#54: Feeling Guilty About Spilled Words

Dear Story Nurse,

I am in the middle of writing a fantasy novel (target length 120k). The story breaks down into three major sections and I’ve got a solid enough plan that I’m comfortable with it; I’m currently mostly finished with the first section. I’ve already had to start it over once to fix concept problems—fortunately that bit’s taken care of.

However, recently I realized a major subplot wasn’t working; I have the solution, which is to rip it out and replace it with a different subplot, which is intended to both address the reasons I needed the subplot there in the first place and also, you know, be a valuable part of the story in its own right (which is where the original failure was). So, okay, I know what I need to do.

The problem is, as I actually do the thing I’m feeling… really bogged down, like I keep retreading the same old ground. I would love for nothing more than to just get out of this same damn section of the story and actually move on to new ground but if I just move on and leave the replacement for later, a) that’s just making work for future me and b) I feel like I’ll have less of a handle on what actually happened in the bits that I’m scrubbing/replacing.

I feel like the answer is probably ‘suck it up and finish rewriting these bits’ (and that’s been my operating assumption as I’ve kept at it) so I’m not dealing with vestigial remains of dead plot lines but I’m hoping maybe for some guidance or ideas as to What To Do When Cleaning Out Stuff That Didn’t Work When You Still Need To Move Forward. Or maybe some way to make it feel less like I’m in a rut.

—neongrey (they/them)

Dear neongrey,

Your answer is, alas, correct. Some parts of writing are slogs and chores and there’s no way around it. When you’re doing plot tectonics there is a long slow grind and it grinds on forever. But one day it will push up a beautiful volcano that will spew drama-lava all over the place and you’ll be glad you stuck it out.

That metaphor got away from me a bit.

As you note, if you’re going to have to replace that subplot sooner or later, sooner is better. And you feel like you’re retreading familiar ground because you are. But you aren’t stuck in a rut, story-wise; quite the opposite. You’re finding ways to get yourself out of the rut that you were previously stuck in.

What I suspect you’re stuck in, deep down, is something more like embarrassment or regret or anger at yourself over having messed up in the first place and made more work for yourself. That may be compounded by already having had to start over once. You probably want to get out of that section of the story because it reminds you of having made mistakes. If you don’t address the emotional component of this process, you’ll stay stuck in it and this slog will keep feeling like a slog, because you’ll be carrying around all those unacknowledged feelings that slow you down and wear you out.

Take a little time to remember that all drafts have problems, and sometimes those problems are big problems that need a lot of work to fix. You have not screwed up inordinately. It may feel like you have because the nature of this particular error requires you to pause writing in order to revise, but that doesn’t actually mean anything in the grand scheme of things. You could leave the revisions for later and just keep writing, and nothing would fall apart.

What you’re doing right now is actually a very important part of getting out of the rut. It’s something like making a proper apology. Sometimes, when we make mistakes and hurt others, we just want to rush on and pretend it didn’t happen. A real apology means confronting our errors, sitting with them, and admitting culpability so that we can make a sincere promise not to make the same mistake again. It’s hard! It can be very painful. But if you do it honestly and with a good heart, it can also feel cleansing.

The person you injured is you, in the sense of costing yourself the time and effort of repairing the problems with your work, and the person you need to apologize to is you. Acknowledge your error and promise to build a better subplot this time through. If you make good on that promise, you’ll feel so much better about it than you would if you tried to keep writing while knowing that this unfinished business was looming over you. If you are feeling guilt or shame or anger over having been imperfect—and all writers and all drafts are imperfect, believe me—then doing the best repair job you know how to do is the best way through to forgiving yourself. It doesn’t have to be perfect! Just honestly give it your best shot, without dodging or finessing it.

Your story will forgive you, of course. Stories are wonderful that way. All their bumps and scratches and even gaping plot holes can be healed so thoroughly that no one will ever know they were there. You have done no real harm. This is all just part of the process of writing something big and complicated.

As you work, remind yourself, “I am doing the right thing.” Let that moral righteousness fuel you through the parts where you feel bad. You’ll get through and move on to the next phase of writing with a lighter heart, secure in the knowledge that you did right by your book and yourself.


Story Nurse

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5 thoughts on “#54: Feeling Guilty About Spilled Words

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