Recently, and on two separate occasions, writer friends of mine have asked me the same question: I’ve been writing and writing, now how do I turn these pages into a story?
If you find yourself with pages and pages of writing, and you’re not sure how to make them into a coherent story, first let me say: good job! You’re doing the work. You are writing the pages. You are a writer, and you effing rock.
Now, let’s look at a few ways you might pull it all together.
Option 1: Go Short
One way to bring all your pages together is to simply not. That is to say, you might have a collection of related short stories on your hands. Check out Triburbia, by Karl Taro Greenfeld (with its stories of a single neighborhood), or The Wanderers, by Richard Price (touching into the lives of members in a gang) for good examples.
Also consider that, even if your stories are closely related, you could change a few names and places and pretty easily have a collection of unrelated short stories. Just focus in on what you’re trying to say with each one. Don’t even worry about how they all fit together.
One of the nice things about going with short stories is that you can send each one out to journals and see what kind of response you get. (Check out my Submission Spreadsheet to help you get organized.) Publishing one or more of your stories will give you some serious street credit if/when you decide to query agents.
Option 2: Find A Focal Point
If you feel strongly that you have a longer story on your hands, ask yourself if there is one event on which you can hang the entire narrative. For instance, in the recent book Commonwealth, each chapter is *almost* a short story unto itself, but as the story jumps around among the characters, we come to see how their lives have revolved around this one thing that happened to their family (no spoilers, it’s a good read).
Think of the countless stories that revolve around a wedding, or the death of a patriarch, or the birth of a baby. Consider the pages you have, and think about how they might be edited and rewritten to keep your characters engaged, chapter to chapter, around this one thing that has happened (and the things that lead up to it happening, and the things that happen as a result). Remember, you’re writing fiction. Even if it is based on your life, you have the freedom to shift things around in the name of the narrative.
Option 3: Go Linear
Especially if you are working with material you’ve pulled from your own life, going linear might be a good choice. You can tell your story from A to B to C and on, one event leading to the next, jumping time when the story calls for it.
The trick here is that your main character *must* want something, and want it badly. Maybe she’s an immigrant striving to be the first in her family to graduate from college. Or maybe he is absolutely pining for his brother’s wife. Or maybe it’s a young woman who falls in love with a vampire and really wants to become one herself – no, wait, don’t write that.
Then, you have to put obstacles in their way, again and again. (She gets into college, but fails to fill out the FAFSA forms on time, but then an uncle dies and she has the tuition money, but then her classes are much harder than she thought, and so on…)
In truth, it doesn’t matter if they are ultimately successful in getting what they want. Your story will be satisfying if they get what they need. Remember the old Stones lyric: You can’t always get what you want, but sometimes, if you try, you get what you need.
Be Prepared to Trash Pages
I am sorry to be the one to break it to you. As you figure out your structure, you will trash pages. In fact, once you find the structure you want, you will likely be rewriting everything you’ve written so far. But don’t stress on that just yet.
For now, just sit with what you have. Consider the books you love and see if maybe you can borrow the general structure of one for your own story. Ultimately, only you can decide what to do with all those pages, but I would encourage you to dig in. You’ve come this far. You have a story to tell. Keep writing.