Giving up on a story is kind of like giving up on a relationship. It hurts, it can make you feel like a failure, and it can leave the near future seeming like a pretty blank place. It seems like it’s an entirely negative experience. The only good thing about it is the sudden lack of all the bad things the experience was putting you through.
But sometimes giving up on a story is just plain necessary. Let’s face it: there are stories we will never make work no matter how much effort we pour into them. We love these stories. We believe in them. But for one reason or another, they’re just not destined to make it onto our success pile.
In the vast majority of instances, I’m going to be a proponent of sticking stories out until the end. Most stories are salvageable. A little knowledge, some time, and a lot of effort can help us find worth in even the messiest of first drafts. But there will be times when we’re better off just cutting our losses and moving on to the next story.
Why I’m Giving Up on One of My Stories
I finished the first draft of my historical novel The Deepest Breath in October 2011. From the start, it was a story I was deeply passionate about. I felt it had the chops to be better than even Behold the Dawn, my personal favorite of all my books. But, in all honesty, I bit off more than I could chew right from the get-go.
In my interest in experimenting with technique (present tense, a non-chronological timeline, and a more literary tenor), I lost sight of my true intent for the story right from the beginning. And I paid for it. The first draft was a nightmare to write, and I spent the next two years rewriting the heck out of it.
After the last rewrite, I realized something: although there is so much that is right about this story, its plot problems are so deeply entrenched that, in order to fix them, I would have to completely change the story. Rewrites I can always handle. But when a story gets so far away from you that it no longer resembles your true vision for it, you have to stop and reevaluate what you’re doing.
With a lot of thought and prayer and deep regret (but also a surprising amount of relief), I’ve made the decision not to proceed with the book. It won’t be published (although I may end up offering a free version on my website for those über-devoted readers who still want to read it).
This kind of decision is never going to be an easy one to make, but here are three of the reasons why I feel this is the right call for me to make for this story—and why you should perhaps give up on your story.
3 Signs You Should Give Up on Your Story
1. You’re Losing Focus
Stories on the page often turn out completely different from how we envision them in our heads. And that’s okay. Sometimes they even turn out better than we originally imagined them. What’s not okay is when we wake up one morning and realize the story we’re currently writing has entirely lost its intended focus.
This is what happened to me. I lost sight of my intended story (about best friends who end up on opposite sides of a moral conflict) almost from the beginning. I got sucked into my research about World War I and my idea for a romantic triangle subplot. As a result, I ended up wrangling my plot into impossible corners that took the story in an entirely different direction from the one that had originally sparked my passion.
2. You Lack Passion for the Project
You can fix just about anything in a story as long as you care enough to expend the effort. I spent years working on my fantasy Dreamlander. It was anything but perfect when it rolled off the first-draft press. But I was passionate enough about it and determined enough to make it work that I stuck with it through more than five years of intense labor.
In contrast, when I was struck with the realization of how much The Deepest Breath’s story would have to change to bring it up to snuff, I also had to face the realization that I no longer possessed the passion and energy for this project. Continuing with it sounded exhausting and painful rather than exciting and stimulating.
If we don’t love what we’re doing, what makes us think we can inspire any kind of love in our readers? Certainly, we will have moments when we won’t enjoy the process or when we grow weary of spending so much time with a particular story. But we should always return to our work with a spark of energy and a vision of hope and determination for its future. Without that, we’re not only going to make ourselves miserable, we’re also highly unlikely to produce an end result worth reading.
3. Your Gut Says Stop
The gut knows. There were times when I would have loved to have just thrown up my hands and quit on Dreamlander. But something kept me going. Every time I considered stopping, my instincts started howling. Keep going! You can fix this story! You have to see this through!
On the other hand, when I made the decision to put The Deepest Breath away for good, the loudest response I got from my gut was a big sigh of relief.
Sometimes we need to force ourselves to do hard things—like edit that stupid draft for the zillionth time. But sometimes we just have to stop. Sometimes chasing our tails is the worst thing we can do. There will always be more stories to write. Sometimes we need to just go write them—and let our old ideas die gracefully.
Killing Your Darlings
The labor and love we invest in our stories will always make killing them difficult—even when death is the most merciful gift we can give them. It takes courage to admit, even to ourselves, that a story just isn’t working.
But how much better to admit that than to slog on with a story when we know, deep down, it’s going nowhere? We’ll spare ourselves the time, labor, frustration, and depression. We’ll spare our agents, editors, and readers from wasting their time and money. We’ll protect our authorial reputations as people who refuse to give our readers anything less than our best. And we’ll be able to move on to write better and bigger stories, thanks to the lessons we’ve learned from our past failures.
And here’s the best thing about these often sad experiences. They really aren’t failures. They’re just stepping stones. As Samuel Beckett said:
Try again. Fail again. Fail better.
If you feel you’re writing a dead-end story, take a moment to evaluate your future with it. More likely than not, you’re going to keep on writing, edit your way to a fabulous book, and end your relationship with this story on a victorious note. But if it doesn’t quite work out that way—if you realize you need to move on—don’t count it as a failure. Close the file on your computer, take stock of what you’ve learned, and move on to write your next masterpiece.
Tell me your opinion: Have you ever had to give up on a story?
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