When should we lay a story aside?
It’s a difficult question. I know, I’m struggling with it. Though I’ve finished other stories over the past few months, one remains stubbornly unfinished, the one I care about most—my murder mystery.
It boggles the mind. How can I love reading murder mysteries, how can I watch them incessantly, and not be able to finish writing one?
Am I too close to the story, too emotionally involved? Perhaps I judge my mystery stories more harshly than my other work? Perhaps, even though I love cosy mysteries it just takes practice. It’s not something I should expect to work on the first (or even the fifteenth!) try.
Reasons aside, because of my predicament, the question has been taking laps around my brain: When, if ever, is it okay to lay aside a story?
1. Too Big
Sometimes a story is too big, too complex, and it overwhelms the writer. This happened to me several times when I first started out. It was like catching the tail of a dragon, I wasn’t strong enough (yet) to hold on and the dragon wrenched free and flew away.
2. The Story Changes
I think, at times, a story changes too much from conception to execution, from that initial red hot idea to the cold, sedate, logical outline one finally hammers out. It’s a bit like falling in love with someone then taking them home to see one’s parents, sitting around the dinner table. Suddenly, one sees them in a new, and not very attractive, light. What one once thought whimsically romantic becomes childish and ill-conceived.
Though I like to outline I think that, if the story is changed too much, it can disintegrate, twisted beyond recognition. Although it is perhaps a tad melodramatic to say, it’s as though the story loses its soul.
When that happens, one’s passion seeps away.
Often, when a story is left to lie for days, weeks, months or years what kills the story isn’t that we lose the thread—though, absolutely, that happens—but that we lose the story’s heart.
We fall out of love with it, with the characters, with the setting, with the initial idea that captivated us.
And, yet ... In my mind’s eye I see a phalanx of professional writers frowning, saying, “It doesn’t matter if you’re in LOVE with the story, it’s a job! You finish what you start or you don’t get paid, end of discussion.”
And that is, of course, correct. One doesn’t have to be enthusiastic about a thing in order to do it. One doesn’t always FEEL like going to work, but one still does it.
But, against that, I would argue that if one can’t sustain passion for the core idea of the story, for the characters, long enough to write a first draft then one doesn’t care about the story enough to see it through the umpteen drafts it takes to turn the raw clay of one’s first attempt into a finished product.
I think that, for myself, the golden rule is: Write a complete zero draft BEFORE one begins outlining.
Perhaps—and I realize this is a grizzly analogy—it’s a bit like a brain surgeon trying to operate without first mapping the patient’s brain. With a finished zero draft in hand, I have a better grasp of what is essential to the characters, to the story, before I begin operating/outlining.
3. There’s no such thing as writer’s block, just put your butt in a chair and WRITE!
I’ve heard this often, and I think I know what the people who say this want to express.
When I have a deadline, it doesn’t matter if I feel inspired, I have to hand something in.
When one has a contract to deliver a certain story by a specific date, it doesn’t matter if one feels one’s story is as exciting as uncolored cardboard or as interesting as drying paint. One is on the hook and must turn something in. And chances are what one turns in won’t be as bad as it seems when writing. But, from a certain perspective, it doesn’t matter. One gave one’s word that something would be turned in, so something (no matter how dreadful) WILL be turned in.
Even so, writer’s block exists. It’s a real thing. I know, I’ve had it. I couldn’t write after my father passed away. Every time I sat at my computer, fingers poised over the keyboard, time would warp and I saw my father’s face. Not his face as it was in life, but as he lay dying, his brain shutting down, his humanity being stripped away.
In retrospect, I was likely traumatized, my thoughts pulled back to the moment at which my life had become warped, the moment at which certain things had stopped making sense.
I got through it with the help of friends. I realized I could still write, just no longer at the computer. I could write longhand. My journalling practice dates from then, from that realization.
Sorry for rambling. To sum up, I DO believe that writer’s block is a real thing, but I also believe there are ways around it.
Just because you lay a story aside doesn’t mean you’re giving up.
The point of this meandering essay is: Boxing a story is not giving up.
Recently I finished a story I began over a decade ago. It was unfinished because I didn’t know the ending. The story came into being as a writing exercise. I hadn’t intended to do anything with it, but the characters drew breath and insisted I finish what I had begun.
The problem: I had NO idea how the story ended.
I took various runs at it over the years, but nothing stuck, nothing felt right. Then, one day, a friend’s chance remark kicked off a cascade of ideas that lead to me looking at the story differently and the ending popped, fully formed, into my mind. I have no words to describe the ecstasy of that moment, the joy, the relief of realizing my story was complete.
Although I finish the overwhelming majority of stories I begin, there is still the occasional tale, one I’m writing for my own amusement (which is how I begin most of my stories) that will demand to be laid aside. But that doesn’t mean I’ve abandoned the story. It took Stephen King over 30 years to finish “Under The Dome.” As Bob Wiley said in “What About Bob”: This one’s just temporarily disconnected.
Thanks for reading! See you next week.