Friday, March 30, 2012

When should you give up on a story?

These are three questions from three different writers, all of which I received in the last couple weeks:

I've been working on a story for over half a year now and I'm committed to it, but I feel like I don't "love" it enough. I think about my plot and my characters all the time, but not in the same way that I think about my favorite books. I kind of think that if I don't love it, other people won't, either. Should I give it up and start some other story? Or is there any way to fix this lack of enthusiasm?

Are there signs for when you need to set a story aside? 

How do you know if you need to give up (at least temporarily) on one book and concentrate on another. I know sometimes its finding the right publisher for your book, but other times its the book itself. Especially with teen authors when our writing hasn't matured. How do you know if you need to move on? Rather than plowing through another revision...

In my 8 years of writing full time, I've been in this situation - is this book worth it? - more often than I'd like. I'll share my thoughts and experiences with you all, but ultimately as the writer, you are the one who gets to make that call.

Rejection is part of the writing business, as I'm sure we all know. Just because an agent reads your book and chooses not to represent you, or just because an editor reads it and decides it's not for them, doesn't mean it's a bad book. Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone was rejected by 12 editors before it found a home. The Help by Kathryn Stockett was, according to the author, rejected 60 times.

The initial print run for this book was 1,000 copies. Amazing!
So your book may be The Next Big Thing, but still go through a season of rejection.

The first thing you may want to ask yourself is, "Does my idea have potential to be a great book?" Ideally you ask yourself this before you ever start it, but I had already been pursuing publication for 3 or 4 years before I figured that out. Of course this begs the question what makes a book great?

Does it:

  1. Have a main character in a sympathetic situation? (Using the examples of Harry Potter and The Help, Harry is an orphan being raised by a horrid family, and Skeeter is a white girl in the south in the 1960s who wants to help black maids tell their stories)
  2. Have a main character who is a hero in some way? (As a baby, Harry somehow defeated the darkest, most powerful wizard, though he's not sure how, and Skeeter is risking her life to tell an important story and provide social justice.)
  3. Provide a unique storyworld for the reader? (Hogwarts School, and tumultuous Mississippi in the 1960s)
  4. Have a theme or takeaway message that will impact readers? (Harry is capable of so much more greatness than he had ever imagined, or in The Help, equality for people of all races.)
  5. Have a great ending? (Don't want to spoil anything for anyone who hasn't yet enjoyed Harry Potter or The Help, but the endings are great!)

Now, a book doesn't have to have all these things to be a good, entertaining story. Gossip Girl doesn't really have a heroic main character or a great theme, but it's still an engrossing read and addictive series. The unique storyworld (a peek at the life of unbelievably rich and spoiled teenagers from old money families in NYC) makes up for it.

Another thing I ask myself now is "Does it work structurally?" Sometimes good story structure happens naturally when I'm writing. Other times, when I can't get the book to take off, I realize it's because my structure is flimsy. My character is lingering too long in the "home world" instead of accepting the invitation to move into the story, or I haven't given her a strong enough opponent. That's one of the reasons why understanding good story structure can really help.

After I've asked myself some questions like the above, I have to ask, "Am I excited enough about this idea to invest time in it?" Sometimes I am. I rewrote Me, Just Different FOUR times because I just could not let the idea go. There were times that I shelved it, convinced it was unfixable, but I kept coming back to it. Ultimately it paid off.

Holding my first copy of Me, Just Different!

If you're questioning moving forward with your story, the first thing I'd recommend is putting it away for a period of time. A month or so. Either work on another project you're feeling excited about, or take a break from writing in general.

After you've gotten some space, pull the manuscript back out and read through it. When I've done this, I've had times where I think, "Yep. This is just as horrible as I thought." Then I put it away again, often forever.

Other times I've thought, "You know ... this isn't so bad. It's kinda good, actually. Maybe if I added this or that, it could work."

