I talk a good game.
I say the right words, the right motivational words. I say, don’t quit! I say, keep writing that story, finish your shit, end what you begin, you can do it, and then I shake my pom-poms (which may or may not be the nickname I have given to my buttcheeks), and rah-rah-rah.
And it’s not bad advice, in the general sense. Of course you have to finish your shit. If you start writing a story, you’re best also trying to end that story. And that’s for a lot of reasons: it’s because we need to know that we are capable of ending what we begin, it’s because the ending of a story is a vital component to learn, it’s because so many writers never finish what they start, it’s because we need that little dopamine hit of stumbling drunkenly over the finish line.
It is, as a rule, a pretty hard and fast one. Most of writing is not given over to rules carved into the schist and bedrock, but this one? It’s pretty damn close, right?
Wait, what? Except what? What the fuck, Chuck? Didn’t you just say this was a hard and fast rule? Carved into schist, whatever the fuck schist is? What is schist, anyway? Is it poop? Rock poop? “Oh no, I schist myself,” the boulder said, ejecting a rattle of little pebbles out of its craggy crevice. Or is it crevasse? Is any of this important? Are you talking to yourself, Chuck? Am I talking to myself?
Who am I?
Who are you?
Man, this post has already gone way off the rails.
Sure, finish your shit.
Except, sometimes, you have to quit.
Now, I don’t mean in the larger scheme of things — I don’t mean, QUIT WRITING, YOU SUCK. You may! Suck, that is. I certainly did, once upon a time — and I may yet still. I think the reason to quit writing overall is that you don’t really like it very much, but it’s damn sure not because you aren’t good at it, because not being good at a thing is the precursor to getting good at the thing.
No, I mean, sometimes you have to abandon a story.
You gotta cut bait and let the fish have the worm.
Here’s why you quit a story, I think —
a) You’re just not ready. Or it’s not ready. Point is? Something’s off. The stories we write aren’t all surface — the writing of a tale is rarely the sum total of the work that goes into it, and very early on in my life and career I hadn’t figured this out. I’d get an idea and I’d instantly run to the page and scribble scribble scribble and then be mad at myself because what was on the page was half-formed drivel. Shallower than a thimble of spit. What goes into a story is often a whole lot of foundational thinking and feeling and internal arguing — a kind of quality assurance testing, a weird narrative Thunderdome-of-Ideas. Like brownies, a story needs time to bake. Pull them out too early and it’s just goop. (Though: maybe delicious goop.) If you’re building a house, so much of that architecture is about establishing a strong, unshakeable foundation — even though that foundation is something the homeowners will never see. It’s hidden beneath the dirt, but without it, the walls tumble, the roof falls, the house crumbles. Sometimes you just haven’t laid the foundation of the story.
b) It’s just not any good. Now, this one is tricky as hell, because we remain the worst judges of our own work, especially when we’re in the thick of it. I routinely am certain that the thing I am writing is APOCALYPTICALLY BAD, and then the next day I feel like it’s THE BEST THING I’VE EVER WRITTEN, BY GOSH AND BY GOLLY, and sometimes I feel those two contradictory feelings multiple times in the span of a single hour. But! As you develop a good writing habit and a steady instinct for this stuff (an instinct sharpened largely against the whetstone of practice), you start to get a gut check for this stuff. And if you go days, weeks, 200 pages and you still think, this really isn’t coming together, then it’s time for a strategic retreat from the work.
c) You’re not having fun. This one, too, is tricky, because writing isn’t always an act of eating cotton candy while happy puppies squirm at your feet. Some days are purely reserved for shoveling earth. Some days are like pulling bad teeth. That’s normal. It isn’t always fun. Hell, it isn’t often fun. But there’s also an evaluation you might make — again, after some time with it — where you realize, you’re just not enjoying this. It holds no surprises for you. It feels rote and routine, and if it feels that way to you, it may very well feel that way to a reader. Once again, a strategic retreat is called upon.
d) Something better comes along. I don’t just mean a shinier idea — no, shinier ideas are the norm. They will constantly parade themselves before you. As I am wont to say, the question we ask writers shouldn’t be, “Where do you get your ideas?” but rather, “HOW DO YOU MAKE THEM STOP OH GOD THEY WON’T LEAVE ME ALONE PLEASE ARE THERE DRUGS TO HELP ME OR DO YOU HAVE A HAMMER I CAN HIT MYSELF WITH OH GOD I AM A CONSTANT IMAGINATION ANTENNA it’s so noisy please send cotton candy and puppies.” What I’m talking about is a confirmed, paying gig — like, I’ve quit one project because it was an uncertain thing, and I took the sure thing gig. But but but, the caveat to this is, do the mental calculus. Don’t just take a paying gig because it’s a paying gig if you’re not immediately desperate for the work or the cash. Sometimes it’s best to hunker down over the thing you care about instead of the thing that pays.
All of this adds up to an understanding of a sunk cost fallacy — just because you spent time writing something doesn’t mean you have to spend time finishing it. Yes, it’s good practice. Yes, there are myriad reasons to do so. But sometimes, you gotta give it the heave-ho and move onto something that feels better, feels stronger, something that sits on a more robust foundation.
Now, to tell a brief story —
I started a novel maybe… three, four years ago. I loved the idea, but halfway through it, it just wasn’t coming together. It didn’t feel right. And so I did what I am loathe to do: I abandoned that shit on the side of the road like a colicky baby. (Please do not abandon actual babies, by the way.) I hated it. I felt bad. But it felt like the only way — writing the story wasn’t just digging ditches, it felt like digging ditches to nowhere, for no purpose, just reshuffling dirt molecules for the sake of doing so.
And I sat on that broken, dead story for the last three years.
Thing is, it wasn’t dead after all.
Some grave, grotesque stirring of life still lurked inside it, and now here I am, about to re-start the story all over again. Because I figured it out. Years of having this goddamn seed stuck in my teeth, I finally tongued it hard and worked it out, and now I’ve got my hands around it.
It will be a proper novel still.
Now, the rest of my writing life is one where I wrote five novels before I ever began and have abandoned a few finished novels since getting published. And if we’re talking straight-up unfinished-as-fuck quit-ass novels, oh, man, I am like a serial killer of novels. I have left behind me a wake of story corpses, chopped in half before they ever lived a full life. So, I’ve quit many stories, and here I am, still writing. It didn’t kill me. It didn’t kill my work.
I quit shit, and yet onward I go.
Because even though I quit some stories, I still didn’t quit writing stories.
And that’s my message to you —
Sometimes, you have to quit writing a thing.
As long as you don’t quit writing all the things.
* * *
DAMN FINE STORY: Mastering the Tools of a Powerful Narrative
What do Luke Skywalker, John McClane, and a lonely dog on Ho’okipa Beach have in common? Simply put, we care about them.
Great storytelling is making readers care about your characters, the choices they make, and what happens to them. It’s making your audience feel the tension and emotion of a situation right alongside your protagonist. And to tell a damn fine story, you need to understand why and how that caring happens.
Whether you’re writing a novel, screenplay, video game, or comic, this funny and informative guide is chock-full of examples about the art and craft of storytelling–and how to write a damn fine story of your own.