There is a romantic myth that surrounds writers. This myth is rife with infatuation, possessiveness and protectiveness: a writer is supposed to be obsessed with their work. Utterly absorbed.
If their creative process stalls, or in some instances flatlines, the writer should just work harder. More rewrites, more experimentation. They should even put the draft away to gain that invaluable perspective, but ultimately come back. No matter the grief a project causes, a writer should always come back.
It reads like a lover addicted to an implosive partnership.
Romantic myth, prepare to be busted.
Just like relationships, not all projects are meant to last forever. Some projects might not last a week. A day. A five minute type-out. Some projects you don’t have to come back for. And that’s okay. In fact, that’s healthy.
Similar to a relationship that limps on well after it should end, if you cling to a project that’s going nowhere, you’ll find yourself in a world of strife.
You’ll make excuses. Your self-esteem will suffer and your confidence will bottom out. You’ll lose perspective on the project and your abilities on a broader scale. Your frustrations will boil over and you may end up avoiding writing altogether.
Hanging onto a writing project when you should let go isn’t noble and doesn’t mean you’re dedicated to your craft. It means you’re wasting valuable time and energy because you haven’t understood the signs.
So what are the tell-tale indicators of a project you need to set aside? Read on for four clues to help you figure out when to call it quits.
1. You’re struggling to flesh out your characters
Characters: for a lot of writers, this is where the story is first formed. The seed from which an entire narrative arc will sprout.
Generally, the first character to come to a writer is the protagonist, or the antagonist. A central voice. A driving personality that will shape a large portion of the plot.
Part of the first draft is working out who your characters are, especially those main players. While not necessarily crystal clear, a lot of writers will have a solid sense of their protagonists and antagonists pretty quickly, if not immediately.
They will, for example, know how their protagonist will act in the aftermath of a bloody murder, or how their antagonist feels about the state of current politics. Even though the critical fine-tuning predominantly features in later drafts, writers generally ‘feel’ their characters from the start.
If you’re having trouble with a project, ask yourself: do you ‘feel’ your characters? Or are you writing with a stranger’s voice? Does your characters’ perspectives and dialogue seem as foreign as summer in the Arctic?
In order to craft believable characters, you need to know who they are. If you’re struggling to flesh out your characters, maybe you’re trying to force something into life that isn’t there.
If it’s a simple lack of knowledge about cultural or colloquial differences, do some research and return with your creative ammunition. Once prepared, your characters should come together relatively easily.
But if you’re still flip-flopping between three different vocabularies and alternating worldviews within the one personality, then do yourself a favour: stop writing. Delete. Delete. Delete.
It sounds harsh, but you’re better off throwing that concept to the wind before you begin to question your creative abilities.
Because it’s not you. You’re doing fine. The idea just didn’t work. Not every idea does. Drop it and move on to the next one.
Focus on creating characters that you know and understand inside out; these are the characters that will resonate with readers.
2. You can’t get the plot to make sense
Whether it’s a classic three-act structure or a shattered timeline, your plot must make sense. Even the most complicated, overlapping, tri-perspective, time-jumping stories have an overarching plot that makes sense.
If your plot is a shamble of unnecessary and/or irrational events with no logical beginning, middle and end, then stop typing. There’s no point putting in a thousand hours on a narrative that has to run a marathon around itself just to make the plot work.
Don’t give yourself a migraine trying to link outlandish situations that are outlandish just for the sake of being outlandish. Don’t fixate on a twist that will rip the reader from the story and leave them confused and bemused.
There are many books containing clever plots with twists and turns and wild events, but they always make sense. Everything fits. There’s a reason for each event, no matter the scale. The plot works.
If you can’t simplify your main plot into dot points, or timelines, or spreadsheets (whatever your system may be), and have it make sense, then maybe you should quit while you’re ahead.
If you’re not sure, bounce the plot off someone else. An external perspective from someone not emotionally invested in the plot is a great sounding board. They will ask the questions and point out the issues you’ve missed or purposefully overlooked.
Whatever you do, don’t waste too much time on a plot that doesn’t work. Save your energy and put it into the next project. Your sanity will thank you for it.