Another thing to try is having a friend look at it. Someone who will not only be honest but knows what they're talking about. Someone who at least reads a lot. Ideally someone who is a writer too.

Or if you suspect that your idea is good, that you have the elements of a potentially great novel, only you've been working on it so long it's starting to feel dull or stale, try flipping through a craft book like Writing the Breakout Novel Workbook by Donald Maass or Deep and Wide by Susan May Warren. The exercises in there will encourage you to think differently about characters and plot, and they might help breathe some new life into your story. Because sometimes my story isn't the problem - sometimes I'm just being lazy.

While you're the only one who can decide if the story merits perseverance or if it's time to move on, I hope this has helped provide direction for a next step.

Have a great weekend, everyone!


  1. How funny you posted this, I'm considering shelving a novel right now. :( I might reuse some of the characters for my next project, because some of them I just don't want to lose. :)

    For fun, I'm going to run the novel I'm considering shelving through your list:

    1. Does my idea have potential to be a great book?
    2. Have a main character in a sympathetic situation?
    3. Have a main character who is a hero in some way?
    Kind of. No wait, yes. :)
    4. Provide a unique storyworld for the reader?
    Kind of?
    5. Have a theme or takeaway message that will impact readers?
    6. Have a great ending?
    No. (Mainly because I don't know how it ends. :P)
    7. Am I excited enough about this idea to invest time in it?
    No. Well, there are some things I'm excited about, but for the most part, I can reuse those things I'm looking forward to.

    HP and The Help are great, thank goodness those authors never gave up! :)

    Anyway, I've read another post on this, on Veronica Roth's blog, and one great question she recommends asking yourself is when faced with shelving is: "Is this the first novel I want to be known for?" Which is a good one, because I've noticed most authors tend to be most known for what they publish first. (With exceptions like Suzanne Collins.) I bet published authors could tweak that question to "Is this the *next* novel I want to be known for?"

    Wow, that was long! :O

    1. Great question Allison! I might change my mind once it's written, but right now, Yes!

      I love reusing old ideas, and even if you never do the writing practice was good.

    2. That's a great question Veronica Roth poses. Though I can think of lots of authors who aren't known for their first books but rather their consistent brand, Jodi Picoult and Sarah Dessen to name two. Though Ms. Picoult is probably most well known for My Sister's Keeper. I'm not sure about Ms. Dessen. The book I most commonly hear of others reading is The Truth About Forever.

      But you ARE trying to build an audience, so it's wise to pick a genre and style you could camp out in.

    3. Hmm, yeah, I was mostly thinking of some of the first few authors who came to mind: Rowling, Meyer, etc. But you're right, some are more famous for *what kind* of books they write, so maybe another question to ask when considering genre is: "Do I want known as a fantasy/realistic/dystopian/court fiction(I don't know what you'd call Picoult's genre?)/whatever, author?"

    4. My favorite book by Sarah Dessen is "Just Listen." On the other hand, that could just be because my mom is a music teacher. :D

    5. Becki, I like Just Listen a lot. I'd like to reread it. This Lullaby is is still my favorite, though. It's music-oriented too!

      And Allison, I've heard Picoult's books (and others like them) referred to as "issue fiction" because there's usually some sort of social issue being debated.

    6. Issue fiction, never heard that term before... Thanks Stephanie!

    7. Actually, I recently read "This Lullaby." Her books tend to mix up in my mind a little, because I've read so many of them, but I did like that one, too. :) Great, now I need a library trip! :D

    8. I totally agree with the last statement you made. I really want to be known as fantasy fiction author when I publish my first book, and then maybe after a few fantasy projects I can publish some other things...

  2. I'm going to do what Allison did, mostly to write it down for myself. ^_^

    Does your book have potential to be a great book?
    Well, I must admit that I am biased, but I think it does.

    Have a main character in a sympathetic situation?
    Definitely, and it just gets worse the more we find out about him.

