How You Know It’s Time To Ditch A Story Idea

One of the hardest things to do is give up on a writing project. Especially if that project is something you have poured your time and soul into.

Generally I don’t encourage writers to abandon their projects. You should “finish your shit,” as Chuck Wendig says. You learn a lot by completing an entire project. (If a novel is intimidating to you because it’s so long, start small, with short stories and poetry.)

But it happens. More often than you think.

I’ve been writing since first grade. Only twice have I ever finished full-length novel manuscripts (although I’ve finished several short stories, fan fictions, and poems). And only once — now, for the WIP I’m working on at the moment — have I ever gone back to that rough draft and edited it with the intention of having it published. It’s the first time I’ve ever fully committed to writing and polishing a completed novel manuscript.

That project is almost two years in the making. I started planning it in the summer of 2015 (although I guess technically I had the idea swirling around in my head for another year and a half before that, but never got around to writing it because I was busy with the writing I had to do for college). I wrote the rough draft that November. Now a year and some months have passed and I’ve spent the past several weeks editing it. It’s safe to say that this is not a project I will abandon, at least not anytime soon.

But there were several projects before this one which I tossed in the (sometimes metaphorical, sometimes physical — much to my regret*) trash. What about the first novel I wrote? Well, that was just a project meant to prove to myself that I could write a 50,000+ word, book-length manuscript. But I knew everything I wrote was terrible at that point, and so never ended up revisiting or revising it.

It is often said that one must write 1,000,000 words before they could become a good writer. (Of course, these words must also form a coherent plot in order to have any meaningful impact on your writing skills; they can’t just be any random words. But I’m sure you already got that point.)

I was 15 when I wrote that first novel. If you don’t count the fact that I wrote several academic papers for my classes in high school, I was nowhere near writing 1,000,000 words at that point in my life (not in the creative sense — maybe in the academic sense).

Then undergrad happened. I got tons of words under my belt in the four years of that program by majoring in Creative Writing. I also wrote fan fiction in my downtime.

I’m not sure if I’ve quite made it to 1,000,000 words yet. But I wouldn’t be surprised if I have.

Whatever the case, I’ve abandoned just about every short story, poem, or novel that I’ve started (or finished) writing. (The exception is the poem I wrote in a freshman undergraduate class, and which was published in the campus literary magazine, The Quadrangle, in my senior year.)(Yes, I just made a shameless plug of my own work. Fight me.)

It’s so hard letting something go when you’ve worked on it for so long. I know. This is true of just about everything in life, not just writing novels. Regular jobs. Friendships and relationships. Graduating from school and moving on to the adult life.

But sometimes you have no choice. Sometimes it’s just time to move on.

Here are five signs that your project has reached the end of its lifespan — or at the very least that you should put it aside for a long time and throw yourself into something new:

