story



You've written a story, you've gotten from point A to point B, and you made sure to wrap everything up, nice and tidy...but it's just not ready yet. Right? You want it to be your best work.

So you go back and edit it so that it'll seem like a much better, more professional, well-written story. You take a little more time with it, but even then, it doesn't seem quite right. So you go back again, and try to 'fix' everything that you think is wrong with it. You finish up...and it's OK...but...SHIT! Just before you go to bed, you toss and turn because you're thinking of a few more things that you want to say, and maybe a line of dialogue that you wanted to add to the third act. So you dive right back in and try to alter your project even more. You rephrase a couple of thoughts, add a little 'here', subtract a little 'there', and you wear yourself out trying to reach perfection. This is a natural, but often self-destructive way of handling your own writing in the long run. I know that sounds weird, but I've learned that this is a practice that needs to be recognized and avoided at all costs. There is no such thing as perfection when it comes to art. K? If anything, it is the collection of imperfections that will ultimately set you apart from everyone else who is pursuing the same audience that you are trying to impress. There is such a thing as 'overworking' a story, and in your valiant attempt to improve on your original ideas, you can actually end up doing more harm than good if you're not careful!


So...this week's blog is all about leaving well enough alone and not letting your scrutinizing eye eat away at your story, taking the feeling and emotion out of what you're trying to say. This week, we talk about 'overworking' a story.


Now, I can only speak for myself when I say that my writing is most potent when I am in the moment. While I have an idea and a game plan and an outline fixed in my head...the writing itself is very spontaneous in nature. Those thoughts and emotions come through me and get translated into words as I channel my muse as best as I can. There are times when my typing fingers can't keep up with what's going on in my mind and in my heart. It can be a rush, to just zone out and have a story evolve and blossom right in front of my very eyes. Then, once the story or that chapter is done, I take a short break from it to make sure that I can look at it with an objective eye, where I'm not still all buzzed and excited over what I just created. Naturally, there are going to be mistakes. Spelling and mechanical errors, dialogue mishaps, and a few things that could be delivered in a better way. So I go back to the beginning and try to give it that good old-fashioned Comsie polish so it's a smooth and enjoyable read for anybody who happens to stumble across it online. However...I have my worries and insecurities just like any other writer, and there exists this temptation to keep thinking about the story long after it's finished. As well as the need to jump back into it so I can fix it. One of the main reasons that I edit all of my own stories is because I would hate to drive an editor into a friggin' ASYLUM with the tiny tweaks and twitches that I'm constantly putting into my stories at the last minute. Hehehe, that just wouldn't be a fair fight for any human being who would try to figure out why some of these things needed changing at all. I still try to add little touches of 'last-minute magic' before posting a new story, but I had to train myself to stop agonizing over the tiny micro details of every chapter the way that I used to. It's not easy, but I feel it's necessary.


You see...when you keep going back to your story, changing this and that, trying to correct issues that weren't really issues to begin with...you begin to work against the spontaneity of your own muse. That gut instinct that was pulling you along and guiding you to speak your truth and express your honest feelings? It can get lost if you become obsessed with bending and warping the natural flow of what you were trying to say in the first place. I've seen really heartfelt stories turn into something slightly 'wooden' and less appealing, simply because the original version was overworked in an attempt to appeal to a wider audience. Sometimes, the search for perfection can drain the 'life' out of a project. That's never a good thing.


I'm not saying that you shouldn't strive to be at your very best at all times. Of course you should. But, at the same time, you have to develop some level of faith in your own instincts. That energy and that passion that you put into those phrases and metaphors and emotionally engaging moments is the very essence of a great story. It's raw and it's real and it says something about who you are and where your heart lies when talking about the situation at hand. Don't lose that. Think about some of the best moments in your real life. Take a second and think about those times when you fell head over heels in love, when you laughed until your belly hurt, or when you were totally surprised by a bit of good fortune. Did you plan for those moments? Or did they just sort of happen? Life is really a matter of 'winging it' from one moment to another, and having that same feeling expressed in your stories is only going to make it more relatable to everyone reading it. By going back and putting an extra gloss on every situation and word of dialogue can sometimes make it seem fake and unrealistic. That spur of the moment genius that you had while writing gets pushed aside for robotic corrections and stilted conversations. It can become a disconnect between you and your readers.


If you think your readers can't recognize a labored scene in a story, you'd be wrong. They can often tell right away. And that's not your best work, is it?


I, personally, think that there has to be a time when you let your work speak for itself. Leave it alone. In a way, I imagine it would be like raising a child. You want to give your story a good foundation and bring it to a point where you can be proud of what it can accomplish...but at some point you have to let go and let it breathe on its own. You won't lose any love for it, hehehe, promise. Go back, touch your story up in a few places if needed, and then let your heart take control and give your brain a rest. STOP thinking about it! Hit the send button and anxiously wait for the reaction. Your audience might surprise you. Remember, we can all be our own worst critics sometimes, and the mistakes that you think are so unforgivable when you're reading your own work...most readers don't catch the at all. They're too busy enjoying what it is you have to say.


