5 Signs You Need to Break Up With Your Story
Break ups are hard. And not because whatever or whomever you're breaking up with is just important to you, but because of all the time you feel has been lost afterwards. Your mind wonders if maybe you'd have been better of never encountering this person (or story!) or what you're supposed to do with all the scraps of those efforts. Do you toss them out? Do you try and build back up the pieces? Or do you attempt to forget it all?
When you talk to any writer today, the number one piece of advice they'll give you is to just keep writing. And that's great advice. If there is one strength within myself I will brag about its my perseverant spirit, something that undoubtedly has helped me as a writer today. When faced with trying situations in my writing career, my mantra to just keep writing has saved me every time. After all, I've had plenty of those severe breaking points in my writing career that sent me into tears and a scary pit of self-doubt.
Yet somehow I always pulled myself out. Maybe it was because every time I pushed myself to fight for my dreams, I always found that in retrospect, I was incredibly lucky to have had those low moments of doubt and self-loathing and made it through them. Other people have it easy, and that's hard. My low moments taught me a lot and made me feel invincible, like if I just pushed myself harder and harder, I could get through anything. How could such a mindset be bad?
It turns out that within this perseverant spirit, just like within all human strengths, there was a deep-rooted flaw called pride. Pride that would not, no matter what, let me give up, because to give up (or break up) with an idea to me was akin to failing. We hear this all the time as not only writers, but as people. We hear that it's better to try and fail than not try at all and at it's heart, this is a wonderful idea because it pushes us to look at failure differently, as a sort of achievement in itself. However, anything in excess can become bad, even perseverance.
The truth is, sometimes we have to break up with our stories so we can move on as writers. There's a difference between leaving a project because you find the commitment hard and leaving a project because it's holding you back as a writer. And while determining which category your story is in may be hard, I hope that by thinking deeply about these five questions you'll have a better sense as to where you and your story are.
1. Your story no longer excites you.
To me, this is the most important aspect about writing a story, and even if the rest of the criteria in this post are not true for you, you still must leave your story if you are no longer excited by it.
Writing anything is really hard and it's not hard because the act of writing is hard, but because it's incredibly hard to stay passionate or excited about a project for as long as writing a novel or video game or anything else takes, especially when coupled with all the moments of self-doubt and self-loathing.
Don't get me wrong. There will be low days in your writing career, days when you want to chuck your computer out the window, but even on those days there still should be a deep-rooted love and belief in your project. It can't be a begrudging slog. You've got to be excited about every phase of writing your story, excited by the prospects of it one day being just right, even if it means rewriting your story ten more times.
If you aren't excited or thrilled with your idea - or even just believe that is it good or worth your time - that will show up in your work. And if that's the case, it's time to break up with your story.
2. You lack the experience.
While I am not a genuinely positive or optimistic person, anyone who knows me knows I would never, ever in my life give someone the advice to give up when the going gets tough. Ever. In fact, I am actually known to be annoyingly simplistic in my views that if you work hard, anything can be achieved and that all it takes is a little perseverance.
But sometimes life has not yet granted you the maturity or experiences you need to write your story. As someone who always picks the most difficult stories to tell, I can say firsthand that this is true. Recently I tackled a period feature film exploring deeply complex issues - on various levels. When faced with the idea, I thought my biggest challenge would be getting the time period right without being offensive.
However, what I realized (a week ago) was that I lacked the emotional experience and maturity to tell this story. In fact, in terms of history, I was wildly accurate and it was apparent to readers I had done my research, yet everything still felt off.
So I broke up with this story. It was a long fight, nearly nine months, and perhaps if I still loved this story (read: reason #1 to break up with your story) I would have given it another go. But instead I put this story in a file I call "The Shelf" and said goodbye, hoping the story may find someone better to tell it.
"Giving up" like this doesn't mean you're a bad writer. In fact, in many ways in tackling things you aren't ready for means that you are a very brave writer and one who will constantly improve by challenging yourself. However, sometimes we must humble ourselves before our work and say we are not yet ready for it. Maybe one day you will be and your story will be there waiting for you, ten years down the road. But until then, you must both go your separate ays.
