Journal, Publishing/Editing, Writing

When Do You Know a Story is Dead?

trashed_pagesI have this story. I’ve been rewriting it from scratch since last February. From scratch. I think I’ve come close to four or five total drafts of this story.

I’ve changed POV. I’ve tried different tenses. I’ve added characters. I’ve altered the plot in major ways. I’ve started it in different places, hoping to find something more effective.

I love the core idea, but it’s Just. Not. Working. And I have no idea why, which is the most frustrating part. I’m beginning to get the feeling that it’s me–that I’m lacking some specific tool set to help me overcome the invisible wall that continues to block this story. It’s not that I can’t get a rough draft. I’ve written several at this stage, but each one has major problems I can *feel* in a vague, intuitive way without being able to specifically identify them.

I’ve talked before about the stages of mastery, and right now I’m sunk deep in that second, infuriating stage: Conscious Incompetence. I know it’s not working. I know I need to do something to fix it. But I’m at a complete loss to identify why it’s failing so badly.



So how do you know when it’s time to give up on a story? How do you know when the sheer amount of time put into a story surpasses the worth of the output? Chances are, it may take a while before I figure out what I’m doing so wrong on this one. I suspect it has something to do with the plot arch, but I have no idea how to make it better. It could also have to do with the dynamic of the two primary characters, and the complicated backstories for both. I at least managed to introduce a stronger speculative element in the last reworking, so that should make it more marketable once I can fix the rest of it, but everything else is such a tremendous mess, I’m not even sure where the path to the correct version begins. Each time I think I’ve got it, it implodes again.

I stall out in situations like this because I really believe in the mantra “Finish one thing before starting another,” particularly in application to writing fiction (and when creative time is so limited). It’s too easy to start a dozen projects and never get around to finishing any of them. But this seems like an exception to the rule. If you’ve worked and worked and worked at a piece, and it’s simply NOT WORKING, and no amount of forcing oneself to finish yet another draft is going to fix the issue without a major epiphany, is it better to soldier on or cut the failing story loose so you can hopefully move on to another project (and perhaps someday in the future, figure out what’s really wrong with this one)?

The Catch-22 of this situation is the author’s self-perception. Is the story *actually* failing as badly as I feel it is? Or am I being hypercritical? If it’s me being hypercritical, what’s to stop me from hitting this wall on every story I get down?

My only consolation is that I *don’t* hit this wall on every story. I’ve had plenty of stories that I had to work on a while until I was happy with them, as well as the rare (but lovely) scenario when a story has practically written itself. I only occasionally hit a wall like this that simply won’t go away.


At first, I thought I’d re-read it again, see if some forward momentum could get me through this current draft, but then I started thinking about it. Even if I finish this rough draft (which I would have to force, at this point, because it’s got a major logic fault-line through the center of it which I still don’t know how to fix with editing), it’s just another in a long line of failed rewrites. Maybe this isn’t a story I’m capable of telling at this point. Maybe I’m not quite ready. It doesn’t mean I won’t be able to fix it someday in the future, if the solution presents itself, but I have a feeling that there are some fundamental things I need to learn first. Hopefully, once I learn them, I’ll be able to resurrect this story.

Until then, I’m going to call it: Time of death is 10:21AM.

2 thoughts on “When Do You Know a Story is Dead?”

  1. I’m in the same predicament with a story I’ve been working on. I’m just about ready to put my notes away and work on something else. I can always go back to it; but for now, I don’t feel I’m using my limited writing time wisely if I keep staring at those pages and producing nothing. RIP.

    1. It’s always so hard to let one go, though, isn’t it? But like you said, with limited time one’s got to make these hard calls. Still, not fun!

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