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When to give up on a story?

Discussion in 'Writing Discussions' started by Devouring Wolf, Nov 14, 2015.

  1. Devouring Wolf

    Devouring Wolf Troubadour

    I've been writing the same story for four years without getting anywhere.

    I love all my characters, I love my world, I love the backstory, but somehow no matter what plot I try to throw them into, it never seems to work out.

    The idea behind it is something I really love, but when I carry it to its inevitable conclusion, it's not the story I want to write.

    So when do you give up on a story? If after four years, I've never managed to write more than the first half without starting over should I give up and try writing something different?

    At what point do you have to say, despite all the time and effort you've put into your work, do you have to say "this just isn't working"?
  2. FifthView

    FifthView Istar

    There's another nearby thread about backstories. Maybe you'd be better off just writing that backstory first, as your story, and then worrying about future events later? Besides, writing that backstory out might lead to some interesting things you haven't yet considered for your present story.
  3. Brian G Turner

    Brian G Turner Scribe

    Sometimes you're just missing something important - an insight, an understanding. There's no harm in simply putting aside and starting another project, with every intention to return to it once you realise what you're missing.

    It's perfectly ordinary to work through a few potential novels before you land on the one that seems to work for you.
    Devouring Wolf and kennyc like this.
  4. K.S. Crooks

    K.S. Crooks Inkling

    Some options I thought of in the moment: Try changing the focus on to different characters or place, change the goal of the characters, create strife or a large challenge to impede the character's progress. Ask someone else you know to create a summary of what they think might happen. You could put the story aside for a while and try writing something completely different.
    Devouring Wolf likes this.
  5. Butterfly

    Butterfly Auror

    How much plotting have you done?

    If you've done a lot then perhaps it's too rigid for your characters and you need to bend it to their will a little.

    If you haven't done much plotting, perhaps you could look at your key events and build up the story from them rather than the beginning. After all, you don't have to write in a chronological order.
  6. Velka

    Velka Sage

    Another idea is to identify a major choice your MC makes in the story and have them do the opposite (i.e., Ned Stark doesn't become Hand of the King) and see where it takes your story. Alternatively you can do the same thing to an event (i.e. House Tyrell doesn't reinforce the Lannister army and they lose the Battle of Blackwater).

    You may not like it, or use it, but it can help breathe some new ideas and angles into your work you may not have considered before.

    Try to identify the point where you feel your story goes from being something you like to becoming something you are dissatisfied with. You don't have to give up on it as a whole, but you may have to give up on the direction you thought you should go in and take it somewhere else.

    I had this problem before. I was trying to cram an antagonist into my story that really wasn't working, no matter how hard I tried. In the end I totally scraped her and made my MC's trusted friend the antagonist. Required a huge reworking of almost everything, but in the end I had a quality adversary for my MC, engaging conflict, and authentic stakes.
    Devouring Wolf likes this.
  7. Heliotrope

    Heliotrope Staff Article Team

    This might be long… but I'm going to give you my personal experience.

    My very first story took almost 8 years of research. I got very heavily into researching ancient celtic mythology and history. I spent years getting into historical connections between ancient Irish deities and religions and how they connected to documented historical people/places.

    I didn't know how to write a proper story back then, and ended up with a mess of spreadsheets and character lists, character profiles, ideas for scenes, backstories.

    Nothing happened with that information. Not one single page of the story ever got written. The idea was too big for me at the time. I didn't have a story, I had a cool 'world' concept and some cool 'characters' but no story.

    Attempt two. Same thing. I spent years researching, doing up backstories, doing up characters. Now, this is where things were a little different. I did know a bit about plotting, but I had spent so much time doing backstories and character charts that I was tied to them. I didn't want to change them. I didn't want to 'kill my darlings' to serve the plot. The plot failed. Plus, the whole thing was too big (again) for me at the time. The theme was too big. I needed it to come across as GOT style and I was not yet ready to write GOT style. George RR Martin spent 40 years in the business before he got to GOT style.

    Another big problem I had was the MC. She was cardboard. She was dead. I had some other fleshed out characters raring to go, but I just couldn't get her to move on the page. No matter what I did she just sort of stumbled around.

    Now, I have heard of this happening to other writers. Neil Gaimain, who wrote Stardust and American Gods said that he just couldn't get American Gods right until he pinned down the MC's name. He tried many different names and the character just wouldn't come off the page. Finally he stumbled upon "Shadow" and suddenly the character came a live. Started doing things. Making choices. Moving. Acting. Finally he had a story.

    I tried switching up my character name, but she still wasn't ready. After 2 years I finally said "Forget it. I'm putting you on the back burner until you are ready to co-operate."

    I wrote a bunch of shorts for a while.

    Then, a few months ago I started writing a short and suddenly, this character complete with name sprang fully formed from my head a la Athena style. She was just begging to have a story written. I could see the whole thing. She was active. She was alive. She was flesh and blood.

    I sort of let her stew for a little bit while I worked on other things, but she kept coming forward, begging me to write her story. Just a few weeks ago I sat down with my plotting spread sheet and she basically walked me through the entire thing, providing me with the theme, the lesson, the journey, the conflict, her inner conflict. Everything.