I've reached a point now where I barely even remember half of the stuff I write. Hehehe, it's true! Sometimes, somebody will quote something from one of my stories and I'll be like, "Wait! I wrote that? That sounds pretty cool. THANKS!" LOL! Sad, but true. But, like I said, that's because I write 'in the moment' and don't look back when I'm done. I would much rather have the passion take center stage. Don't be a 'George Lucas' and keep going back trying to fix "Star Wars"! "Star Wars" is fine just like it is. The extras aren't necessary, and they begin to intrude on the simplicity and innocence of the original work. Spill your heart out, make one or two edits for content and mistakes...and then leave it alone! Too much is too much. Less is more. And whatever cliché you want to attach to the same idea. Have some faith in your talent and let your story say what it needs to say. Allow your natural instincts shine without being hindered by afterthoughts and insecurities. K?


The more love you have for your own stories, the more that love will be transmitted to the people watching. It's like the difference between hearing an artist or band on a marketable CD, and seeing them live in concert. The concert is an entirely different experience. Feel good about your initial gut feelings, and bring them to your audience without giving them that 'perfection' handicap. I think they'll appreciate it.


I hope this helps you guys gain some trust in your muses, wherever they may be. And I'll be back soon with more!


Now, if you'll excuse me...I'm going to go back over this entire article and scrutinize every last word and detail to see if it's ok for posting! LOL! What??? It needs 'fixing', dammit! I'm insecure. So sue me...

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I try to keep a balance between polishing and killing a story. Knowing when it's good enough isn't easy. Especially since I write in a foreign language, word choice takes a lot of thinking. So I agree it can kill a story, make it flat and unremarkable if you tweak too much.


Then again, I also believe in writing not only when inspired. If you write, inspiration will come. Those forced texts of course need more TLC before publishing. 

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I completely understand the urge to revise until the story is 'perfect'.  Luckily, I have a beta reader who will rein me in and tell me I need to stop revising and move forward when I need to hear it.  

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I am more of a photographer than a writer, but your exposition here applies to artists of all type.  I re-read some of the stories I had written (and I do that to all works I've done, photos, stories, or work in general) and I can always find something to improve upon, and just like Comsie, has a tendency ending up rewriting the whole thing (or wanting to..., my life is in the way... :( ).  I am a craftsman by nature.  And that never ending pursuit of perfection drives me nuts but I can't help it.  Because (here comes the famous quotable) "Perfectionism is a flaw itself!"


Before I confuse young folks (or anyone early on their chosen path), I don't mean do not improve yourself.  On the contrary, I am just reiterating the essence of what Comsie is trying to say.  There gotta be a balance.  As all experienced writers (and photographers) will try to tell the young grasshoppers, just keep writing (or keep taking photos!).  That's how you develop your own sense of style and discover your strength and weakness.


I totally agree with Comsie, people will notice whether you put effort into it or not.  If your words (or artistic style) stop your readers, it's usually because it's not as well done crafted as it should.  Here is what I mean: everything you put a period before it should flow naturally without a sense of pretension.  And that effortlessness is a sign of a mature artist, but that doesn't mean it comes easily!  The photos that look the most effortless to my brother, who stopped growing as a photographer, are in fact, shot on a tripod, researched extensively on the weather and lighting condition, and were chosen out of a dozen similarly shot photos (sometimes after years of reshooting the same subject) before they're even given a chance to be presented to the public. 


Which brings to another point, are you trying to sell to general public or are you trying to have a breakthrough internally as an artist?  There will always be a balance between those two which artists are struggling with.  As I mature as an artist, when I re-reevaluate my work after years the photo was taken, I'd see some "vision" that's been lost as a direct result of that pursuit of technical superiority.  That's when the general public might be a little more objective than we are, as artists to our own work, because they're not emotionally attached to the work just because the effort that's poured into it.  Once the work is published, I let the audience decide.  It'll be heart-wrenching, perhaps exhilarating, sometimes maddening, or a sense of regret with a dash of poignancy and humility.  If something is not well accepted, I'll use it as a propeller to create some better work next time.

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1 hour ago, Ashi said:

Which brings to another point, are you trying to sell to general public or are you trying to have a breakthrough internally as an artist?

Here you touch upon a very important point. There exists, let's use the label, the amateur writer (photographer), who wants to publish a good, well polished story, wants to develop and improve, and give their best. And there is the road to becoming a professional writer, that some authors are embarked upon, which carries with that ambition, perhaps more serious consraints.


Then again, just to throw a spanner in the works, there is publicity, getting yourself known, which Comsie talked about in a previous blog. Even a totally unpolished book, and or author, can become extremely popular, perhaps a best seller, simply through promotion.

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