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Posted by on Feb 3, 2014 in Writing | 8 comments

When It’s Okay To Give Up On A Story

When It’s Okay To Give Up On A Story


Never give up on a story. It’s one of the sacred rules of writing, right up there with write what you know, and the common belief that a book fairy dies every time you use an adverb.

Never give up, they say. No matter how dire the writer’s block, no matter how much you may hate your story at the time, you stick with it. Get right back on the horse that throwed you.

And for the most part, I would agree. If you’re always starting stories, but bailing out whenever you hit a snag, you’re not going to be a very successful writer. You’re certainly never going to see one of your stories in print–I hear very few publishers are into half-written first drafts these days.


Sometimes, there are those rare occasions when it really is okay to give up. To abandon your story and chalk it up as a learning experience. So how do you know whether jumping ship on a novel is the worst idea you’ve ever had, or something that might save your sanity and future writing career?

When it’s your first novel


We all love our first novels. We remember the huge rush of pride we felt after typing that last period of our first draft and mentally joined the ranks of “those cool people who actually finish their novels”. Those first ones are our babies, and most of the time we love ‘em to bits.

But the sad truth is, very few first novels are anything but a big, cantankerous, unpublishable mess.

They were our training grounds, the place where we tentatively dipped our toes into what it actually meant to write a story of 50,000 words. We learned how to write a novel, and we made a lot of mistakes. And that will be the case for every story we write—it’s just that in that first one, we made a lot.

I’m not saying all first novels aren’t publishable. But to get most of them to that point, it’s going to take a whole lot more work. Be honest with yourself, decide if the effort is going to be worth it in the end. And if your decision is no, chin up and walk away with no backward looks.


When the idea just doesn’t cut it


One of our greatest fears as writers is that our story idea just isn’t good enough. Sometimes we’re right.

Sometimes the story premise we’re trying to write just doesn’t cut it. Maybe there aren’t enough layers to it, or maybe the idea has already been written to death by a gazillion other writers.

If so, maybe you should consider moving on to something better.


When it’s all about the idea


So while you were brushing your teeth one day you had a sudden idea about a sentient molar filling that achieved self-awareness and took over the world. And you got excited, which was understandable. But then you took that idea and slapped a haphazard story around it, with a bland, unoriginal setting, characters you really didn’t care about, and a plot that we’ve seen in a zillion-majillion other sci-fi stories.

If you really love the idea, keep it. But a fantabulous idea doesn’t deserve a story that is even slightly less than fantabulous.


When nobody likes it


Nothing hurts worse than a “Meh” response from your trusted beta readers on a story you spent months, sometimes years writing. But it happens, occasionally. That’s why we have beta readers—to let us know when our stories stink and help us fix what’s wrong.

But sometimes the beta readers can’t really pin down what they don’t like about a story, or what they think needs to change. It was well-written, it was a cool idea, but they just couldn’t get into it.

And usually at least someone is going to tell you this. There’s no accounting for taste, as some sarcastic and bitter individual once said.

But if this is the response you get from everyone who reads your story, something’s wrong. And sometimes there’s nothing you can do but walk away.

I know. Ouch. But you’ll be glad you did it—it’ll save you countless hours of frustration and wasted energy.


Learn to discern


Abandoning a story is never a decision that should be made lightly. Weigh your own motivations—you should never, ever quit a story just because it got hard.

And even if you decide to put a story out of its misery and move on, don’t think of it as a waste. You’ve made mistakes, you’ve learned stuff, and you’re a better writer than you were before.

Rinse and repeat.


Have you ever given up on a story?



  1. I always encourage authors to finish first drafts. But, after that, there sometimes comes a point when it’s best to recognize that the book’s problems are too overwhelming (and uninspiring) to merit putting any more work into it. Quitting when you’re ahead is not the same as quitting. And when you’ve completed even a poor first draft, you’re already ahead.

    • Amen! Even though it’s easier said than done.

  2. My first novel went blissfully into retirement some time ago.

    I had a few other sci-fi/dystopia ideas that I dropped, but elements of them ended up in /Quintessence/ when I wrote it, so they live on in that…which has an undecided fate right now.

    Because it takes me so long to develop an idea, sometimes it’s hard to tell when I’ve “quit” on something and when it just hasn’t had a chance to resurface yet. Several ideas could go either way at this point.

    • That’s the lovely thing about story ideas–just because you don’t finish one story doesn’t mean you can’t steal from it for future stories. ^_^

      • I’m pretty sure I (accidentally) stole from the story I was “supposed” to write in the 2008-2009 school year. I outlined it for the second Olathe Fiction Class, but switched to Forest of Lies halfway through the year. When I’ve gone to look back at it, I’m pretty sure I couldn’t write it now because I unconsciously borrowed some characteristics and character relationships from it. It’d be a bit repetitive. 😛

  3. I retired my first novel a couple years ago and didn’t look at it at all. I still liked the story and the characters, I just couldn’t fix it, so, I finally just put it away (I thought for good). Now, after writing more I have a new perspective of that first book and know what it needs. So it’s out on my work table again and my second novel has taken it’s place in retirement.
    It was really hard to admit my first book may never ever see the light of day again, but I needed to let it go. It needed to go away for a while. Sometimes novel needs to be put away and not touched. Because we’ve spent so much time staring at all their faults, that’s all we see and it just ends up an even bigger blown up mess. Retirement was the best thing I could do with my first. After not looking at it for a couple of years and learning more about writing, I can rewrite it into what I originally hoped it would be.

    • Excellent point–sometimes abandoning a project doesn’t mean forever… 😉

  4. I’ve abandoned a couple of stories in the past, mostly because the premises weren’t working out for me. You know it’s bad when even you, the writer, doesn’t like it. 😉
    Other times I’ve had to put stories away, or on hold, until I can develop it better. Actually, I have an entire series on hold until my writing techniques have advanced enough to do the story justice.

    Thanks for the post! It was fun and encouraging to read. I especially liked the bit about the sentient molar filling. XD

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