How Tell if a Story Isn't Ready to Be Written

How to Tell if a Story Isn’t Ready to Be Written

In December, I finished Dreamlander, the fantasy I worked on for almost two years. Now, four months later, it’s time for me turn my eyes to the future and start writing again. That creative lobe in my brain is starting to itch, and I’m getting that restless urge to start visiting unknown worlds and invisible people. That much I know. What I don’t yet know is what it is I’m supposed to be writing.

Dreamlander NIEA FinalistThe break between novels is always a restless, frustrating period for me. If I had my way, I’d jump from novel to novel without a pause. I’ve learned, however, that I need that hiatus of a few months to rest my brain and refuel my creative energy. I also need the time to figure out which of the stories in my head is calling my name.

The Problems of Choosing Which Story to Write Next

Inevitably, despite my best efforts to the contrary, I end up with a false start or two. I might think a story is telling me it’s ready to be written, only to sit down at the computer and find that the characters have all scattered like snickering children playing blind man’s bluff.

Behold the DawnAfter finishing Behold the Dawn several years ago, I outlined half of a time-traveling suspense story, only to run dry. After that, I completed the outline for a tale set during World War II and wrote (and rewrote) at least fifty pages before realizing this story too had tricked me.

How to Tell if a Story Isn’t Ready to Be Written

Why did this happen? Not, I believe, because either story was inherently flawed; I still hope to return to both of them someday. Instead, I think they failed because they weren’t yet ready to be written. Novelist Margaret Atwood, in an interview with Writer’s Digest, said:

You know when you’re not ready; you may be wrong about being ready, but you’re rarely wrong about being not ready. You keep trying, but you may wait a while between the tries. … I’ve had books that didn’t work out. I had to stop writing them. … It was depressing, but it wasn’t the end of the world. …sometimes you bash yourself against the wall and you get through it. But sometimes the wall is just a wall. There’s nothing to be done but go somewhere else.

Ironically enough, Dreamlander itself was once one of those walls. After finishing A Man Called Outlaw several years ago, I managed to write the first fifty pages of Dreamlander before smashing into Atwood’s wall. I abandoned the story, and not until it was ready to be written, years later, did I finally break through that wall and complete the story.

For several months now, I was sure I was ready to return to the World War II story, The Rain Still Falls. Most of the hard work on it is finished—the outlining, the research. And I even thought I had figured why it failed the first time: wrong POV. All I have to do is switch out the POVs, and everything should run smoothly.

But, apparently, my optimism was a bit naïve. As much as I’d like to return to this story next, I’m starting to get those familiar flickers of doubt that usually precede the conviction that a story isn’t ready to be written. And even as The Rain Still Falls fades back into the background, another story keeps inching up on me, beckoning me, telling me that this is the story that is ready to be written next.

The Only True Way to Tell Which Story You Should Be Writing

Only time will tell, of course, if this new story is whispering the truth. I may get fifty pages into it and realize I’ve been deluding myself. But I’ve learned to trust that gut feeling that says Stop. Something isn’t right.

Occasionally, it’s hard to differentiate this feeling from the inevitable “beginning blues,” but if I just keep banging against that wall eventually I’ll get my answer: Either I’ll break through and know this story was meant to be written. Or I’ll get a splitting headache and realize I need to wait. It’s a delicate balance, and I’m still learning to read the signs early enough to avoid all that fruitless pounding.

But one thing I have learned is that it’s okay to give up on ideas. Forcing myself to continue when a story isn’t ready to be written isn’t going to get me anything but a lousy conglomeration of half-hearted paragraphs. Recognizing when a story isn’t working isn’t the same as giving up on a story. Instead, it’s acting positively to save time—and sanity—in the long run.

Tell me your opinion: How do you decide which story to write next?

