That Thing Called Progress (and Other Unfinished Stories)

Recently, a friend in Texas asked me a great question: Do you ever fall out of love with your story ideas?

The short answer is yes, and it used to really bother me. I mean, falling out of love with ideas is the last thing any writer wants or expects, right? But it happens, and it bothered me because, a) I’m a writer and we shouldn’t lose faith in our stories; and, b) I’ve failed if I don’t keep trying to force this damn story out.

I was wrong. Any writer can lose that initial spark. Stephen King once began a novel about a guy whose wife disappears into an airport bathroom, never to emerge. I think a SWAT team was sent in to investigate, too. King had written pages of this story, where all sorts of things happened. But it wasn’t going anywhere. The story petered out. The King gave up.

Stephen King gave up.

Hey, it happens to the best of us.

I was wrong about trying to wrestle a story out of myself – attempting to drag a finished story into the light, kicking and crying.

Don’t force it.  That’s a valuable lesson I’ve learned over the past few years. If it doesn’t want out, let it huddle inside and find its confidence (or, you know, it might just wither away, sobbing in a dark corner).

There are so many reasons a particular idea might lose its place in the spotlight. Maybe another (genuinely better) idea sneaked up and tried to steal the limelight (and maybe it succeeded, but, hey, some ideas are selfish like that). Or it just wasn’t the right time. Perhaps you didn’t quite have the experience you needed to write that particular story, despite your initial confidence. Or it could have been bad planning from the start: a set of decent scenes without a clear motive or core emotion. You might have simply approached it from the wrong viewpoint.

Excuses, excuses. They make you feel bad, excuses do. But they might be perfectly reasonable ones.

If that story isn’t working, by all means analyse it first. You should do that. Look at the characters and their potential for conflict. Their environment. Is the right person telling this story (as in character viewpoint, not you personally)? Etc., etc.

But if it still isn’t working – if you’re just not feeling the love right now – it’s okay to move on to something else. This isn’t cheating.

Don’t throw that story out, though. Don’t do it. You might look back at this partially formed story-beast someday and realise there is something to love, after all. Maybe you needed time apart. One day you’ll return to it and see it in a different light, from another angle, and find that it isn’t such a frightening beast (unless scary is what you intended, then embrace that fanged thing).

Once upon a time—

Sorry, I’ll start again.

On a dark, stormy night­—

Well, let’s just say that, a number of years ago (regardless of weather conditions), I wrote a story called Into the Woods. I wasn’t sure I liked it. I bugged myself over it, changing it and thinking (too much) about it. So I put it to one side for a while, then I came back to it and – eureka! – something just hit me (not literally). It turned out to be my first published short story.

So, keep your unformed ideas safe, your works in progress tucked up and resting, because love can be restored. You might find that the missing spark hits you unexpectedly, while you’re taking a sunlit stroll in the park, drinking a warm beer with breakfast (why would you do that?), or idly flicking through your archives at the dusty stories you’d forgot about.

Don’t give up, just keep writing. Even if some ideas aren’t working right now. That’s okay. It’s fine. Go ever onward, try new things. You might learn something invaluable on the journey.

But if you can’t seem to transform any of your ideas into that finished creature called Story… Well, try a couple of books on the subject. How about Wonderbook by Jeff Vandermeer? Or Damn Fine Story by Chuck Wendig? They’re great books. And Chuck Wendig contradicts what I just said in this post about how it’s okay to not finish stories. But that’s fine, too. We find our own ways forwards (but there’s plenty of evidence that Chuck knows better than me, so…)

Let’s just agree that we should move forwards. It’s that thing called progress.

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