When an idea begins to come together, when it builds into a story, when you see what it could become—there is nothing more exhilarating. For me, that feeling of raw creation is why I write.
But sometimes, as you develop more details, the story begins to fall apart. Maybe it’s too big and complicated. Maybe it’s not really you. Whatever the reason, a story can suddenly not be the bright and shining opportunity it once seemed.
And when that happens, some of the time, you have to let it go.
This is an extremely painful part of the process, and far too easy to confuse with other feelings. How do you know when a story isn’t working, rather than just stuck in doubt or procrastination? How do you know when it’s really time to let a story go forever?
Sometimes, you just have to wait on a story and work on something else while it percolates. That’s not exactly what I’m talking about here.
I’m talking about when you know a story is never going to work, and so you mine it for parts and move on completely. For me, when I leave a story for the future, it always comes back and inserts itself in any new project that I attempt—it makes me think that it’s a story I just can’t let go of, that it’s too good to give up on. But I think it’s more often the case that a story I’ve already worked on feels safe and familiar and easy… even when it’s not.
The fact is, I’ve got a story that I’ve worked on fairly consistently for over three years now—I have tried and failed, tried and failed a hundred times to make it work from every angle I can think of. I’ve changed worlds, time periods, characters, age groups, plotting styles, plots entirely—always holding onto the tiny kernel at the center that keeps it the same story.
But the more I try and the more I fail, the more I think that this story is just not going to work. Maybe parts of it can, but not the whole—and if I don’t find a way to let it go for good, it will keep coming back, keep trying to work, distracting me from projects that might actually have a chance.
Maybe those projects won’t be as “good” as the original story, but if they actually get written, then they’re worth a million unfinished ideas. That’s the solid, unavoidable truth, and the only thing that ultimately matters—what you’re writing. Not what you like to think about. Not what you wish you could write someday.
It’s a painful truth to accept, when you love an idea but can’t write the story, that sometimes it just isn’t going to work. But when you’re stuck, sometimes the only way to move is to move on.