The Writer Who Never Gives Up–Downsides and Upsides

On July 21, 2018, Raina wrote, Has anyone ever had the problem where your current project isn’t working, but for some reason you just can’t let it go and move on to a new project, leaving you in a weird writing limbo? I had a story in the works, but recently there was a book published with the exact same plot (and I don’t mean with the same general story structure; the specific premise and character goals are exactly the same, and it’s a pretty unique concept, not a widely-used trope), forcing me to do a complete overhaul of my story. I’ve spent the past month trying, but everything I come up with either doesn’t work, or is something that is fine objectively but I just don’t want to write. I know that the most logical option would be to accept the unfortunate coincidence and move on since this idea clearly isn’t working (at least for now) and I have a bunch of other story ideas which I’m more excited about, but some lingering stubbornness in me refuses to let go. I think it’s because I’ve been working on this for so long, that I’ve gotten too attached to the idea and am clinging to it out of sheer stubbornness. Any suggestions/encouragement? In this instance my problem isn’t not having something to write, but rather giving up on writing it.

Has this ever happened to anybody here?

Melissa Mead wrote back, Maybe save it in a “later” folder? You’re not quitting. You’re just letting it sit.

I agree with Melissa Mead that may be a good way to go.

I’ve mentioned here before that it took me four-and-a-half years to write Stolen Magic, a miserable four-and-a-half years at that. I got lost. My plot was too complicated and yet didn’t really boil down to much. I wrote hundreds of pages and tossed them. I gave myself a month’s vacation to gain perspective, which didn’t work, either. But, like Raina, I was too stubborn to walk away and start something else. In the end, though, without realizing it, I did do something new, because the story I wound up with has very little connection with the one I meant to write.

I’ve talked about this before, too: In economics, there’s something called sunk costs. My story was a sunk cost, because I’d sunk so much time into it, and if I abandoned it, that time would be lost. I didn’t know the terminology then, but I knew I didn’t want to give up the time.

And in economics there’s also opportunity costs. While I was thrashing about with Stolen Magic, I was wasting the time I might have spent more productively in writing other stories.

I held onto my sunk cost and paid the opportunity cost. (I hope no economists are reading this since I’m probably expressing it all wrong–but the theory is right.)

I’m bringing this up, because it helps us see what’s going on, and economics makes the question less emotional. Our heart may be aching over the possibility of a break-up with our beloved WIP, but we lift our heads and see all the other stories that would like to woo us.

We can ask ourselves what, other than sunk costs, makes the separation so hard. Is it the theme? Our MC? A secondary character? The tone? A particular plot twist? Does this story concern a problem we can’t stop thinking about? I’m more likely to come up with answers if I ask these questions in writing, in my notes.

Once we’ve figured out what we’re so drawn to in our WIP, we can consider how to use that thing or things in a new story. We can make a list! With luck, soon we’re off and running, with something partly old, partly new.

In Raina’s case, the published book and the WIP are very close, but–just saying–suppose she’d never read and never even heard of the other one? She would have had the satisfaction of finishing her story, and maybe, while she was writing, it would have diverged so much from the other that the resemblance became very faint.

Ideas, as you may know, aren’t copy protected. Only their expression is. Probably no one today would dare write a book about a boy in wizard school, but if Rip Van Winkle woke up and wrote such a book, he wouldn’t be sued, and his would probably be very little like Harry Potter.

Bud Not Buddy, an orphan story by Christopher Paul Curtis, which won the Newbery award in 2000, came out in the same year as my orphan story, Dave at Night. When I met Christopher Paul Curtis, he said that if our books hadn’t been published at roughly the same time, one of us would have been suing the other. I didn’t think so. I certainly wouldn’t have felt that he had stolen anything from me. I don’t think either of us lost readers as a consequence. A result, though, was that the two books were often reviewed together, not set against each other, but in tandem.

I don’t read much fantasy these days, and I stay away from fairy tale retellings, because I don’s want to be influenced. If something comes into my head that already flowed out of someone else’s typing fingers, so be it. I’m innocent. I didn’t get it from that other author.

Raina asks for encouragement. All I have to offer is that the writing life isn’t easy, but we are constantly surprised and delighted by the buried treasure our deep brains offer up to us. One project may not work out, but it’s just one of many, with many more to come. Onward!

Here are three prompts:

∙ Write a story about a young ant in ant wizard school.

∙ Pick one of the lost boys in Peter Pan or one of the dwarfs in “Snow White” and give him his own story, weaving in threads from the classic.

∙ Eliza Dolittle of My Fair Lady, who sells flowers in London, is almost but not quite a beggar. Write a scene from her back story that enables her to keep her dignity and self-respect.

Have fun, and save what you write!

  1. Question: How do you keep your princess proactive?
    This book has a bigger romance plot than I’m used to. The way I have it right now, the mc drives off the villain mostly on her own (or at least, she’s the most proactive). But the villain leaves a “spell” on her that she can’t break on her own. She has to trust her love interest, who is the only one who can break it. The climax ends with them together after he’s broken it. I’m going to build up on the struggle to trust him, but I worry that having him save her is too cliche/not proactive enough. I worry about distancing modern readers and having her be too much a damsel in distress. Any thoughts?

    • Usually the MC is the one who changes the most/has the most power to change the plot. But if you want the guy to be the one who does the work of breaking the spell, but the girl to be the MC, let’s see… First of all, I keep thinking that the guy might LIKE having her trust him. Would he want this spell to get broken?

      Is the guy trustworthy? Does she have compelling reasons to feel that trusting him is not ok, or just a general (and reasonable!) dislike of being manipulated?

