Saturday, January 31, 2009

When the Fat Lady Sings...

It's over.

The juice that was in the story is gone. You're working on something - a short story, a novel, a game, whatever - and it isn't going anywhere. You're getting increasingly frustrated, you aren't feeling creative, and you aren't having any fun. What happens next?

It's a real quandary. On the one hand, do you kill the story dead? I don't think anyone wants to create more ghost stories than he has to. Every writer of fiction has more than enough of those hanging around. You also don't want to do anything to hurt your chances of finishing a story that you're really just sick to death of, and we all know what a bad an idea it is to take a break. On the other hand, there's such a thing as beating a dead horse. We write because we're passionate, because it's fun, and because we want to finish what we start. There are parts of writing that are less fun than other parts (editing, for example), and if you quit when it gets tough, you'll never finish anything, but sometimes you need to know when to quit.

I have to admit to having very little experience in ending a project with forethought and dignity. Until now, I've been more of the "leave it sitting on my hard drive feel guilty until I finally forget about it" type. However, as my writing world explodes with freelance contracts and super secret projects, I've gotten better at starting things in such a way that I am set up to succeed; therefore. Unfortunately, a natural side effect of trying is failing, which brings us to today's topic.

So, when is a project really over, and when have you just hit a rough patch? I don't think there is a clear answer to that question. Rather than try to tell you when something is irretrievable, I'm going to focus on how you know it isn't.

  • Sick to Death: I've already gone over this, but before you decide a project is done remember that when you write, you engage more intimately with your material than anyone else ever will. As a result, you're going to get sick of it long before anyone else does. If what you're experiencing is just plain old boredom, the oft-linked to post referenced above includes some thoughts on dealing with the situation.
  • Distraction: Defined here as the "but I wannas" - as in "but I wanna write something else!" - distraction is no excuse to abandon a project. Sure, sure, writing is about passion and doing what you want, but it's also about doing the hard work. Sometimes you need to be disciplined. If you look hard at your desire a project and realize that it's just due to distraction, I recommend that you suck it up.
  • But it Sucks: As I mentioned a little more briefly in the same post, you are probably not the best judge of the quality of your own writing. We are writers. We have internal critics, and these internal critics base their comments on our own insecurities, not an honest and objective assessment of our work. If what you feel is simply down on yourself, do something to boost your confidence and get back to work.
  • Stuckness: Being stuck - defined here as not knowing what to do next - is no reason to abandon a project. Either skip the part you're stuck on and pick up again elsewhere or just keep on writing. Even if a plot point is sketchy or inconsistent, you can always clean it up in editing... but you won't have anything to edit if you don't get over that hump. Once the skeleton of a story is on the page you are more likely to be able to make into something usable later. If you just stop, you're probably screwed.

There are many reasons to not abandon a project, but when should you?

So far, I have only abandoned two projects for a reason that left me respecting myself in the morning. The first project to be ditched in such a way was Cartomancy. As I noted later, the problem with Cartomancy was that it lacked a firm foundation. In the end I looked at what I had and realized that I had been going about it all wrong from the beginning. It wasn't that the project was flawed or I was bored, it was that the project was never really there to begin with. The second was an unnamed short story, and the reason was similar. Everything started well enough, but on later reflection I realized that I was writing something that was painfully, well, typical. It wasn't that I was scooped - writing a story someone had gotten to already - it was that I was writing something that totally failed to distinguish itself from the Sword & Sorcery canon. I could have continued it, but I saw no reason to. There was no way I could produce something that I would care about. Again, it wasn't a project that developed a flaw, it was a project that I came to see was nothing but flaw.

And there we have the only reason to up and abandon a writing project short of completion that feels really valid to me. There are no"insurmountable" problems, but there are insurmountable structural faults. It's not that you should not continue, it's more that sometimes you should never have started.

Is there a hard and fast rule that tells you the difference between "God I'm sick of this story" and "flawed to death?" I wish there was. Ultimately, however, it's a hard and personal decision. Even with everything I've written about the topic in mind, you're going to have to wrestle with it yourself every time you decide to abandon a project, and the conclusion you come to is wholly your own.

Once you've decided to kill a project, what is the best way to go about it?

For all that I bitch about my ancient hard drives full of moldering stories, I recommend against taking dramatic action. Sure, it might feel rewarding to delete the offending files, but you never know when some old story will catch your attention. You'll be perusing some of those stories, contemplating your old foibles with a weird mix of pride and embarassement, and suddenly something will jump out at you. You'll realize you never gave that idea - you know, that idea - a fair hearing. You'll want to try it again. And maybe, this time, you'll get it right.

That's the secret of the fat lady's song. You see, nothing is ever really over.

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