    So what I have learned for myself is that I have no story unless I have a compelling character. I may have a cool history, cool backstory, cool world, cool situations… but without a real live character I have no story.

    I'm working on this story now and it is much more fun then anything I have ever done.

    I may get back to my other ones eventually, but first I need a character to step out of those worlds and say "Ok. I'm ready now. The story needs me now."

    Until then, they will wait in their files at the back of my desk.
    Devouring Wolf likes this.
  8. Penpilot

    Penpilot Staff Article Team

    Everyone has what's called their "Golden Idea". It's usually one of their first ideas they've had for a story. They nurture the idea. they fall in love with it. They build it up in their head and know that if they can get it down, it will be the best thing ever. But they build it up so much that when written down, the idea of it holds so much baggage outside of the actual writing, it will never be able to hold up the weight of it. It will never equal what they imagine.

    It's like a childhood memory of some book, TV show, or movie. Once it gets pulled out into the harsh light of reality, it almost always fails to meet expectations.

    My golden idea stewed in my head for around 15 years. I rewrote the first few chapters dozens of times. And I could never nail down a plot, because I wanted it to be original.

    There are no original plots, and so, I never finished or even came close. Then one day I found Mur Laferty's "I Should be Writing" podcast and hearing someone else talk about their struggles made me realize I should just write. So I did, for three years, four major drafts, and 275 000 words of writing.

    It was crap.

    I thought about going back and doing another draft, but I wasn't entirely sure how to fix things. There were things I loved about the story, and till this day I still think there something there.

    But I realized, I didn't have the skills to fix the story, and worst of all, I wasn't growing as a writer. I'd been reading about writing, gathering my tools so to speak, but I never got to use most of them because I was constantly rewriting. I wasn't creating anything new from scratch. I wasn't practising taking stories from beginning to end. I was just practising spinning my wheels.

    I'd learned all that I could from writing that story, so I moved on. The next book I wrote, I wrote the first 50k in one month, during NANOWRIMO. And all the lessons I learned writing my first book I applied to this second one, and though I struggled at times, the story came out pretty close to what I wanted.

    I'm closing in on the end of my third book, and I always think to myself that one day I might go back to the first and fix things. Looking back, I'm pretty sure I know what's wrong. I tell myself that, but I'm not sure I ever will. Because a part of me says the story has been told. It was told poorly, but it was told, and I have so many other stories I want to tell. And I'm not entirely sure it's a good idea to try and go home again, so to speak.

    With alllllll that said, do you think sticking with this story is helping your development as a writer or hindering it? Do you think you'd be better served moving on? Remember, despite what I said about going home again, you really can go back and give it another try later on.
  9. evolution_rex

    evolution_rex Inkling

    This is so relatable that it hurts. Except for that I've been unable to accomplish writing one book. Every time I come up with a new idea, this is what happens.

    I store mine either on paper or my head for future use. Often I take stuff from my past ideas an insert them into my new ideas. Most of the time, though, they sit and rot.
  10. Penpilot

    Penpilot Staff Article Team

    You know what you could try? Find an idea you like, not love but like, don't worry about writing it well, and don't worry about making it original. Just write it out purely for yourself. Rip off every thing you can think of and put in every good and bad cliche that you think would fit. Just have fun with it.

    Obviously try to put your best foot forward, but allow yourself to suck. Rewrite Star Wars or Lord of the Rings or something else with your own spin on things. Go balls to the walls wacky, knowing that nobody but you has to see this. Just push through for the sake of pushing through.

    The end result will probably not be so good, but you'd be surprised at how much you'll learn, and how well some things turn out just because you don't care too much and let it all hang out.

    I think you'll gain a good idea of what it takes to finish a novel, and the same time you'll gain the confidence that you can do it.

    My first writing teacher had us write something every week. He said the purpose of this was so we empty ourselves. It took me a while before I realized what he meant. The purpose of writing constantly wasn't necessarily the writing itself. By constantly writing, we empty ourselves of expectations of what a story should and could be, and just let the story be what it is.

    Instead of trying to force a story or character in a certain direction, we can just let it flow out naturally

    Obviously, you want to develop a certain degree of control, because you don't want the story or characters constantly running off in wild tangents, but I think it's important to first learn to turn the tap on and then try to control the flow. If you try to control the flow with a tap that's only dripping, you don't get much of anything.
    Last edited: Nov 16, 2015
  11. kennyc

    kennyc Inkling

    To the O.P.

    Put it away. You've been at it too long and it's not working. Move on to something else. This is how you learn to write. You may or may not have an insight about this unfinished story and some point and pick it up and finish it or you may not. And that's okay, but in the mean time you have done other work!
    Last edited: Nov 16, 2015
  12. spectre

    spectre Sage

    If you like it never, unless it becomes some kind of obsession or interference.

    Sent from my LGMS345 using Tapatalk
  13. spectre

    spectre Sage

    Stupid buttons. (cont'd) There is also the idea that if you're going over heads in the crowd, unless writing for personal achievement you may be doing yourself an injustice. Those are literally the only justifiable answers for abandoning your work if you ask me.

