When To Abandon A Short Story

Hand holding a full black plastic trash bag

I gave up on a story today.

It wasn’t a horribly-written story. In fact, it had amused me and a couple of other people who’d read it. My critique group had given me stunningly insightful feedback on what I needed to do to take it from ‘promising’ to ‘good’.

But instead, I put it away and will probably never look at it again.

How Do You Know When It’s Time To Give Up On A Story?

This is a question that comes up surprisingly often among writers.

Wouldn’t you think we’d KNOW if a story was worth working on, or whether it should be consigned to the darkest recesses of our cloud drives, never to be accessed again?

Turns out: nope.

We can’t know how our stories are going to be received. We can lavish attention on them and never get them published. We can dash them off in an evening and win prizes. 

(Every experienced writer has stories like this.)

  • Sometimes stories fail to land with an audience (readers, editors, publishers) and we never know why.
  • Sometimes stories go out into the world and, by the time they limp home again, we’ve written more stories and can see why it’s getting rejected.
  • Sometimes we can fix that.
  • Sometimes we can’t, and we put the story away again until we’ve written the new story that teaches us how to fix the old one.

This is a very familiar cycle to a writer who’s submitting works to publications.

It’s different from giving up on a story altogether. 

So why did I give up on my story this week?

What Do You Want To Do With Your Time On This Earth?

A while back, I sat down and wrote a manifesto for my writing life. (I recommend doing this and, if you’re interested in how I approached the project, you can read more in the article I wrote  over at WriterUnboxed.com).

The point of writing the manifesto was to provide a set of checkpoints for myself, as I do my work. 

The problem with being a writer—making things up out of fresh air and little squiggly marks—is that you can do anything.

When you can do anything, you could, potentially, do everything.

And that gets overwhelming.

Who Wants To Do Everything?

It turns out, none of us wants to do everything. We want to do things that matter to us. 

We want to leave behind art that change the world in little ways that pushes it onto a course more in line with our values.

My manifesto acts as a set of guard rails that stops me from wandering off track and spending too much time on ideas that caught my attention for a moment, but don’t line up with my values

The Great A-Ha

As I said, I got some spectacularly good feedback on this story. A lightbulb went on. I knew exactly what I had to do to fix it.

This story, it turns out, was written from a place of bitterness. It aimed to make fun of a public figure who had angered me (no, probably not that one). It was for revenge; to prove how much better and smarter and awesome I was.

It was not written from the best parts of me.

And I don’t want to spend any more time on a project that came from unhappiness and does nothing to alleviate that.

I don’t want to spend my finite, unspecified time on this earth working on a project that doesn’t tick any of the boxes on my manifesto. 

(N. B. You may write all  your stories in service of a desire for revenge, or from the dark places inside you and that may be absolutely fine for you. It’s just not how I do my best work.)

Sunk Costs

There’s a thing called the Sunk Cost Fallacy. It’s the mistaken belief that because you have invested in a thing in the past, it’s worth continuing to invest in it, otherwise all your previous work is lost.

In our case, that investment is time and emotional energy. 

Just because you spent time on a story, doesn’t mean you have to spend more time trying to make it perfect.

You just don’t.

The investment you made will pay off anyway. You may have learned something about writing dialogue, or about how quickly you can complete a draft, or, as in my case, what you don’t want to be writing. 

The best way to learn from mistakes is to make as many of them as quickly as possible and learn from them.

If you’d like a structure for producing 10 stories in the next 6 weeks, check out the StoryADay Warm Up Course

Learn when to cut your losses and write something new. 

(Let’s face it, with almost limitless storage capacity at our fingertips, it’s not like you ever actually have to delete the story. But if it makes you feel better, you can.)

Your Permission To Give Up On A Story

Over the years I’ve learned that one of the most valuable things I can do here at StoryADay is give people the permission they’ve been too hesitant to give themselves. So here goes:

You have permission to put that story away and move on to something else.

Really.

Just promise me you’ll finish a draft of the next one before you make any judgments about it. 

And then write another one.

Keep experimenting and finding your voice.

And most of all, keep writing.

Your turn: Do you find it hard to cut stories loose? Do you delete them with glee, or is everything triple-backed-up somewhere, just in case? 

2 thoughts on “When To Abandon A Short Story”

  1. Thanks Julie a really helpful article and video. By coincidence I axed a story of mine yesterday. It was for a quarterly themed competition, submission by the end of the year. I didn’t particularly like the theme or find it easy to come up with an idea. But, the story I’d submitted for the previous quarters competition had been longlisted. It didn’t progress any further, but I was proud of it. I’d put quite a lot of work into, it was only a max of 500 words, but by the time I submitted I was happy with it. After struggling with an idea for the latest competition I never felt as though I owned the story, I was doing it almost as an obligation. I was putting pressure on myself when I didn’t need to.
    Having thrown in the towel yesterday, I’ve since written three flash stories (2×100 words, 1×150 words) that I’m happy with and I’ve submitted the two, one hundred workers to a competition. Amazing what you can do when you clear your mind!

    1. Ha! That’s fabulous. Yes! Letting go of stories can be such a clarifying thing. Thanks for sharing your experience.
      And may many more stories come your way this year!

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