When to save it, when to kill it?

What prompts me to write this is that I am sitting on a piece of shit–actually, a few pieces of shit. No, not literal shit–well, sort of literal–I mean stories I am trying to write.

The biggest piece of shit I’m sitting on I started in 2014. I was going through a very difficult time and it was a way to sublimate my emotions. I left it alone for a couple of years, and on and off I’ve worked on it. I shared some of it once and as per usual it was treated as a joke. I don’t mind so much about that, it doesn’t really matter.

The problem is that it’s a behemoth patchwork of scenes with no discernible plot; paragraphs that amount to little more than stage directions that I was supposed to flesh out later but no longer remember why; long series of dialogue between immaterial talking heads; and redundant opening chapters that I don’t know how to begin to merge. Some parts are completely untouched, others edited several times. Some of it I actually quite like, some of it makes my face burn.

It’s been suggested that you shouldn’t resurrect old work, which I think is true in some cases, though not in others. I am not exactly resurrecting the work–it’s more like it’s been on life-support. For whatever reason, it’s important to me to at least finish a first draft even if it goes nowhere after that. I’m invested after all these years–there are questions in it that I must answer–I must find out what happens to the characters.

The smaller piece of shit I wrote in October was (was–see, it’s already in the past) a sort of experimental first-person, present-tense melding of past and present events. But I simply can’t get an ending, not even a lame one. I realized today that perhaps it’s one of those things that must be strangled and never see the light of day. Believe me, I have quite a few of those. If you think some of the stuff I post is bad, you should see the stuff that I mercifully keep buried on my hard drive. I do think this is one of those.

I needed to write it because of some emotions that overcame me on a certain day, but it got very absurd and I don’t think would make any sense to someone who doesn’t know what I’m referring to, not the least because what happened in the first place was highly personal, tragic, and boring. I don’t think it comes out good when people stick closely to the facts when writing fiction based on themselves or when a piece is fired off in the heat of the moment. There needs to be a decent amount of daylight between you and the story, otherwise it just gets… icky.

There’s got to be a reason why I can’t finish it. I’m totally blank on it, no ideas, nothing. Usually things come to me as I go about my day but this one is totally silent. And it’s too bad because there’s some pretty funny stuff in it. But it just doesn’t work. And if it doesn’t work for me, then I know it certainly won’t work for anyone else. I’m thinking I’ll just throw the kitchen sink at it, get it all out of my system, and forget about it.

Nevertheless, I think it’s a good sign that I know it’s time to put the kibosh on the smaller piece of shit. I’m not sure what exactly is wrong with it, but there is something wrong with it. I don’t know if it’s the premise or the structure, but I know it’s broken or lacking. At the same time, while the bigger piece of shit is a mess, there are a number of possibilities to structure a story arc to connect the pieces. It will be instructive for me to figure out why something short and nearly complete doesn’t have a chance in hell of working, and yet a massive array of random crap does.

What do y’all think? How do you know when it’s time to smother something with a pillow or allow it to live?

63 thoughts on “When to save it, when to kill it?

  1. I always offer Chuck Wendig’s advice when it comes to situations like yours: Finish your shit.

    It’s so apt that you call your work little pieces of shit, because Chuck also calls it shit, and no matter how stuck or lost you are, you should always find a way to finish everything.

    I totally feel you though. I’m currently directionless when it comes to my own story, but you can bet I’ll slap on a crappy ending on it, because I have to finish. Or else, the only thing I’ll ever be great in is writing beginnings and middles.

    Liked by 3 people

  2. I agree with Stuart, you start it, you finish it. So my suggestions for the shorter piece, lift your favourite character and change the locale. Themes are pretty universal, you might find a new setting will inspire you towards an ending. Alternately write an ending, it doesn’t have to fit, then start at the beginning following the path to get there. I’ve done it both ways. And just so you don’t feel alone I have a WIP which took me 10 years to complete, it totals 1600 pages and I still look at and think, yep, need to do that. Don’t pressure yourself Hetty, writing should be enjoyable, but yes finish your shit.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. 1600 PAGES??! 10 YEARS??! That’s a saga! You better not let that one go.i think what I shall do is write an ending, an ending I want, and work backwards. Although a new setting might actually work 🤔. Now I must think. But thinking represents progress, at least. Thanks for your insight, Deb. And work on that project!