  1. You don’t devote any thought to it on a daily basis. If you’re really excited to write something, your thoughts will never be far from it. You’ll wake up thinking of what you’re going to write today, and go to sleep dreaming up the next scenes until you doze off. You’ll feel like your characters are very real, and become sort of infatuated with them. Even if you’ve spent months (maybe years) working on the project, the novel-ty (ba-dum, tssss) will never wear off completely; like any loving relationship, you may have days where you drag your feet to spend time with your babe (the book), and maybe your good vibes will ebb and flow. Some days you might even get mad at each other. But you’ll never lose that core enthusiasm for the project. If this isn’t the case for your current WIP, this is a pretty big red flag that you should give up on it, unless you can think of a way to make yourself fall in love with it again. (For instance, maybe tweaking the setting, or working with your characters by building Pinterest boards for them — but don’t force yourself into sticking with something that brings you no joy.)
  2. You’re more excited about something else you want to write, but you feel obligated to finish what you’ve already started. I get new ideas for different stories CONSTANTLY, and they’re all pretty exciting to me. When I first started this whole writing thing, I would tell myself, “No, not now. Gotta finish what I’m already working on.” But then I’d look at my WIP and feel bored, and the rest of the time I spent writing it (whether I finished it or not) was hell. Once this new idea took over, every word of the old WIP I wrote was in horrible shape, because my heart just wasn’t in it anymore — and honestly it never really was in the first place. Eventually I’d quit and start the next one. And most of the time I abandoned those too. It took twenty-two years for me to find the very first story and characters I genuinely wanted to stick with until the very end and see through to publication. I still get new ideas; in fact I’ve gotten five in the last two weeks alone. But now I write these ideas down in a journal so I don’t forget them, and get right back to work on the old WIP. If you find yourself falling in love with another story while you’re already working on another, don’t get trapped in a miserable relationship. Chase your fun and happiness. (Probably don’t apply this advice to monogamous relationships. Or do. You do you. Just don’t be a sneaky dick about it and cheat.) If you love both ideas equally, then tuck the new one away and stick with the old one until it runs its course.
  3. You’re not writing the WIP for yourself, but because you feel obligated to write it for someone else, and you don’t want to let them down. This can be a professor, teacher, or even family and friends. If you’re writing for a professor or a teacher, you’re most likely writing a homework assignment, maybe for a Creative Writing class. If this is the case, just get it done and hand it in. I mean, put some effort into it obviously and don’t refuse to do it — but you don’t have to stress over it being perfect, nor do you have to worry about getting it published or going back and polishing it unless you want to. If you can find a story that meets the assignment requirements AND that you are excited to write, great. But this probably won’t be true of every assignment. I had to write several stories for the undergrad program. This was especially difficult when I didn’t have any ideas at the time that I particularly loved. Sometimes I tried to go back and edit these stories to submit them to literary magazines once the semester was over. It never happened, except for one, which I tried very halfheartedly to submit to three magazines (all three rejected it). These were stories I wrote to fit the professors’ criteria, and I didn’t really enjoy writing them as much as I wanted to. (Do note, however, that they were good learning experiences, even though they weren’t the fun genre stories I wanted to write.) Or maybe you’re writing a story for family or friends who made a “special request,” whether it be a memoir-esque novel, a fan fiction series, or something else. Or maybe you’ve been talking up your idea at family parties and everyone’s waiting to read the finished product. But if your heart’s not in it as much as theirs is, the finished product isn’t going to turn out very good. You have to enjoy the writing experience in order to find the motivation to finish the project. Certainly this could be a learning experience too, but there’s also a good chance it’s just a waste of your time — time that could be better spent writing something you love. Your good friends and family will understand. (This becomes a little more complicated for published authors, who have to take their audiences’/editors’/publishers’ expectations into account. But the advice in this post is for the budding writers out there with no professional obligations to consider — yet.)
  4. The thought of editing the book fills you with dread and only dread, because you’ve lost sight of the end goal. The thought of editing any novel-length work is terrifying. But it should also be really exciting, because it means you’re just that much closer to holding your published novel in your hands. Sure, you’ve got a long way to go and it’s gonna be grueling. But you should be looking forward to going back through the rough draft and cleaning it up. If you don’t feel this way, and you can’t wait to throw the book away and get as far away from it as possible, then maybe you should follow your gut. (NO WAIT — don’t throw it out. See below.*) Maybe writing it wasn’t as fun as you thought it would be. Maybe you hate your protagonist as much as your antagonist. Maybe the story just does not translate well to the page. Whatever the case, there is something about it that just makes you want to bury it in a hole and pretend it never happened. Ditch it.
  5. Finally, you’ll find any excuse not to write it. You’ll claim you’re struck by a case of the imaginary Writer’s Block. You’ll claim you’re too busy with your regular job, or that your social life is more important, or that you’re just too tired, or that you just need more ~*time*~ before you commit. That’s all bullshit. Yes, writing is hard and scary, and sometimes you genuinely will get stuck and not know where to take the story next, and sometimes you will have social obligations or professional obligations that take over your life for a little bit. Some days you’ll get burned out and you’ll need a little break for a day or two. That’s fine. But if you really, really want to write a story, if you’re truly in love with the idea of it and believe it needs to be written, you will swallow any fear you have and you will write it.

Wow. Writing a book really does sound like starting a relationship, doesn’t it?

That’s because it is.

Don’t get trapped in a relationship novel that is doomed to fail.

If you’re just not really feeling it, admit it and find something else to be excited to write. Eventually you will find an idea that really speaks to you, a story that demands to be written.

Think of these abandoned projects as practice for the real deal, The One that will get you published.

Happy writing!

*Please note: Even if you abandon a work, DO NOT THROW IT OUT. I’ve made this mistake MANY times (I’ve even thrown out personal journals from middle and high school because I was embarrassed by the drama I cared so much about, and I’ve grown to regret that too). Save the unfinished file to a hidden folder buried somewhere in your computer’s hard drive, back it up on a thumb drive or in your email or on Google Docs — somewhere where you never have to look at it again if you don’t want to. Print it out and stuff it in a lockbox under your bed. Whatever. Just don’t toss it away. For one thing, each project you write is like a frickin’ horcrux; there’s a piece of your soul in that abandoned manuscript. Plus it’s sometimes fun to look back on your old writing and see how far you’ve come, how much you’ve improved. But most importantly of all, maybe someday you WILL revisit that abandoned story. Maybe it’s just that you don’t have the necessary skills right now to turn that story into something great. Someday you might, and that might make you excited about it all over again. Don’t. Throw. It. Out!!!


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