How Tell if a Story Isn't Ready to Be Written

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About K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland

K.M. Weiland is the award-winning and internationally-published author of the acclaimed writing guides Outlining Your Novel, Structuring Your Novel, and Creating Character Arcs. A native of western Nebraska, she writes historical and fantasy novels and mentors authors on her award-winning website Helping Writers Become Authors.

Comments

  1. This is quite heartening, because stories trick me into false-starts this way as well. It’s hard on my family who need money from actual sales, to hear that the book I spent a month on was the wrong book, and I wondered if it was a lack of professionalism on my part.

    I try to at least take steps forward on whichever project I work on, so if I do leave it, I can come back to it and not have to start from scratch. Sometimes many years pass between my first false start and final manuscript.

    • Thank you for kindly sharing such enlightening, wise words of wisdom. You have no idea how much encouraging support your words have rendered, especially coming from such a well seasoned writer. I had begun and stopped a couple of screenplays, one after the other, intending to return to them, a short while ago. Although I feel that I did the right thing as the one I am busy with now, feels like, had to be done and completed first, then return to the other two and complete them, respectively, in due season. Your words come as a relief consolation as I couldn’t help feeling a little doubt in what I had done, if that was the right thing. Your kind support is highly appreciated!

      • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

        Glad you enjoyed the post! Good writing is largely a matter of timing. Some stories just need to wait for the right time to be written.

  2. I’ll echo Tara’s comment. It’s nice to know that the struggles of writing aren’t my own property, but are just rented from others.

    I love that quote by Margaret Atwood, too.

  3. Yes, always, always, always save your notes and your progress. When I re-started my fantasy, Dreamers Come, the year before last, I ended up rewriting most of what I’d already done. But I still used it all as a springboard.

    @Billy: Any time you want to rent-to-own this particular struggle of mine, feel free!

  4. K.M., I’m so pleased to hear that your are reading The Frugal Book Promoter. I know it will make a difference in your Writing Life, build your career. Hope you’ll consider its companion, too. The Frugal Editor.

    I always like to leave a tip behind. I found you (Yay!) by using http://www.whostalking.com!

    Best,
    Carolyn Howard-Johnson

  5. I moved back to editing Give the Lady a Ride because I was ramming a wall with The Cat Lady of Forest Lawn. I’m a quarter of the way through Cat Lady, so I don’t know if it’s writer’s block or simply not time for the story, but either way–IT’S FRUSTRATING!

  6. @Carolyn: Thanks for stopping by! I’m about halfway through you book, and I’ve been enjoying the wealth of information so far.

    @Linda: Yeah, it is frustrating. Just keep banging that wall. If you end up with a headache, you’ll have your answer.

  7. I know the feeling of not being ready and forcing something that never should have been forced to start with. Creativity is like a clock: it only works when all the gears mesh together. If you don’t feel inspired and you still move on, yes, you might finish it, but you will never have what you could have had, if you had been truly inspired and ready for the project.

  8. Generally, I’m not a fan of “waiting on the muse.” Inspiration is a finicky creature, at best, and I prefer it to be under my control and not me under its. But there comes a time when all the perseverance in the world can’t make up for the lack of inspiration. It’s the sugar in the cake. You might get a nice-looking hunk of bread without it – but it won’t be sweet enough to tempt anyone’s palate.

  9. I found your site today and I’m really enjoying it! I’m so glad I’m not the only one “the wall” happens to. I got 10 chapters (yes 10) into a book before I realized that no matter what I did the story was all wrong. I’d been taught to never give up on a project but this book was just a dead thing. I’ve since taken bits and pieces from it for other work and have given myself permission to listen to nagging doubts. I’m the writer after all.

  10. Sometimes it *is* hard to remember “we’re the writers, after all.” These darn stories seem to have minds of their own! And I commiserate all too well with the agony of giving up on a project. But sometimes it’s for the best. C’est la vie.

  11. So nice to find this site. I ma not a writed but I dream of a day when I try it. My mind is alwasys going. I am a natural story teller but my oudience is in my mind. I am so afraid to write my stories. Yet so many of my stories are so worthy of beins shared.