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  3. On the long one, you know what’s wrong. Get out the machete, hack your way through the redundancy. I resist the urge to make this about me and my failings other than to agree with you – I wrote a scene on the heels of another where part one was so angry it spilled over and loaded up the second. We all have hard drives full of shit. Some have the audacity to publish it. Some know better. And some simply need to call their inner landscaper.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. You don’t need to resist the urge to talk about yourself, I much prefer to read commenters talk about themselves. Perhaps I secretly do know what’s wrong and am too lazy to take care of it… Where’s my editor when I need him?

      Liked by 1 person

  4. I’ve never heard anyone say that one shouldn’t resurrect old work. I always thought one was supposed to be open to reading older drafts and revising.

    I feel like the shit metaphor is not working for me either. I feel like the more apt metaphor in your case is extra embryos in storage following an IVF cycle – you are asking whether to have the child, keep paying for mental storage, or dispose of them. I generally hate when writing work is compared to children and this analogy is also deeply flawed because there are no great moral questions re: working on / disposing of a draft, but this metaphor feels more appropriate to me than shit.

    My answer would be that there’s no real drawback to attempting to fix the draft, or, if you aren’t feeling it yet, to leave it in storage. I don’t have any strong feelings like “you must finish what you started” or anything. It’s really just more practical to me

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Hi JYP. I don’t think of them as children either. Just little embarrassments that threaten to derail everything I’ve worked for in my entire life and ruin me in the eyes of the world. Well, maybe things aren’t really that bad. I think you’re right in taking a practical view of it.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Well you’d have to finish it and share it for the writing to become embarrassing enough to have such consequences (which could also be overblown, but IDK the specifics). There are plenty more decisions between here and there. You can make a baby step decision first (finish/revise the draft) now and worry about the publication decisions later if that feels more comfortable.

        Liked by 1 person

  5. It’s been decades since I wrote any fiction, but I remember a teacher saying I tended to use big-truck endings—I couldn’t figure out how to end stories, so my characters tended to get run over by a truck or be otherwise disposed of.

    Liked by 4 people

    1. Don’t think of it that way! If you have an idea, you owe it to yourself to try. I find setting a timer and committing to writing whatever I can achieve in that short amount of time immensely helpful. It takes a lot of pressure off.

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  6. I don’t agree with the notion that you should never resurrect old work, nor do I agree with the notion that you must finish whatever you started. Both ideas are nonsense. You have to decide these things on a case-by-case basis and do what makes sense for the work in question.

    I started writing my magnum opus about twenty years ago, back when I still had kids living at home, including one whom I was home schooling, as well as a part-time job (which fortunately I was able to do from home). I worked on my novel in my spare time, but too many other things ended up getting neglected (especially sleep)… so after a few years I put it away, thinking I’d save it until I was retired and my time was my own.

    After some years had passed, I wondered if the thing was even worth resurrecting. So I reread it, and while there was a lot about it that I liked, there was even more that desperately needed rewriting. I never considered not doing it; the story was too important to me. Ever since then, I’ve worked on it sporadically — I’ll work on it for a while, then take a break from it, then come back to it. I’m pretty sure I’ll keep working on it until I’m satisfied that it’s as good as I can make it, or until I cash in my chips, whichever comes first…

    Liked by 3 people

    1. Ah, the good old magnum opus. I find your comment quite inspiring actually, in that you’ve kept your story alive all these years because it’s important to you. And it gives me hope that the ones that are so important to us can continue to live. Dunno why I’m getting so corny right now. Thanks so much for your comment, my bitter bluebird. And you’re very sensible in saying that it’s a case-by-case basis thing.

      Liked by 1 person

  7. I have read all the comments and there us so much to think about.

    If say you park the little shits, do you have another piece of writing you are excited to work on? If yes then there is your answer.

