Should you give up on a writing project that has stalled?
Right now, I'm watching a robin try to pull a piece of string from the tree outside my office window. The string's been there since we moved in -- I assume it once held a Christmas ornament for decoration in December -- and it's caught in that just-out-of-reach place that makes you conclude, "Ah, no, I'll just leave it." The effort that would be involved, bah.
But the robin's determined. She's hopping branch to branch, viewing the string from different angles to figure out her best approach. It eventually proves too tough a task, and she moves on, presumably to other strings tied more loosely to other trees.
How do you know when to give up on a piece of writing?
I'm stuck two-thirds of the way through my second middle-grade fiction book, a sequel to my first. The four children have been locked in a bedroom, the only escape through a staircase hidden beneath a window seat ... but where will they go? The index cards taped to my office wall, guiding me through the piece so far, have reached that moment: None of us -- not me, not the characters, not future readers -- knows what will happen next. There are no more cards. It's like turning off the lights at night and making your way to your bedroom through the pitch-black. You know the stairs are there, but all of a sudden the walls are in different places, you aren't sure how many steps you're meant to climb and your fingertips apprehensively feel for the corners.
Many writers get far into a project only to toss it. Are you one of them? There's no shame in knowing a piece isn't meant to be; I wish I had a better sense of it for my own work, an inner direction for moving on or digging in.
Before deciding your piece is destined for that computer folder full of overly personal essays you wrote in college about "love" and breakups, here are six things you need to ask yourself:
1. Would I call this salvageable?
I don't like this word. It reminds me of a banana peel you've tossed in the garbage bin that you pull back out and call salvageable because there are no tufts of hair plastered to it. It's still a banana peel -- If you thought it gone enough to go to the extent of tossing, you're unlikely to suddenly consider it worthy.
Take caution in spring cleaning or routine fits of tidiness to not delete a piece of writing that has simply stalled, causing you to temporarily move on from it. Only the really terrible and unloved should disappear. That leads me to:
2. Have I taken a break from it?
Sometimes, we simply get burned out on a piece. Characters seem one-dimensional, the plot rings familiar, the writing's derivative, etc. We're just over it. Time away from your piece can do a world of good for your interest in it. That may mean you change focuses and work on another project, but for me, a break usually means digging into my stack of library books. In the middle of reading, since I'm not thinking about my project, inspiration will strike.
Showers can have the same effect. Do take regular breaks for bathing. I like to listen to Billie Holiday or a podcast about creative living during this time.
3. Have I tried all angles?
I talk all the time about the What If game. It's silliness my brother and I performed to make each other laugh as kids:
"What if I walked like this?" he'd say, mimicking an orangutan's gait.
"What if I only ate brown foods?" I'd suggest, pulling crackers and almonds out of the pantry.
Adopt the "Yes, and ..." tenet of improv, meant to support your collaborating partners by accepting the offered scenario. What this means in terms of creative writing is to offer yourself new scenarios to help where you're stalled. What if your character's speech is interrupted by a man covered in boils? What if that man is a co-worker of the character's mother, explaining how he knew to find it? (I find writing prompts incredibly helpful for this. If you're interested, consider signing up for The 52-Week Project. I'll email you a prompt each week for a year, all free, to aid in your inspiration and creativity.)
Simply play with your ideas freely, without judgment, to see how you might lead yourself out of the unknown. If you tried, what would that look like?
4. Do I enjoy working on it?
Last year, I spoke with a songwriter who said she didn't enjoy the process of writing. It's full of pressure to be perfect and oh-so frustrating when it isn't. When I asked why she still wrote, she said, "Well, I don't hate it. I enjoy it once it's done. Writing itself is grueling, but I can't not do it."
Do you feel this way? Is writing a practice you grumble about while it secretly motivates and nourishes you? Specifically, the current project you're evaluating -- Are you happy that it's coming into existence, or do you wish you'd never started?
5. Am I any good?
Oof, this question. It's the eternal existential confrontation: Who am I as a writer? Is it my purpose in life? What am I, if not this?
Not everyone is meant to be a writer. Everyone is able to write, I believe, but not every person is supposed to write creatively for an audience as their vocation's fulfillment. My experience has always been that true storytellers -- the ones placed on Earth to create tales -- believe their talent even when it doesn't look like anyone else's and they aren't receiving positive feedback from early readers. They still understand their talent and how they're bringing their skills to their project every day.
Yet if you have no intention of publishing your work, do you really have to be good? Is that important to you? (If it is, I can help you improve!)
6. Is this the one?
I won't ask you to share about your love life, but just humor me and think about your past relationships. Didn't The One feel waaaaay different from The Other Ones? Real love -- the easy comfort, not wanting to be done with your partner for ages -- it isn't passion. It's a placated peace. It's rare for me to complete a project that brings me passion, as it's typically no good. It's full of platitudes and ardor I can't sustain. The projects I want to bear for months on end are balm for the soul.
7. What about this is hard?
Writing challenges your mind intellectually and emotionally. Yes, there's the sitting-in-a-chair-for-hours part of it, the I-was-at-my-desk-all-day-with-nothing-to-show-for-it bit. But there's also that scene you're working on, where your character realizes he's making dangerous decisions because he's angry at his mom for dying. It's challenging to be honest in your writing without indulging it as a personal outlet incongruent with your character. Every literature festival I attend, an audience member asks the featured writers, "Which characters are most like you?" And the writers almost always respond, "None of them and all of them."
Every day, it's just you and the page. And that's hard. It's a trial. But get over it, doll; it won't change. Confront the deep-down test that's scaring you off this project to locate its source. That means asking your fear where it's focusing its energy and telling it to lay off.
I just spotted the robin. She's back, on the pavement out by the mailbox, looking up at the string from yet another angle. I guess she can't let go of it, either.
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