Today I want to have kind of a candid discussion of letting go of a story. It’s a really, really hard decision for writers to make. For sooooo many reasons:
- You’re unsure if the little voice telling you to let go is your self doubt or your storyteller instinct
- It almost seems like a waste of time to let go of a story you spent SO MUCH TIME on.
- Everyone says you shouldn’t give up, and isn’t letting go of a story. . . giving up?
You’re afraid of abandoning your baby.
- You promised yourself the most expensive Starbucks drink when you finished this story and gosh darn it you want that Iced Cinnamon Almond Milk Machiatto (I really like my coffee dark, black, and strong, but this drink is my newest addiction too bad I live half an hour away from Starbucks)
I want to address all these doubts, because four months ago, these were my fears. I know it’s really frustrating to hear some writers tell you to never give up on your story while others tell you their best ideas came after they let go of the old ones. It’s really conflicting advice, and I wish I could give you a super easy formula for deciding whether or not it’s time to move on.
Alas, woe is me, there’s now such thing as “super easy” or even “easy” when it comes to writing (Ha, you signed up for this thinking it would be a piece of cake, huh? Sadly it’s not, and sadly I don’t have any cake for you.) That’s also part of the beauty of writing, because everyone NO MATTER HOW ADVANCED struggles with their stories. It’s just part of the process, friend.
That being said, everyone’s process, everyone’s journey, is different. I’m not going to tell you which direction you should take on your journey, but I’m going to tell you the direction I took on my journey and why. This isn’t necessarily advice as much as a discussion about how I made a really hard decision no writer should ever have to make, even though “kill your darlings” is a famous saying for a reason.
Before we dive in: I worked on a story for 6 YEARS. I started it as a NaNo project in 2012. It was inspired by the Coldplay song The Scientist and it was about a girl who has a summer fling which turns abusive. (I was a sophomore in high school and honestly had nooooo place writing this and also how did this song make me think of an abusive relationship??? Where was my high school mind?)
It transformed several times. The only thing that stayed the same was the story at its core was about an unhealthy relationship. (Kind of. . . the story didn’t really have a core)
Fast forward 6 years and the story is about a girl who returns to her southern roots in order to relive her glory days, only to find her BFF is no longer the same as she remembered him.
I had rewritten this story SO MANY TIMES HOLY TOLEDO I LOST COUNT. Each time I would read a finished draft, I would see a lot of problems and no other solution than to nuke the whole draft. I would rewrite it and get it right the next time. WRONG. The story had really, really deep problems that I could not write away without writing a different story. I tried to shake these problems off by telling myself it was just my self doubt.
It’s when I started rewriting AGAIN (good gravy why did no one stop me?) and posting these rewrites to a critique group on Scribophile. They all pointed out the problems with the story I knew I had. I tried to pretend I didn’t by rewriting so many times, but the story had problems. Hearing it from someone else was really eye opening.
At this time, I was starting to branch out with my reading tastes because of some book bloggers I follow. And I thought “Hey, maybe I should branch my writing out, too.”
That thought snowballed. I didn’t even have a story idea, but the thought was snowballing, even though I tried to ignore it and continued sharing more with critique group. And deep down I knew that in 6 years I had changed SO MUCH and so did this story. I had out grown it, and whatever was snowballing inside me came to the surface.
I didn’t need to start over. I needed to let go.
This sent me into a frenzy of Googling things like “when to let go of a story”, “when is it time to write a new novel”, “how to tell if you should write something new” and so on and so forth.
I wanted it to be out there (but alas, woe is me part 2) there’s no formula. I wish I could give it to the Internet, but I decided instead that I could only share my experience in hopes that it will help you.
So I came to the decision to give up, right? Remembers those fears? It was time to address them.
I WAS UNSURE IF THE LITTLE VOICE TELLING ME TO LET GO WAS MY SELF DOUBT OR MY STORY INSTINCT
This was probably the biggest hurdle for me. I had been working on this for 6 years. The honeymoon phase was loooooong gone, and it was hard for me to tell if I was supposed to push through or let go.
And I’m not sure how to tell you what your difference is between self doubt and a little red flag, except you’ll know. You may be in denial, but you’ll know.
Journal about it. Get your feelings out on paper and then see what you’re working with. Ask yourself questions like:
- Why do I want to let go? Am I just tired of this story or is there something deeper?
- Can I push through this hard moment or is it a breaking point for my story?
- Why is this story important to me? What’s it about that captivates me?
- How big is the gap between what you want the story to be and what it is? Can you fix that?
- How have you changed as a person and a storyteller since you started this story?
Only you know if it’s time to let go. Sometimes that little nagging feel masquerades as self doubt and it becomes easy to dismiss. Listen to your storytelling instinct, though.
IT ALMOST SEEMS LIKE A WASTE OF TIME TO LET GO OF A STORY I SPENT SO MUCH TIME ON
This is really easy for me to tell you: words and stories you have to trash are not wasted time. They are lessons.
It’s easier said than done, though.
I felt like I had wasted 6 WHOLE YEARS of my life. High school and half of college — gone. I wanted to be published or at least agented before college. Now I’m about to enter my last year in college and I’ve thrown my only story away.
You have to write the bad stories to learn how to write the good ones.
And while it’s great to have goals, writing isn’t a race.
EVERYONE SAYS I SHOULDN’T GIVE UP, AND ISN’T LETTING GO OF A STORY. . . GIVING UP?
Let go or be dragged. That’s a Zen proverb I really, really like.
Perseverance is great. Hanging on to something that your heart is no longer attached to isn’t good.
I’M AFRAID OF ABANDONING MY BABY
Abandoning is a really strong word.
Here’s the thing. You’re not throwing your manuscript into the shredder. You’re not leaving it on the curb so the garbage man can pick it up.
You’re just setting it aside.
If it calls you back, that’s awesome! That answers the question about whether or not it’s just your self doubt talking.
Letting go of a story isn’t permanent. You can always grab it again.
YOU PROMISED YOURSELF THE MOST EXPENSIVE STARBUCKS DRINK WHEN YOU FINISHED THIS STORY AND GOSH DARN IT YOU WANT THAT ICED CINNAMON ALMOND MILK MACHIATTO (I REALLY LIKE MY COFFEE DARK, BLACK, AND STRONG, BUT THIS DRINK IS MY NEWEST ADDICTION TOO BAD I LIVE HALF AN HOUR AWAY FROM STARBUCKS)
Treat yo self to that drink. Forgive yo self and move on. You’ve got work to do, there’s no point in punishing your awesome self.
And that’s it for this post! It is really personal (and kind of long!) but I hope it can help someone who reads it in some way. ♥
QUICK ANNOUNCEMENT: I’m thinking about only posting once a week now that I have a bit of content built up. Then if I feel like posting twice in a week, I will! I can’t decide if I want to post on Mondays to give everyone a little boost at the start of the week, or on Fridays so everyone can read and process over the weekend. If you have any thoughts, let me know!!