Is your current novel in a quagmire? Are you wondering if maybe it’s hopeless? Do you think it might be time to move on? How do know when you should drop your story?
Elin posted this question on my “Ask A Question For My Blog” page:
How do you know when to drop/kill a project/book/story?
I’ve been working on the first draft of a novel and I’ve been realizing there’s a lot of problems with the plot. For instance, I don’t quite have a clearly defined second or even third disaster (maybe, I have ideas for them in my first snowflake of the story but that was a year ago and I’ve long since tossed it into storage), and my subplots are all hopelessly tangled with the main thread and need some untangling/focus. It doesn’t help that I’m probably being way too ambitious with this by making it the first book in a series despite it being my first original writing project.
I’m very much a seat-of-the-pants writer (seeing as how snowflake didn’t really help identify any of my problems specifically, only highlighted how overall unprepared I was to actually make a snowflake), and more of the story is unfolding as I force myself to progress and come up with new scenes/plotpoints/what-have-you. I’ve been working on this (mostly inconsistently, to be honest) for three years now so this project is pretty close to my heart. However, I’m wondering if I should change gears, drop this project for now, and move on to a less ambitious, more “traditionally designed” (but less thought about) project (ex. a techno-magic fantasy tragedy of Little Red and/or a slower, character-driven, semi-post-apocalyptic fantasy).
(The series I’m working on now is an action/adventure (hopefully, I’m working on adding more action) character-driven fantasy with an overarching theme of pain/suffering leading to hope. The setting and target audience is admittedly less defined, but I’m hoping it all works out as I go.)
Since I rambled on A LOT, I’ll reiterate: How do you know when to stop working on a story? (And some guidelines on why you should?)
Randy sez: OK, that’s a lot of question there. The core issue is how you know when you should drop your story. That’s an issue every writer has faced.
Reframing the Question
First let me point out that dropping a story isn’t necessarily permanent. You can set it aside on your “Someday Maybe” list and come back to it later.
But let me turn things around a bit, Elin. It sounds to me like you’ve lost enthusiasm for this story, at least for right now. It’s a big ambitious project. This may be a case of trying to do calculus when you haven’t learned algebra yet.
So let’s reframe the question this way: How do you know when you should keep working on a story?
I can think of several reasons you might want to forge ahead with a story, even if it’s causing you some pain:
- This story is burning a hole in your gut. If you don’t finish this story, you’ll be thinking about it all the time and wishing you were working on it. (This is an emotive reason to keep working.)
- This story is going slow right now, and it feels like you’re in the swamp, up to your ears in alligators, but you know perfectly well that this is the usual slog-through-the-middle that happens with every story that was ever written. You have good reason to think that with a bit more slogging, you’ll come to dry land and produce a story you can be proud of. (This is an intellectual reason to keep working.)
- This story is one you already sold or know you can sell, and it really is a doable project, even if you’re not in love with it. But it will bring you money, and you need money. (This is a financial reason to keep working.)
- This story is ___________________. (Fill in the blank with any other reason you can think of that would make it a good sound decision to push ahead to the finish line right now.)
Why Continue on This Project?
Now the issue I see for you, Elin, is that it looks like your heart’s not really in this story right now. Maybe at some point in the future, your heart will be back in it, but at the moment, it looks like you don’t have an emotive reason to keep going.
You also appear to have some doubts about whether you currently have the skills to finish it. You’re thinking that you might build those skills by working on a less ambitious project. And I would bet you will.
And also, it sounds like you haven’t sold this project, so there’s no major financial incentive to carry on.
So the question I’d ask is whether you can think of any other compelling reason for keeping on working on this project.
A Break is Not Forever
If you can’t think of a good strong reason to keep going, then I think it makes sense to write some notes to yourself about the project so you can pick it up a year from now, or five years, or even twenty.
It’s OK to put it on the shelf for a while. (I set aside a big project back in the mid 90s. It’s still not time to pick that project up again, but someday I’d like to. In the meantime, I’ve finished a number of other novels and published them and my skill set is quite a lot bigger now.)
Then go work on something else. Work on less ambitious novels that will help you learn the craft better. (Nobody ever masters the craft of writing, but at a certain point, you can say, “I’m good enough to tackle this particular project.”)
It’s good to be ambitious and work on hard projects. But one thing at a time. Everest should not be the first mountain you try to climb.
Got a Question for My Blog?
If you’ve got a question you’d like me to answer in public on this blog, hop on over to my “Ask A Question For My Blog” page and submit your question. I’ll answer the ones I can, but no guarantees. There are only so many hours in the day.
Mel Hughes says
Seems to me the key phrase in that question was “I’ve been working on the first draft.” Somebody forgot to tell this author that first drafts are always terrible. An oft-used quote attributed to Hemingway states (I’ll substitute one word) “the first draft of anything is doodoo.”
Unless you’re Mozart, you are always going to have a first draft that needs a lot of re-writing, re-thinking, re-plotting. Maybe shelving the project for a while to re-think and re-plot is a good option, but i don’t think giving up is valid yet.
Cary Richards says
You can always put it away for a few weeks or months…Maybe even years. It may look completely different to you and become more viable when you get back to you.
Janet Ann Collins says
Randy, I put aside a Middle Grade novel I was working on several years ago because the plot just wasn’t working. Recently I realized how it needs to be changed and a publisher from the Mount Hermon Christian Writers Conference expressed an interest in it, so I’m going through it and preparing for a rewrite.