    I have shared a few videos on my blog about writing, and JK rowing and even Stephen King,; they say we have to write a lot to get the bad stuff out of us. I kinda agree, life is an experience and experience includes everything.

    I feel time is precious and we should use it wisely. If it makes sense for you to finish the little shits as away to get writing and you see ROI on this investment of your time then maybe do it.

    It is difficult. I personally keep having to remind myself if the why I started to write xyz. And i guess I would let something go because, ‘why’ and my ‘ heart’ are no longer keen on the idea, or life has changed and so I have.

    Tough place to be. Hope you figure it out

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I must say, you win the comment award today for the phrase “park the little shits.” I think it’s worth my time to finish the little one just for my own sense of accomplishment, to cross it off my list as something completed. The larger one definitely is important to me and my heart is in it. I was just worried that maybe things shouldn’t go on for this long, but it looks like the majority of people here think there’s no time limit. I will say it’s not the toughest place to be in. It’d be worse to have absolutely nothing. We do grow and our views/values change enough that the story or work might need to be updated as well. Maybe the original reason for writing isn’t there anymore, but you might have a new, evolved one.

      Liked by 1 person

  8. This is a interesting topic you raise and the comment conversations are so wise and enlightening to me. I have so much saved writings with me and I do not know if and what form any or all of it would take. Will it always stay there as part of the journey towards what actually gets published? Or will it come together re-inspired in a package that is apt at a timing that is perfectly orchestrated? I don’t know. I just let it all sit until I feel called to do anything about any of it.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Now that’s interesting take on it. Who knows what thoughts/feelings are in those writings that are waiting for the right time to surface? Sometimes when I open up old documents for the heck of it, I don’t cringe in every case but sometimes I do like what I said or I’m reminded of an idea I forgot about. I like your idea of letting them sit until they speak. It doesn’t have to be an either/or of use it right now or delete it right now. Thanks so much.

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  9. I might disagree with the average remark here. I think that once you realize you’re sitting on a piece of dead-end prose, (so to speak,) it’s best to move on. If that is true, then it follows that you should write things out as soon as you think of them, don’t talk to other people about the ideas, and see what it feels like. If it’s not going anywhere, save it, or delete it. I don’t know. Maybe save everything, but don’t bother going back to try to resurrect it unless possibly you had an epiphany of some sort.

    I once had a blog named epiphomatic machinations. Sometimes you can try too hard.

    I say, be like a cat. Watch a cat chase something around for awhile and then give up. Evolution has taught it to minimize its losses. If it were profitable to keep chasing it, evolution would have by now made cats infinitely persistent.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. That’s how I was feeling about the little piece of shit. I was putting a lot of energy and squirming on my chair just to come up with nothing. I’m not a deleter, though. I am a hoarder by nature and save everything, even a document with only a sentence or a prompt written out. I just wanna slap an ending, cross it off my list, and move on. Someone was suggesting that you just let them sit until they speak, if ever, and I think that’s a pretty wise middle path to take. But going nuts trying to force it–I agree, time to move on.

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      1. I think good writing, like good conversation, can really only exist in context. I mean, if I say something witty in response to something you said, my same words wouldn’t be witty anywhere else or at any other time. That’s not exactly what you’re talking about, but it seems to me that something I might have written a year ago wouldn’t necessarily be as good an idea now as it was back then.
        Anyway, there is an infinite amount of good stories, as yet unwritten, and good sentences to tell them with.

        Liked by 1 person

        1. That’s a very good point about the context in which it was written. That’s sort of the issue, among others, that I’m trying to resolve with the bigger piece of shit. Sometimes things aren’t “in the context” of our current lives. Yet I believe distance can be a good thing.

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          1. Having trouble “liking” your comment! 🙂
            I agree some distance from an original idea is good–once I start to think about something, over time I kind of refine my thinking (for good or aught.) But I think the actual writing needs to be fresh rather than a re-edit of something written, say, a year ago, simply because of the issue with context. That’s what I meant.
            No one asked, but I think the phrase “kill your darlings” has something to do with that. A witty piece of writing may never be as good sitting in the middle of a bunch of edited text. When we do this in speech, we usually wind up saying, lamely, “you had to be there,” which really just means “you had to see this in context.”
            Sorry to be so wordy here. The idea you brought up in your post is something I’ve always found interesting.

