Returning to an unfinished story again and again is risky for many reasons.
Many writers keep coming back to what’s familiar simply because it’s familiar. They don’t want to explore new worlds or get to know new people or make new discoveries. Or, more accurately, they’re hesitant or afraid to.
A comfort zone will do that to you, you know. Keep you locked into the safety and warmth of the only home you have ever known.
There is nothing wrong with loving a story. There is nothing wrong with being proud of what you have created.
But sometimes, it’s time to let go.
Loving a story and its characters is normal — it’s even a good thing. You should never be afraid to invest all the time and energy you can afford to spare into people that don’t technically exist.
Loving what you are writing is one of the many things that makes a story believable, relatable, and good. The more “into” a story you are, the harder you are going to work on it — and the harder you work on something, the higher the chance you will get pretty close to finishing it.
And even if you don’t end up finishing what you started, there is still much to be gained from experiencing what it’s like to tell a story that you would adore reading for the very first time.
As I always say (write?), a reader will never become invested in a story you haven’t poured your whole heart and soul into. Readers notice when you don’t care about the people you are writing about. They notice when you aren’t fully invested in the outcome of the events you’re laboriously laying out in front of them.
They can also tell when you are so deeply in love with the people and places and events you have created that you physically had to separate your hands from your keyboard to avoid extending the story yet another page.
So of course it’s okay to love what you are writing. But it is also okay — and even, usually, necessary — to love your story so much that you both acknowledge and accept when it is time to let it go.
At some point, a story reaches its own version of maturity, at which point you have to faithfully set it free — whether that means releasing it out into the world for people to see or tucking it away into a folder you may never look at again so that you can finally move on.
But saying goodbye to an unfinished project is not failing. Sometimes you have to let things go because they’re finished and there is nothing more you can put into them. But other times, you have to say goodbye — and thank you — to projects that never reached completion.
It’s very easy to think of this as some version of “failing,” but that’s not the case at all. In case you need a refresher, here on this blog we (I) only consider it failing if you never try. Writing anything — even one sentence — is better than nothing, and it’s a success, not a failure.
Putting a project aside is not technically giving up or failing — not really. To give up implies that you sort of just throw everything down and say “eh I’ll get around to finishing it later” and then never do. To actively make the choice to no longer work on something isn’t quite the same thing. It’s deciding to move on. And it can sometimes feel like the most difficult thing you have ever done as a writer.
That might also mean that it’s for the best. That you are truly doing the right thing.
There are still moments I think about this one project in particular and wish I could go back. But for many reasons, I know I can’t — and won’t. I’ve said my goodbyes. I’ve filed away those characters and the things I was able to take away from that story. It is behind me now. And I am a different person — a different writer — because I was able to move on to other things.
It’s time to let go and grow. I held onto one story in particular for a long time. I quite literally wrote a sentence a day for almost a year just trying to convince myself I wasn’t going to give up on it. But the truth was, I had moved on. And more importantly, I NEEDED to move on.
The story that I refused to let go of was actually taking up valuable energy and space that I needed to dedicate to other, more relevant projects. I didn’t even realize that in convincing myself I wasn’t ready to let go, I was doing a very good job of holding myself back. I could have spent that year giving something more important, something more meaningful, my full attention. But instead, I said “no” to letting go — and “no” to growing as a creator.
I know the thought of saying goodbye to something you made, to something you truly care about, is scary and intimidating and even a little sad. But you really don’t know what you are missing out on until you force yourself to move on. Our comfort zones only stretch when we force ourselves to venture outside them. We only learn new things about ourselves — and the world — when we dare to explore.
This doesn’t mean that a character you love or a setting you can’t get out of your head — even a particular theme or message you want to get across — can’t be reused in a different project you work on somewhere down the road. When something’s on your heart, of course you want to make sure that “something” gets written about.
Just because it’s not the exact same story as the one you started with doesn’t mean it doesn’t have the potential to have the same kind of impact.
Recycling is good for the world. Even when it’s your own unused idea. (It is not good when it’s an idea you’ve already used or, you know … someone else’s idea.)
All wonderful things must come to an end.
Whether you’re finishing up something or you’re quickly realizing you likely never will, always remember to let yourself be proud of what you have managed to accomplish.
Moving on does not erase what has taken place before. You wrote things, you learned things, you succeeded.
Don’t stop now. Keep going. Keep learning new things through new projects.
Grow. You deserve it.
Meg is the creator of Novelty Revisions, dedicated to helping writers put their ideas into words. She is a staff writer with The Cheat Sheet, a freelance editor and writer, and a 10-time NaNoWriMo winner. Follow Meg on Twitter for tweets about writing, food and nerdy things.