3. You’re not excited by the story
Excitement is an integral aspect of the creative writing process. A writer should always be excited about their project, whether they express this excitement through animated discussions and furious typing or in a more subdued, internalised manner as they work out the details of their new draft and delight in the creation of a new story.
As a writer, you need excitement and enthusiasm. You need a relentless curiosity about the characters you’re creating – an unquenchable desire to spend hours at a laptop in isolation just to see where this story is going to take you.
Sure, writing’s no picnic. It’s hard work, but when you’re excited about your story, you don’t care about the hours ahead. You’re pumped about the potential of the end product. Stoked to get the ideas out of your head. The way the words come together gives you a little thrill.
Or… Maybe it doesn’t. Maybe you’re more frustrated than excited, because nothing’s coming together and you just can’t seem to get the idea on the page the same way you imagined it.
Instead of gushing out a first draft, you’re spending all your time in the opening chapter, stuck in a dreary rut that you just can’t summon the energy to get yourself out of. Writing this project feels like more of a chore than doing the dishes.
Nothing’s coming out right or easy. You’ve started avoiding the project and procrastination has stepped up a whole new level. Now you don’t even turn on your laptop, instead scrolling away the days and your mounting guilt via your smartphone.
This project doesn’t make you excited to write. In fact, it’s making you angry. At yourself. What’s wrong with you? Why can’t you write this? You must be losing your skills.
No. No, no, no. Stop right there. If any of these thoughts are familiar to you, you need to stop torturing yourself and consider breaking up with this project.
Some ideas are better in your head, and you know that subconsciously, even if you can’t admit it aloud yet. That’s why you’re not excited. You sat down with a ready-to-go attitude and face-planted into a big pile of this-is-going-nowhere narrative.
The scary thing is, if you linger too long, this nowhere narrative might take a swing at your motivation for future projects.
So don’t let this dud bring you down. Re-boot and re-boost your confidence as a writer by ditching the nowhere narrative and jumping onto something new.
You’ll know it was the right decision as soon as you start writing again and that thrill returns. And it will; don’t worry.
4. You’re finding writing harder than normal
Adjacent to the writer’s excitement is the fact that the writing is sometimes hard. And we don’t just mean redrafting-and-self-editing hard; we mean the kind of hard where you have to force every sentence. There’s no flow. No rhythm. You spend more time deleting, retyping and deleting again than you do creating new words.
In case you weren’t sure, this is a bad sign.
Generally speaking, when a writer’s onto a good thing, a story tends to pour out in waves. Of course, some writers are more precise in their first draft, but the majority tend to (and are usually recommended to) get everything out as quickly as possible, in the interests of completing a first draft.
Some of those writing waves are great and some not so great (that’s what redrafts are for). Things come together and unfold before you as you type frantically away at that keyboard, desperate to get the words out before they disappear from inside your head.
However, if you’re sitting at your laptop for hours on end, each word as painful as a broken finger playing piano, then you might have a problem. You’re either approaching the narrative from the wrong direction or you shouldn’t be approaching it at all.
This doesn’t mean if you ever encounter writer’s block, you should cut and run. On the contrary, writer’s block can often be conquered by perseverance. But if you’ve been persevering for weeks on end and getting nowhere, then you need to reconsider whether this story is for you.
Stilted sentences full of cliches and non-committal descriptions; an untrue voice; information dumping to fill up a page… These are all signs of a project that deserves permanent down-time. In the recycle bin on your desktop.
The idea for your current project was so sparkly when it was locked in your head. A literary gem. Then as soon as you started typing, you floundered.
Don’t worry; this happens to every writer at some point or another.
The truth is, sometimes concepts don’t have the substance or strength to hold up for an entire narrative. Sometimes these concepts should stay just that: ideas to be used as fodder for further brainstorming, or simply forgotten.
The important thing is that you don’t feel guilty about letting a project die. You’re doing yourself a favour and preserving your mental health as a writer by not dwelling on the incompatible, malformed and, well, just plain bad ideas that pop in to your head every now and then.
Besides, your next project could be the big one. A doozy. A real literary gem. But you won’t know until you let go of the project that’s holding you back.