    Have a main character who is a hero in some way?
    That's a definite yes, although a reluctant one.

    Provide a unique storyworld for the reader?
    Set fifty years into the future, the first almost-half takes place underground, and the rest of it is on the run. I think it's interesting.

    Have a theme or takeaway message that will impact readers?
    Facing fears hurts less than running from them.

    Have a great ending?
    Yes. Everything gets wrapped up, and it's all happy in the end.

    Am I excited enough about this idea to invest time in it?
    Haha . . . well, I'd better be, considering I'm on my sixth rewrite. :D

    Ooh, good question, Allison. I would have to say that, yes, I would like to be known for this novel. Thank you for this post, Stephanie. I must say, I was struggling a little bit with this, even though I'm so far along. *happily* I guess I'm not shelving it! ^_^

    1. Becki, the question of, "Should I just shelve this?" can crop up even after a bunch of revisions. Anytime the manuscript still requires work, it can be easy to grow discouraged. Glad you're sticking with it!

  3. Thank you so much Stephanie, both for your thoughtful response to my comment and this article! Both helped me decide what course of action to take. :) I already uprooted my characters from one plot and grounded them into another, but I think I need to set it aside and just let it simmer on the back burner of my brain. ;)

    The nice thing is even if you never use a story you can use parts of it. I've stolen characters, plot twists, and locations from past flops. It feels almost like cheating, but it can be a fun challenge.

    Wow! I'm rather stunned that Stockett didn't give up after so many rejections. :) She had confidence. I'm glad she didn't give up. It always surprises me how many times authors get rejected. I guess its part timing to.

    The only things I've found that reignite excitement are new ideas, plot twists that shake me and the story up, and talking with my writing friends. That and sometimes reading a really good book!

    Thanks again!

    1. Leila, that's an excellent point. And it's one of the reasons why shelving a story doesn't mean you wasted your time. Not only can you pull characters and plot twists from it, but you also learn something that doesn't work. It helps you grow smarter about the kinds of stories that will work.

    2. Timing is a really good point. Whether your book gets published may depend as much on what's hot or new ... The Hunger Games, I think, is so insanely popular mostly because it's 90% original, and an Amish romance might have been hard to publish ten years ago.

    3. Okay, that was kind of scratchy; in the second sentence, I meant to say it may depend as much on what's hot or new as the quality of your writing.

  4. This post gave me more confidence that it was the right decision to ditch my WIP - I went back to it after a while and was tempted to literally throw it out my window. Sigh... that was a peanut-butter-on-a-spoon day :P

  5. Lydia, sounds like an Oreo-in-the-pb day! I've been there too. It's frustrating, but it's all part of the process.

    1. I seriously got so many cravings after yesterday's conversation.... let's just say we didn't have Oreos or marshmallows, and we do now :)
      Thankfully, I can now focus on a story I'm psyched out about :)

    2. I got so many cravings from yesterday's conversation... let's just say we didn't have Oreos or marshmallows then, and we do now ;)
      Thankfully, now I can focus on picking through my pet projects that haven't lost their magic yet - I forgot how exciting it is! :D

  6. This is a question I have struggled with several times. I'm getting ready (in about a week probably) to finish up my ms. I started it four years ago. Yes, four! I have shelved it twice. I'm so glad I've come back to it though because I adore it, and always have, it just didn't always fuel my fire at any given moment. That being said, during those times of "shelving" I thought about it. Even if I was working on something else. It stewed in my brain for—well—four years!! :) It's a completely different version of it's initial self...but it's the same piece. All that being said, my point is, shelving it for awhile might be good for you! It free's your mind to consider other possibilities. I've found that one tiny epiphany about a piece can be a catapult that completely invigorates me and sets off many more awesome changes! :) Never delete anything!!!!!!!

