Difficult vs. Impossible: When to Rescue Your Writing, When to Move On

In interviews, authors make it sound so easy.

“Where did you get your idea for [bestselling novel]?”

“Oh,” the author answers (breezily, I imagine), “I was out walking my dog one morning and the idea just came to me. I scooped up Fluffy’s poop, hurried home and began to write it down.”

What I want to know is, Where are these ideas floating around, and where can I get one?

Difficult

Grabbing ideas out of thin air while watching your neighbors watch you pick up the pile your pup just left on their front lawn is a topic for another post (anyone want to get me a puppy? Anyone?). Today, I want to talk about Phase II of that process: Deciding whether to continue with the idea that’s just struck you, or chuck it out.

The Problem: It’s Not Going Well

Every story will fight you at some point, says the conventional wisdom. Every memoir falls into gaps in your recollection. Every nonfiction book has a critical source who dies or moves out of the country. In the throes of problems like these, it’s tempting to think: This work has no future. I should cut my losses and start something else. 

Trouble is that you think that whether it’s true or not. Here are a few ways to test that thought and see if it’s actually true and your story is hopeless.

The Words Themselves Are a Slog

Trouble choosing the quite right way to say something is why it takes me much longer than many other bloggers to write a single post. Whether it’s ego, or uncertainty, or just a massive blank spot, struggling in the middle of sentences is where I find myself most often. The frustration of falling into this ditch over and over again can drive me to imagine larger problems with the piece that I’m working on.

Maybe it’s not coming together because the structure doesn’t work. 

This doesn’t add up.

If this was any good, it’d be easier. 

Wrong.

Though it can feel like you’re the only one in the world having this problem when you’re in the midst of it, battling almost-right words in pursuit of exactly-the-right-words is a problem that every writer faces, almost every time we sit down to write something. If your work’s words are your problem, and you’re convinced it’s because there are deeper, more grievous flaws, it might be time to stick the almost-right word in place and move on. Try to see the bigger picture.

Then you can see if…

You Actually Don’t Like Your Story

There are differences between being frustrated or bored of your work and not actually liking it. When you spend too much time with anyone or anything, they’re bound to get less interesting after a while. You need some space. Some distance. Maybe have an affair with a different writing piece.

But then there are those times where the story itself has lost something. It went from interesting and exciting to banal and unenjoyable somewhere along the way, and even when you read back to the beginning, you’re not quite sure what you liked about this idea in the first place. If you’re having trouble fleshing out the next scene in your story arc because you’ve just stopped caring, consider stepping away from the computer screen (or notebook, if that’s your thing).

Do you miss your work when you’re off doing other things? No? Maybe it’s time to chuck the story.

The End Is Not Worth the Means

So you’ve got a cute little work going. It’s nice. An adorable message. Maybe a slightly memorable character. A simple story, a slice-of-life essay. Whatever it is, it’s taking you way, way too long to write it, based on its weight of importance to you.

Maybe you’ve got something else you’re itching to start, but not before you get this little thorn out of your side.

But is this little piece of writing worth the struggle? Maybe. But then again, maybe not.

If you’re honest with your end goals and you know that this work that’s giving you so much trouble is just a side project that’s likely to be included on the B-side of your oeuvre later on down the line… skip it. Put it in a drawer. Quit fighting with it.

Start on the stuff that really matters.

Happy Wednesday, writers!

How do you know when it’s time to call it quits? Have you ever given up on a piece of writing too soon? What did you do about it? Share your story in the comments.