On Knowing When Is When

It always starts off with the best intentions. There’s an idea, be it a character or a scene or an image. Before it’s gone you grab a hold of it and hold on to see where it takes you. Sometimes you ride them out and each new idea reveals a new one behind it and before you know it you’re soaring through the clouds and you get lost in that world.

Sometimes though, like that metaphor, you hit the ground with a thud.

It’s always disappointing when this happens. There’s the initial excitement of starting something new, the electricity of seeing it go to completion, but reality has a nasty habit of raining on your parade. The words that came thick and fast slowly taper out, the mind wanders, characters that you thought would leap off the page with life are instead inert and have nothing to say like that person in work who seems nice enough, but no one really wants to talk to them.

If I can use yet another laboured metaphor. Writing is like meeting someone new. You go on a first date and it’s great. You click and the dialogue sparkles and there’s no awkward silences. You think that something good can come from this one. Sure there’s some rough edges there, but that’s alright, no one is perfect. Then you go on a second date, and a third and you realise that actually, they’re kind of boring. They’ve used up all their best stories. But you want to give them a chance to recapture that little glimpse of fire that you first had so you go back and each time is worse than the one before it. It stops being fun and has the air of something that’s entirely too much like work.

So, at the risk of sounding like I’m giving relationship advice (Which I’m also great at actually, send me your questions), let’s bring this back around to writing. Mainly, is it OK to quit?

For me, yes it is. Now that could be just because I’m lazy at the best of times, and reason to not to something is always easier to find than a reason to do something, but with so much of writing this all comes down to personal preference. I can picture someone reading this right now, perhaps frothing at the mouth, saying that you never quit on a story. That’s fair enough, but here’s the thing.

You never really quit on a story.

I’ll come to this is a moment, but my rule is generally pretty simple. If nothing at all is working, then there’s no shame in putting it to sleep. If the characters don’t interest me, if the story isn’t going anywhere, if there’s no sense of momentum, then why would I subject a reader to that? Sure a lot of writing is just re-writing. Characters can come and go between drafts, intentions can change, scenes tying it all together can appear just like magic, but without a solid foundation to build it on these things will never happen.

Sometimes you quit just because it’s so similar to something else that exists. It’s been twice now that I’ve started to write a story only to realise that I’m trying to rewrite Stephen King’s excellent (And disturbing) The Raft. There’s nothing more humbling than thinking you’re a brilliant writer, only to realise you’re doing a poor facsimile of someone else’s work.

Beyond that, the actual physical act of writing gets harder. Whereas before an abundance of words seemed ready to be plucked out of the air, they now have to be pulled one by one through tar. Each one is an exertion and even worse is that they never feel like the right word. The biggest self doubt for a writer comes from not believing in what they’re writing and whereas that 500 word a day barrier was something that used to be obliterated it instead becomes something that you crawl towards, one painful step at a time.

But it’s OK, there’s good news: None of that ever really dies, they just lay sleeping for a while. Characters wait to be called up, ready to show their best sides. Settings wait to be filled with players. Stories wait to see their endings. It all comes back somehow, we’re never really done with these things, and they’re never really done with us.


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