    I want to purchase a mind mapping tool to outline my stories. I want to start some place.

    Wnglish is my second language, but I have this urge to learn to write.

    Any suggestions?

    Thanks,

    Maggie

  12. I’m afraid I’m not familiar with a good mind-mapping tool. I use the software program yWriter to organize my stories, but that may not be what you’re looking for. I would definitely encourage you to write your stories down. All of art is scary in its own way, but if you have worthwhile stories and enjoy writing, there’s no good reason not to go for it.

  13. robert easterbrook says

    Whichever’s call is loudest! haha No, I just make lots of notes, and make outlines and then wait until I have finished the one I’m working on. I enjoy both sci-fi and crime; so I try to mix the two genres, but sometimes I want to emphasize more of one than the other. I like that I can move between the two and not feel guilty about being more involved with one than the other.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      I’m all over the place with genre. It’s fun to always be working on something completely different from the last project.

  14. thomas h cullen says

    There’ll never be a next story. Forever The Representative will be enough:

    Not just Croyan and Mariel’s existence, it’s the text of humanity.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      It is important to know when we’re ready to quit.

      • thomas h cullen says

        I’m desperate to have The Representative be known. People so much deserve to know of a creation such as this – of all of its sentences, of all of its layers and dimensions:

        All of its “final realities”.

  15. Yeesh. I have been spinning my wheels on a story-in-progress for about a week now. It feels like a hot mess and while I know where it’s supposed to end up, it feels like there’s been a lot of build-up and it hasn’t gotten to where it needs to go. Last night I even broke a 64-day writing streak because I just plain had nothing. And then tonight I opened Pinterest to find a writing prompt I’d pinned for myself…and found a link to this blog post instead.

    This is a good post, but I’m also sitting here thinking, “Is this a message from the universe that this book isn’t ready? Or am I looking for an excuse to stop?” LOL

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Hah. I know exactly what you mean. Sometimes the process is just so hard that it’s easy to wonder if the difficulty, in itself, is an indication we’re on the wrong track. I think it can *sometimes* be an indication of just that. But we have to be careful with that too, since *most* of writing is just plain hard. I would encourage you to take a step back from the project and try to logically examine what’s blocking you. Is it a plot problem? If so, is it remediable? If it is, then you’re probably still on the right track in continuing with this project.

      • Thanks for the feedback! It is definitely a plot problem, and it’s fixable, but I got so wrapped up in the “work on this every day and get it done” mindset that I stopped enjoying it. I’ve taken a few days off of the writing part to go back and work on plotting again. Tomorrow I dive back into it, and I’m hoping to get back some of the joy. 🙂

        • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

          Good for you! Writing is hard, but if we’ve lost the joy, that’s always a symptom of a larger problem.

  16. Brigitta M. says

    So many feels from this post. I’ve recently had to abandon a piece after about thirty scenes into the outline (and rather extensive world building) because I realized I had no idea what decision the character would make next. Up to that point, she’d mostly been dragged along from plot point to plot point so her personality really hadn’t had a chance to shine through. It’s a case of “I know what the problem is but I have no idea how to fix it.” Ugh.

    Not to mention that all of my usual tricks to get a character out of this just weren’t working. Knowing me, she’ll probably show up in a dream when I’m in the middle of another project. *sigh*

  17. I needed this article. I’ve been trying off and on for six years to write this one story. But it’s complicated, and I have put off actually writing it because it was just beyond my paygrade. A few months back I decided I was going to write it. I can’t. It’s still such a frustration to sit down and try to put anything down. I’m normally a seat-of-the-pants writer, but this one is planned out more than anything I’ve ever written. I think I’m just not ready. Maybe it’s just not ready. I’ll avoid the headache and move on. I also need to heed the advice to take a break between things — except I write multiple stories at a time. Thanks so much for the encouraging words!

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