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Knowing when to let things go

March 14, 2010

Ten years ago I started to write a story. It was a strange hybrid, a modern here-and-now setting fused with a matter-of-fact approach to religion, fantasy and magic. A low-concept urban fantasy thriller exploring high-concept theological ideas.

Image used with kind permission, © 2009
Julia Anderson

Ten years on, I have an idea of how the story starts and finishes. I know the characters intimately. I feel like I’m at home in all the settings.

And now I’m laying them down and walking away, not forever, but certainly for now.

When the idea for The Long Watch first bubbled up to the surface it was fresh and original. But when the idea came to me I was a lawyer, not a writer. I was training for a profession that left me little time to write, and so I did not diligently pursue the idea.

Since then the reading market has been flooded with religious conspiracy stories, vampire novels, and dark urban fantasy to an extent that my idea seems a little “me too”.

I love the characters, and there are many readers I know who have told me how much they have enjoyed what they’ve been allowed to see of it so far.

But the idea isn’t white-hot in my mind right now. Other ideas, better ideas, are pressing to be heard. So for now The Long Watch goes back into my folder marked “future ideas”, rather than “work in progress”.

Sometimes the best decision to make for the integrity of a story is the hard one. To completely rewrite it. To remove a favourite character who appeared central. Or in this case, to stop and move on.

So readers, what ideas have you had that are now in that awful impasse? Are you brave enough to abandon them, or do you prefer to push on through? And for those who have ever put an idea to the side in the past, have you returned to it with more vigour and better ideas?

The floor is open to you in the comments. Let’s hear your stories.

Next week Paul intends to explore the negative attitudes towards short stories, a popular format sadly ignored by mainstream publishing. And also ignored by Paul in his capacity as editor of a short story anthology, which is quite frankly embarrassing…
  1. March 14, 2010 5:28 am

    I’m one of those fans who will be wringing their hands and bemoaning the laying aside of “The Long Watch” – though – for the reasons you have noted I understand why.

    Your characters are real and much loved ( or despised.) and it’ll be sad to see them languishing in the green room…

  2. March 14, 2010 6:36 am

    I’ve been wondering about this too. It’s very hard to let go of a short story or novel when you’ve put so much into it. I have a short I’ve worked on for years that I put to bed and only recently resurrected for a rewrite in the future and another short that Jodi has had a lot of involvement with that I’m going to have to rewrite…again!

  3. March 14, 2010 7:34 am

    I discovered last November an idea which I had explored in 50,000words the year before and had been truly passionate about… did not fire on all cyclinders when I came back to it after a years break.

    There are so many exciting elements to explore in this idea/story… but for whatever reason they just don’t seem to be firing now. And it is hard, as you say, to put it aside. Unlike your ‘Long Watch’ stories – mine doesn’t have the cult-like following (which I imagine makes it even harder to give up because there is that impetus floating around in the background to deliver to fans??) – so I have found it easier to walk away from.

    I hope one day I can come back to it with fresh eyes and enthusiasm to create what I wanted to create.

    And like the demons, vampires and religious conspiracies – my fledgling novel had blue people in it… long before there was Avatar!

  4. March 14, 2010 7:54 am

    Ideas seem easy – having the time to corral them into something you can work with, with characters who breathe and a plot that moves – that’s the tough part for me. I work full time and I also run a farm and family, and I’ve found I can only focus on one WIP at a time. There are always a bunch of other ideas floating around in limbo, and if I let myself think about this, it is overwhelming. I agree with Jodi that sometimes something you were passionate about stops firing you up – but it’s hard to put aside something in which you have invested so much time.

    I think to be a writer needs equal parts realism and faith. Faith to believe you can chip away at and polish something to perfection, and a dose of realism to know when enough is enough and that this work that you have spent so much energy on needs to be put aside – even if only temporarily.

  5. March 14, 2010 9:26 am

    I agree with all you say, each and every one of you. Put it into a drawer in the attic or the back room if you must. Save it on a file entitled, ‘Work in Progress’ if you can. Hide it under the sofa in the back sitting room, where the cleaner never looks, if that is your wont.

    But here’s the rub; throw your creation away; no matter whether it is almost ready to take centre stage of whether it is only just take its first stumbling steps, and you will be destroying a part of yourself; part of your personal history; of only part of your fantasy history. You will be eradicating some of your own iconography; your own lexicography; unique to yourself and perhaps one of those important facets of your writing which attracts and even repel; but which makes your written language yours specifically.

    Words and thoughts of a writer do not just spin out into the ether and become irretrievable, or worse, cease to exist. They remain somewhere at the back of the mind, whether in the conscious or the subconscious, but they are there to be retrieved when called up. But usually they are taking on a life of their own; developing; exploring their own boundaries, acquiring good and bad habits. You’ve called them into existence, they are your children… your offspring (corny, but true).

    Like the Prodigal Son, they’ll be there somewhere; hoping that you will go out looking for them. If they make the first move, you’ll know it, and go out joyfully to meet them. Only the Fatted Calf will be pissed off when they reappear.

  6. March 14, 2010 11:22 am

    I usually let the dead ideas go…for a while. I was writing a vampire novel a while back and just had no idea where I was going with it. I had the beginning and the end but no middles. It’s still constantly in the back of my mind but not a current work in progress.

    I’m trying to venture away from my usual pantser-like writing and outlining all current WIPs. We’ll see how that goes.

    Great post!!

  7. March 14, 2010 1:15 pm

    I had one of those religious-themed urban fantasy thrillers on the backburner, too. Thanks, Dan Brown et al, for ruining it for everyone.

    It’s not always a bad thing to get preempted, though. That feeling that the market won’t be receptive to your book can help in letting go of an idea that wasn’t ready for prime-time anyway. And the idea doesn’t go anywhere–it can haunt hard drives and notebooks and imaginations for years, waiting for the right moment to be reborn…at a time when the current fad for [vampires/religious conspiracies/teenage wizards/etc.] will have hopefully passed.

  8. Ardee-ann permalink
    March 15, 2010 6:42 am

    I have walked away from many stories and characters that I have passionately loved and believed in. Sometimes you just have to do that. There may be a time that bits and pieces can be “rewritten” to be part of other works and then sometimes they just have to be let go. It is hard to leave your “baby” to the side but I have found that it can be a very healthy thing to do. Deep Peace!

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