Monday, June 18, 2012

Sorry Story, It's Not Me, It's You

I never work on just one project.  Just one story.  Just one book.  On any given day I have seven or eight things 'in the works,' which is both a blessing and a curse.  I'm never bored, that's for sure. But I also find myself writing the wrong folks into the wrong pieces, or sometimes I mix up names.  Places.  Time periods.  That being said I am always engaged in my writing because there are choices in front of me, and when a scenario becomes too frustrating or I can't figure out a plot twist, I have the luxury of setting it aside and moving forward with something else.  Literally, I'm always writing.

Unfortunately I woke up this morning and realized that one of my projects has been frustrating and fizzling for way too long.   So it's time to say goodbye to it, and I can't express in words how much I hate doing that.  It's got the distinct taste of losing a friend or a favorite pair of shoes.  I have developed over the years a mental checklist, criteria a project must meet before I give up on it, to make the process vaguely more sterile.  Even that phrase, the 'giving up,' reeks of defeat and desolation.  But in certain cases it's necessary, and as writers sometimes we need to be told we're allowed to throw up our hands. 

Not every story gets off the ground.  The characters may be flat, the plot unbelievable.  But if we love it, if it's one of our favorites, it's so hard to admit to ourselves that it's just not working.  (Think toxic relationship as an analogy.  But I can change him... and so on.)  And particularly for projects we've invested time in, the letting go part is physically painful.  It's an acknowledgement of time wasted (which really wasn't time wasted at all because we learn as much from our failures as we do from our successes and blah blah blah) but it still sucks.  No way around it.

So how do we make the call to pull the plug on something?  What I'm proposing is only my criteria.  Develop a list of your own, or steal some of mine if you'd like.

1) Why is it taking so long? - Obviously good projects require time and revision upon revision, but if you find yourself spending too much time without forward progress, it's a big hint that the story doesn't have the lift to evolve into a published, polished piece.

2) How likable are the characters? - The best characters are the ones that nag you at the grocery store when you're trying to check dates on yogurt.  They keep you from yoga class because they are in crisis or in love or busy causing trouble and you have to write it all down.  Are your characters just lounging by the pool doing a whole lot of nothing?  Bad sign.

3) Where's the market for your piece? - In an ideal world we'd all just write what we want and not care a hoot about who will buy it.  Love it.  Promote it.  But if you have any aspirations of being a seriously published writer this consideration does loom out there.  Of course people have broken these rules, but generally if you can't think of a market that the project appeals to, there's a problem.

4) Are you in love? - Sure, we all crush on our writing at the beginning.  It's shiny and new but once the bloom is off the rose do you still care enough about it to give it the most precious thing you have?  Your time.  I have two children I adore, a husband I could talk to for days, a house I love cleaning and keeping nice, and a teaching career that is as much my passion as my writing.  So for a story to whisk me away from those things, it needs to be incredible. Not just good.  Not just passable.  It has to be something that haunts me and keeps me involved every minute I'm writing it.

A novel I started last year has met its maker.  It fails in three of the four areas above, and I've literally written hundreds of pages on the first draft.  But I'm not invested enough to continue.  I've saved the file in my writing graveyard.  I'm saying goodbye to it.  (I would never completely delete it, though.  There are many bits of goodness hidden in the mire.  In fact I just pulled out several lines I'm transferring over to my current project.)

Maybe the whole every failure is actually a success thing isn't quite the blah blah blah I think. :-)

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