Coping with False Starts

(This post previously appeared on the blog Let the Words Flow)

It happens to every writer.  An idea comes to you, and you are floating around the ceiling with inspiration.  For a day or two, or maybe even a week, you’re ecstatic with the beauty of this concept.  You write with an enthusiasm you rarely feel, until…  the good feeling is gone.  

 You can’t say why, but you know this idea has lost your fancy, at least for right now.  That initial spark might rekindle later, so you tuck the work you’ve done so far away somewhere, whether it’s in a folder on your desktop titled “Graveyard,” or a trunk at the foot of your bed full of partial manuscripts.

 What causes this phenomenon, and how can you avoid it?  I can only speak for myself, but here are some things I’ve learned by examining my own short-lived “false starts”:

 You don’t have a story as much as an “idea.”  An idea is a concept or a premise that sounds cool, but has nowhere to go.  “A girl is born with gills” is an idea, but not a story.  A story requires a goal, motivation, and conflict.  The best ideas in the world fizzle out quickly if there’s nothing for the characters to do.  (A good idea can become a good story, of course!  But the process of pulling the story elements together is often the task that reveals that your feelings toward this idea are just infatuation, not true love.)

 You have a story, but you don’t like the person it’s about.  You know that good friend who gets on your nerves so thoroughly, at times you wonder how you stand each other at all?  Generally it’s common experience and loyalty that will see that strained friendship through.  Unfortunately, those factors don’t exist if your characters get on your nerves.  You don’t have a history with your MC.  You can walk away at any time.  And sometimes, that’s exactly what you do.  I’ve gotten to a point with a character where I’ve said, “Why am I wasting my time with you?  I could delete you and create someone brand new!”  Unfortunately, the whole story usually dies with the main character.  A new MC generally takes the story in a whole new direction.

 You come to the sudden realization that you are rewriting your favorite book.  No one sets out to be derivative.  But your favorite (and not-so-favorite) stories have taken root deep in your subconscious mind – the very same place you are trying to coax that next idea from.  It’s possible you didn’t recognize Harry Potter because he was masquerading as a girl born with gills, but when it’s revealed that she is the only one to ever face the evil villain and come away alive, having been protected by a now-dead loved one, Harry can be glimpsed beneath the disguise.   And once you realize you are reinventing a very well worn wheel, you have to walk away.

You thought it was the real thing, but it turned out to be a passing phase.  If you’re going to write a novel, be ready to live with it every day for several years.  Committing to an idea is like committing to a romantic relationship – it’s not enough if you really like it most of the time, you need to (almost) never hate it.  You can get tired of it sometimes, and maybe other times you see that it has faults, but if you find that at times you loathe it, you should move on.  Bad feelings tend to snowball, and the things you don’t like about your story can overshadow its strengths rather quickly.  If you have doubts about a story early on, there’s a good chance you fell in love with the idea of a new idea, and not with the actual idea itself.

So what’s a writer to do?  Can the “false start” be prevented? 

I don’t think false starts can be prevented, because every idea needs to be tested.  In my experience, the best ideas and the ones that flame out quickly seem the same in the earliest stages.  It’s only after putting the idea on paper that I’m able to see if it has staying power.

More importantly, I don’t think false starts should be prevented.  Experimentation is vital to discovering new things.  Testing ideas is a big part of being a writer.  Sometimes, you look at what you’ve started and feel relieved that you haven’t shown it to anyone, but even your worst writing is writing.  You took a chance, and maybe you ultimately shelved the project, but somewhere in that experience,  you most likely learned something.  Something that will inform your next project.  Something that will make you a better writer. 

Writers write.  Not all of what we write will see publication.  Some of it will turn out to be practice.  Some of it will turn out to be false starts.  But none of it will turn out to be wasted.

What are your thoughts on false starts?  Do you think they have value, or do you think they only waste your time?  Please post your thoughts in the comments!