    Sent from my LGMS345 using Tapatalk
  14. kennyc

    kennyc Inkling

    This! Fiction is about people (even if they are aliens or gods)
  15. Xitra_Blud

    Xitra_Blud Sage

    I wouldn't give up on it entirely. I'd set it to the side and come back to it later. Write something else. Work on a few other things. Maybe along the way an idea for that story will rear it's head. It may come to you in an unexpected form. I have stories that I started ten, eleven years ago that I never did anything with but have found myself coming back to recently. They are usually almost entirely different than anything I may have had for them at the time, but they certainly weren't dropped.
  16. skip.knox

    skip.knox toujours gai, archie Moderator

    There is some really excellent advice here. I hope some of it resonates and helps. I don't have much to add, only to echo.

    Character is the most important thing. One important stage in developing as a writer is learning the difference between an idea and a story, and the key difference between them is character. Even more than plot, though that's necessary too.

    That's the art. As for the craft, the most important thing is finishing. This is fundamental. Finish *something*. And by finish I don't mean just write the first draft, I mean finish it all the way through beta reads, editing, copy editing, proofreading, and publishing and getting reviewed (or ignored!). It's not finished until you are not longer touching it.

    So, finish something. It can be crap. It can be long or short. It can be in a completely different genre. But finishing is crucial in your growth as a writer.

    As for whether you should abandon the WIP ... *shrug*. There's abandoning and then there's abandoning. If I set it aside for fifteen years, I haven't abandoned it, I'm letting it age. :) I know you feel deeply attached to the project, but the project isn't you. You the writer can go do other stuff and it doesn't mean a thing about you as a writer. Besides, if you work on something else and get all the way to done, you can go back to the Golden Idea and gloat. Because, if there really are good stories there, you'll come back. You'll write them.
    kennyc likes this.
  17. Devouring Wolf

    Devouring Wolf Troubadour

    Thanks for the advice. I think this may be the answer to curing writer's block.
  18. Devouring Wolf

    Devouring Wolf Troubadour

    Thanks everyone for the advice. It turns out I was just having a momentary crisis of faith, I just got so frustrated I felt like giving up, but now that I've calmed down again, I really do want to finish this story. I have to finish this novel even if it's a disappointment, complete trash. I've put too much effort in to just give up. So it's off to write a crap novel, polish it up, and if I still hate it let it rot in a drawer for a few years before pulling it out again to fix up.
    kennyc likes this.
  19. psychotick

    psychotick Auror


    Never. The only way you can fail is if you stop trying. So don't. Put it on the back burner and start something new. The book will still be there for when you're ready. I have probably a hundred novels in this state (yeah I know!) but most if not all of them I come back to every so often and start working on again. And you know what, I have twenty three works published - many of them having spent over a decade sitting on my computer waiting to be finished.

    My latest - Wings of the Avi, I gave up on months ago because I just couldn't find the right finish to it. Published two books in the interim. But only this morning I got up and wrote the next chapter of it. I still don't know where it ends, but I'm closer.

    Cheers, Greg.
  20. Caged Maiden

    Caged Maiden Staff Article Team

    All good advice here. You know, as I've gotten to know you guys, i'm learning your journeys are so similar to my own. We've all spent way too long on something. We all look at that pile of old work and wonder whether we'll ever be able to whip it into shape despite having come so far in our abilities. It's all so similar it is almost a tragic story in and of itself.

    The thing is, if you're a new writer, you have a lot of work in the future if you want to become proficient. If I knew back in 2001 what I'd be doing all of 2015, I wouldn't have followed the same path. not in a million years. The biggest boost to my writing ability was participating in prompt challenges here. Honest, that was the clincher that made me a writer. After I failed at several novels ( think it was nine at the point when I joined up here), I was feeling very defeated because i had a mountain of first drafts, but nothing I thought was good. But I wanted them to be. So I began writing in what I thought were silly games, and low and behold, I wrote about a hundred short stories in the past four years, and edited two whole novels, and began two more! I became prolific. Words just kept spewing out onto the screen. Never underestimate the power of prompt writing and short stories. The wonderful thing about writing shorts is that you get in a crapload of practice. All those things you really need to practce to write good novels: beginnings, opening paragraphs, POV and getting right into the head and immediate situation of a character. You get to practice plotting and endings, and description on a word count limit. I mean is there anything as difficult as having a 3k word limit and trying to tell a deep story? It's awesome.

    SO my advice would be to put the long work aside for a while. Try writing short stories, and if it makes you feel more comfortable, write them about your established characters. Write a short story about a fight in a bar. Or a time your character has to make a really hard decision. Explore not only your characters and world from a different angle (as in, not in the plot of the novel, but from outside it), or write something totally made up and irrelevant to the bigger story. In doing so, you'll hone your skills like a whetstone on a rusty blade. You'll find that rather than meandering paragraphs of description as your characters enter a new town, you cut right to the chase and get into the action, because you only have 3k or 5k words to introduce the character, get to the immediate situation, and bring the story to a fitting close that satisfies the character's goal (even if the gods' answer is, "Err...nope. You're not getting what you want.") and create an ending.

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