            Liked by 1 person

            1. Thanks for adding more thoughts. I think it’s an interesting discussion as well. Nothing’s worse than recounting an incident in which you laughed until you peed, and then all you get is crickets. Although I will say, waiting a while allows us to see what stands the test of time.

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  10. Finish it, don’t, who the fuck cares? You’ll find your niche, find the stuff that compels you to finish it. Until then, throw it a the wall, a sentence, a paragraph, if it sticks, maybe that the sign it has legs.

    Liked by 1 person

  11. So, I usually realize that it is time to strangle a work, when I often start to think that “Oh, this’ll work best with that new/old story I’m working on.”

    But that usually happens when I myself am not happy while re-reading the chapters after a significant amount of gap. If that happens to me, I would just note down the great/funny/emotionally moving stuff, and then kill it.

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  12. I am going through this kind of with this thing I’m trying to write. The main character and their friends and family are interesting to me, but the plot is all over the place and I don’t know where it’s going, or if it will be interesting to anybody.

    For what it’s worth, I’ve decided to treat the characters as the point, and just write stories about them with no specific goal in mind, kind of like digging for something, to see if it’s there. I figure, if there’s not going to be a book or even a plot, at least I can practice writing by exploring how all these characters relate to one another. I’ve dropped one or two when they haven’t been enjoyable or easy to write about. Maybe following the path of most interesting characters will yield results. I have no idea though – and the results might in any case not be a book, but just practice. But you know what they say about practice.

    As somebody who has never completed a writing thing and has no books under his belt, and can’t claim to have anything useful to suggest about writing books… I’d recommend taking what you like from what you’ve written so far, and starting fresh on a blank page. Maybe rewrite your favourite scene from a different angle… or pick the most interesting three characters who haven’t had a good scene together, put them into a context, and see what happens… find the theme that first made you want to write the thing, and write about that theme again, from a different character’s perspective.

    Maybe dig around in your old work for the material that seems to still have a shine to it, and give it a fresh go with just that best stuff, swizzle it around, maybe you need to do that once or twice or thrice until the good stuff starts to filter up out of the chaff?

    I feel like that’s what I currently am trying to do. I can’t tell if it’s working but in the absence of any other idea, it seems like a reasonable thing to try. Take the discipline exercise you did with High School Ritual and apply that to this new project: Do a two-week sprint maybe where you write so many words over that time period, minimum word count per day as well, using just the top 20% best stuff from whatever it is you’re thinking of reviving. No other expectations. See what you end up with after that 14 day period.

    Keep going! 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. This is really good advice too! You should probably post this stuff on your blog as your own posts. I think your two-week thing could be a very good exercise. You hit the nail on the head with the discipline thing. And with the character/plot thing–so much of these matters derive from free exploration. I think you’re right not to be too rigid about it. Just let it flow. It’s exciting to find out what will happen.

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      1. I probably should try blogging about the current writing project. I hadn’t thought of that. I’ve become a bit disconnected from the impulse to blog, unless I just need to whine about something.

        The writathon challenge I’m currently doing is definitely forcing me to keep writing. I really want to “win” it. I think it would feel satisfying to have seen it through.

        regardless of what you feel about the immediate result of your H.S. Ritual project, you stuck it out, and wrote some cool stuff. I hope you keep it up!

        Liked by 1 person

          1. I think I will, when it’s over the immediate finish line – which is 55,555 words by May 5. I have about 40k, and should have about 46-48 k by end of the weekend. Your month-of-writing project inspired me to try and hit a target. All I need to do is get words down, then I can figure out what I’ve written later.

            I’m sort of toying with the idea of trying to submit *exactly* 55,555 words by the deadline, so my title will show up at the very bottom of the list of “winners” as having barely scraped by. That might be funny. Once I’ve achieved the mini goal anyway, I’ll reward myself with a self-congratulatory blog post on my more fiction writery blog.

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