    1. Nicole, I've found that not deleting anything has helped with so many of my stories. ^_^ Whenever I do a revision, for instance, I merely make a new document, and then make changes to the new document. It has saved my life countless times, because I pull some of my favorite parts from old revisions. :)

    2. I have so many "new" files it's not even funny!!! :) I'm a digital mess!! I'm terrified of DELETE! :)

  7. I had to do a quick inventory. Completed MSS folder: 22 items. WIPs folder: 64 items. So I guess if we take that at face value, about 1/3 of my ideas make it to completion. Not that all of the shelved ones are destined to stay shelved forever--there are quite a few that I would happily write if one of my publishers said the word. =) But at this point, I'm writing for contracts, so some of my pet projects have to wait their turn.

    As for that first question in the post, about whether the book will be good for a reader if it isn't for you--my gut says "No, it won't! You have to be passionate about your story!" But I'll let you in on a little secret--had I not been writing ANNAPOLIS for an editor who was waiting on it, I would have shelved it. I didn't have that leisure, though, so had to fix it instead. =) There's a time to fix and a time to let it rest . . . and as you can see from my incomplete/complete ratio, I firmly believe in the option to shelve!

    1. Wow, I didn't know you didn't really want to write ANNAPOLIS! I can't wait to read it, though!

      In case you didn't know, I collect quotes. ;) Your comment made me think of one I ran across that I think back to whenever I feel stuck. "No tears in the writer, no tears in the reader. No surprise in the writer, no surprise in the reader." {Robert Frost.} It reminds me to engage my heart in my story, even if said story is slow in coming. ;)


  8. Thanks for this post.
    I think my current WIPS problem lies in story structure. I'll have to look more into this!
    How do you keep track of all these good questions and examples from other writing books?

    1. What a great question for a post, Tonya :) I'll talk about this tomorrow.

  9. That was an encouraging post for me:) I'm not very far in my book so I have not reached this stage yet but now I know what to do if that happens. Nice post and thanks for the feedback on my contest entry:) I literally wrote that in 10 min so it's not my best work. The ideas tend to be perfect in my mind but blur on paper. But thanks regardless!

  10. Great, great, just great. :)

    And I adore that picture of you with your first copy of Me, Just Different.

    Oh, and I ran through that list of questions with the Hunger Games series (which I'm currently reading for the first time). One of the things that amazes me about this series? I'm enjoying it despite the fact that Katniss and I have *nothing* in common. Zippo. We're nothing alike and I still haven't even decided if I really like her (perhaps that's because I'm *unlike* her ~ I figured out who I am like, Delly), yet I CARE ABOUT her. And that makes me think reading. Even if I didn't enjoy the series, the smack-in-the-head truth that I don't have to necessarily like a character to care about them and their future was worth the read. :) Random thoughts, but a little relevant. :)

    1. That's true. I've known some characters that weren't really likable, but I still cared about them. I know some of my reading buddies think this makes me weird--but I can totally root for an unlikable MC, so long as I get *why* they are the way they are. Or if they have *some* redeeming qualities.

  11. I'm writing a story about a girl in Ireland in 1912. Her dying mother made her promise to look after her siblings, but something has to happen that makes that promise especially hard to keep, like them being sent to Canada as Home Children and then being split up on their arrival, but I'm not entirely sure I like the idea and I might want them to stay in Ireland. I'm kind of stuck, but my family keeps critising me for jumping from one story to another, and I don't want them to start again. What should I do?

    1. Well ... are these other people in your family writers? Because I've found it's really easy for non-writers (even well meaning ones who love you deeply) to be critical. Especially involving writing/time issues. ("What, that book isn't published yet?" "What, you're still writing the first draft?")

      I wouldn't let their potential criticism influence you. Your story idea sounds really good, I think, but if you're feeling stuck, there's nothing wrong with putting it aside for a bit.

  12. Having this issue now. My story's "okay," but it's not really unique, and needs some serious work before it can actually be great. So I think I might shelve it for a while. Maybe try to bring it back to life later, but for now, I have a more important project to work on.