3. You don't have the time to treat your story right.
Elizabeth Gilbert says writers should have an affair with their story. And that's so true. Think about people who have romantic affairs. They likely don't have "time" for infidelity, but they make time, even if it's fifteen minutes, and within those fifteen minutes they give it their all.
If you're at a point where you find yourself approaching the keyboard and doing your work half-heartedly, you have a deep sign that maybe it's time to move on. Because while I believe it's important to treat yourself right, I also deeply believe as storytellers we owe it to our work to give it our all every time.
Like with reason number one, there are bad days and good days. But if overall you are ignoring your story because you are busy you likely lack the love or excitement for your story mentioned in reason number one. Of course, you can love your story deeply and still not give it the time and love it deserves. Which is why I believe that if you never have the "time" for your story, there's something about it or about your routine that are rooted in that. This doesn't mean you have to be obsessed, but that like any relationship you need to be all in.
Does this piece of advice make your stomach drop? Take that as a sign that you still deeply love your story, but need to commit extra time to it. Try creating a writer's ritual to gain focus.
4. Writing it makes you miserable.
While writing a project that is deeply personal as a means for healing is something I'd encourage many people to do, there comes a point when your work crosses a threshold and it becomes toxic in your life.
This could happen via the actual task of writing or it could be the work you do like research or just thinking about your idea in your spare time. It's up to you determine though whether this toxicity comes from a process of healing you need to overcome, or if for some reason the content in your story makes you miserable for other reasons.
For instance, if you find yourself resorting to alcohol or drugs as a way to cope with your work, it's time to not only address this form of coping, but also your story so you can get to the root of the problem. I - luckily - have never dealt with a work that pushes me this far, and while the path to being a storyteller may be a difficult one, I cannot believe that hurting yourself for the sake of art can ever be good.
5. You're writing your story for someone besides yourself.
People maybe disagree with me here, but I really hate the idea of trying to write towards what someone else wants. Be it a writing competition with strict guidelines or some trend in the industry, I wholeheartedly believe that every story you write must first and foremost be for yourself. If you are writing something because "you have to" or to "get the job done," you are no longer writing from your heart and therefore not writing for yourself. And if that's the case, you're likely not so excited with your idea either.
So, after reading all the reasons why you need to break up with your story, what do you next? You toss the work out. You break up with your story. You move on.
I know what you're thinking:
"But I put in all that work! You're telling me just to toss everything?"
Yes. That is exactly what I am telling you to do.
However, tossing your work doesn't mean hitting delete or lighting your manuscript on fire (though feel free to do this too so long as you have another draft saved somewhere else). Tossing can just as well mean shelving the idea for a later date, maybe when you have more experience.
Or you can put it in a folder on your computer that says "RIP" with the full intentions of never returning to your story again. Do whatever you need to do to free yourself of this idea that is tying you down But please, really, do not delete it. You never know if it could be of use someday!
"Then all my work has been a complete waste of my time. I am deeply devastated."
You might say to me next. But I am here to reassure you that any storytelling - ever - is never a waste of time, even if your story fails or is left unfinished. For example, when once asked about how I felt about tossing out nearly 240,000 words of my novel, I merely shrugged and said I didn't really feel all that bad about it because I now had 240,000 words of writing experience under my belt. And it showed.
So when you are stressed about your break up with your story - or anyone or thing for that matter - try to keep in mind that while something was lost, much was gained without you realizing it. A break up cannot take away your experiences and lessons and those are the most important things that will carry you forward in your next story, whatever it may be.
A Quick Guide to Breaking Up With Your Story:
- Store the old work somewhere else where you will not stumble upon it.
- Try your best to forget about it. (It will be hard, at first.)
- Take a week to enjoy your free time without this story. Notice how at peace you feel now.
- Begin the call for new ideas. Search the world for them in your favorite things.
- Start again with this new idea you are actually excited about.[/su_note]
And this does not mean I am telling you to give up writing all together. In fact, quite the opposite, I am telling you to give up that one story that is holding you back so you can create something new and better that actually is fruitful to your life, something that makes you excited and eager to talk about!
Because if you are not in love with your story, why on earth should you expect anyone else to be?
Breaking up with an idea of your own? Tell me in the comments below what it was like! And be on the lookout next week for the companion post to this one on how to discover new ideas!