When to call a project a wash

I’ve written previously about the importance of finishing projects you start. It’s something I finally got around to committing to way too late in life, which led to decades of untold numbers of just-started or half-finished stories and scripts in my wake.

But the flipside to that is the importance of knowing when a project isn’t working and needs to be cut loose.

A persistent story idea has been bouncing around in my head for a couple of years now, and recently it finally seemed like the time to take a crack at it. I weighed the formatting options, getting a feel for if the idea is more likely a script (the usual) or a graphic novel (a newer format for me) or a novel (something I’ve never done, at least in terms of a single story), and it seemed it was leaning toward being a book.

I read up on how to do some novel outlining and did some deep diving on the main character–I got about half way into Lisa Cron’s Story Genius book with the idea, but found that approach wasn’t really working for me (not lost on me is the possibility that the very reason Cron’s book wasn’t working for me was because the idea I had didn’t fully gel, so perhaps it’s not ready for the big-time of being a novel?)–and thought I was good to go.

As you’ve likely guessed by now, it turns out… not so much.

I did a couple of re-takes on the opener and then tweaked the first chapter, finally got happy enough with its feel and direction to continue, and now, only part way into the second chapter… it’s not that the idea is waning so much as my interest in it is.

I’ve been trying to work on it, if only a tiny bit, every day. Just to do something for it. Anything, to make some progress. But no matter if that was a paltry smattering of sentences or over a page in one rarely inspired blitz, wow, what a drag it was becoming.

And I know the old advice that art isn’t always fun; that there are times it’s real work, and it feels that way. So I’ve been assuming that’s the case here and was just making myself do it anyway.

But after doing some noodling on all of the above in the context of this story project, it occurred to me: I get that the art I want to make isn’t always going to be fun, but surely there’s got to be more fun (or at least enjoyment) in it than not, right? Because if not, it changes from being art that I want to do into art that I’m forcing myself to do. And since the whole point of my wanting to be a writer/maker of things is to write/make what I want to, why am I forcing myself work through an idea of my own that’s become almost a total grind?

That tells me that there’s something fundamentally wrong happening.

Maybe the idea’s not quite ready yet. Maybe the protagonist isn’t as solid as I’d thought. Maybe something (or everything) needs more background work done on it. Hell, maybe I’m just not cut out to be a novelist, but I should perhaps try the idea as a script or comic series/graphic novel instead.

The point to all of this being that yes, you… I… everyone… should strive to finish projects that have been started. That’s the only way you’ll ever have anything to show or submit or pitch. You can always improve on what’s been done, but you can’t make something better if it was never made in the first place. Etc.



There’s also a time when you have to admit to yourself that what you’re working on isn’t panning out. The why is something that may be obvious–“This dark piece that takes place in the Vietnam war and features anthropomorphic animals as the soldiers was a terrible idea, especially as a musical for kids. ‘I scout the jungle with pals pig and lemur,/With the buzz of a wasp, a bullet’s shattered my femur’?”–or it may be way less clear.

All of that can be sorted out after the fact.

For now, know that if an idea you’re trying to crystalize really, truly isn’t working despite sincere effort, you can (nay, should) just leave it. Go work on something else completely to cleanse the ol’ brain palate, and maybe revisit the idea again later on (or not) perhaps as something else (or not). But then and there, give yourself a mental break by not stressing about that one story not working, and instead pick up any of the other bajillion story/game/ukulele projects you’ve been hit with and work on that instead.

In writing you’ve got to be ready to kill your darlings for the betterment of the final project. That could be a turn of phrase or a chapter or a character or, as I’m realizing, it could be the entire project itself. But those aspects that are cut from one idea may get a second life in other work you do. And so it may be with a project that isn’t working in one format or approach but fits in better somewhere (or as something) else entirely.

Sometimes in order to make sure you even can finish a project the way it was meant to be done, it has to be torn down and made from scratch again. And sometimes, despite your best efforts, a project just doesn’t end up happening at all.

So I’m walking away from this idea. At least as a novel, and at least for now. Maybe it’ll be back at some point in the future. But in the meantime, I owe it to myself and to the endless stream of tempting ideas vying for my attention to give them a shot at being realized.

After all, that Vietnam musical won’t write itself…