      What are the conditions for breaking the curse?

      The phrase “Trust but verify” keeps coming to mind. Maybe you could do something with that?

      Maybe she keeps coming up with ways to work around the curse, like “Pst! I think we should go South and deliver this message, but he thinks we should go North, and I have to trust + follow him. Will you take this message South for me?”

      This is a fascinating question! It’s also potentially a bit painful for those of us who have had their trust betrayed, but that could just make it powerful depending on how you handle it.

      I’m afraid I’m mostly brainstorming here, and I may not have computer access until next week, but I hope there’s something helpful here, and I’ll be interested to see how folks respond.

    • As long as you have more scenes where the MC saves herself/other people than when the MC is being saved by others (which I’m assuming you do, since she does the most work in driving off the villain), I think you don’t need to worry too much about the damsel in distress problem. As for the proactive part, I think that even though end result of your MC’s curse is that it’s broken by the love interest, she can still be very proactive during the *process*, actively seeking out ways to break the curse, trying to fight it herself, looking into the past of her love interest since she doesn’t trust him, etc.

      • The villain and the boy can both manipulate emotions. The villain made the mc terrified/panicked unless the villain is within sight. She overcame it to protect others, but now the villain is gone and she’s panicking. The boy can only break it if the mc releases him from an oath that he wouldn’t mess with her emotions–but she’s not capable of understanding while she’s panicking, so she has to trust him blindly. He is mostly trustworthy, but he does have a manipulative streak.

        • Gail Carson Levine says:

          Sounds like one of the problems may be trust. Might the MC’s issue be trusting, not only others but also, most fundamentally, herself? Her victory–being proactive–is to trust the boy because she has come to trust herself, to know that even if he lets her down she’ll be able to right herself in the end.Or, if that doesn’t work, that she can’t come into her own full power unless she trusts others

  2. Not an economist, but I did take an economics course in college, and my understanding of the concept of “sunk cost” is that you be already paid for something, so the whole idea of keeping something to “get your money’s worth” is flawed because you’ve lost that money whether you use it or not. But you’ve got the gist of the concept right, and I suppose it works for your purposes. 😉

    Okay, by my economist hat off and putting my writer’s hat back on. I think sometimes when you get stuck on a project like that, the best thing to do is to put some distance between it and you. Set it aside for later as suggested. Don’t think of it as “giving up” but rather “putting it on the back burner on a low simmer”. I like using this metaphor because a lot of times I get my best ideas when I let an idea “simmer” in the back of my mind for a while as I focus my attention on something else. And that something else doesn’t necessarily need to be another writing project, either. Sometimes it’s necessary to take a break from writing altogether while an idea is on the back burner. You haven’t given it up, but instead are letting the idea become infused with your own unique flavor/perspective as it sits in the recesses of your mind. It might take some getting used to, but if you get the hang of it, you might one day come back to it and suddenly find that you have a fresh start on an older idea.

    • Well, you asked for it 🙂
      Personally, I’m not a fan–at least, not the most cliche version with one “ordinary” girl who somehow catches the attention of two equally hot guys, one brooding and mysterious and one a good friend.
      Besides the cliche, I’m not a fan of having the girl be so indecisive: I feel like the point of a romance, subplot or otherwise, is watching the two characters grow closer and learn to work together. You can’t really do that if you’re vacillating between love interests.

    • I don’t usually like them either, but thinking about it, it all depends on how it’s done, and why. I read one book with a love triangle that would sound very cliche if summed up, but I liked it anyway. There was way more to the story than only the romance stuff, but the MC’s reactions and thoughts to the two young men were part of the whole story theme. It all worked together and was decently believable (rather than “oh, she’s mad at him now, because the romance was going too obviously in his direction”).

      I generally don’t like the whole indecisiveness. It often feels contrived. And we as readers often have a good idea of which way it will go, and it’s annoying when the MC doesn’t “get it” for so long.

      I also get annoyed at the too-many-suitors aspect. Maybe it’s just because I totally can’t sympathize. But I think it also rings of the unrealistic to me: I do have friends who have too many would-be suitors, but so far none of them have told me about having two equally nice guys chasing them at the same time.

      Another reason I don’t usually like love triangles is because I don’t really care for romance in general. Which means you can take my comments about it with a grain of salt! What do I know about it anyway if I don’t read it? 🙂

      Basically, what I think about love triangles is this (it kinda applies to romance in general) : Make the story about more than just it. And avoid the opposite ditch at the same time – make it part of the story. Don’t just tag it on as a crowd pleaser. Don’t stretch the whole indecision thing just to make the fans team up for their favorite. Think carefully about whether it adds or detracts from the rest of the story.

    • I think it all depends on the reasoning behind them; if it’s a forced love triangle between three people just for the sake of drama/showing how desirable the MC is, then in my experience, it usually feels unrealistic and doesn’t work. On the other hand, if it develops naturally from character relationships (as any romance should), then I think it could work. People are complicated, especially teenagers, and it’s quite realistic for feelings to change rapidly, especially in the beginning stages of a relationship (i.e. when you’re not actually dating, and therefore aren’t formally committed). I think as long as you’re not putting in a love triangle for the sake of a love triangle, but simply have two potential love interests that represent different but plausible (and hopefully happy) futures for your MC, that should be fine.

    • Gail Carson Levine says:

      My publisher isn’t sending me out on a book tour for OGRE ENCHANTED, and I haven’t been invited by a library or a school–so not for the time being, alas. I would be happy to come!

  3. I have a more technical question: how do you separate “bad” head-hopping from the natural head-hopping that comes with third-person omniscient POV? My WIP, a MG portal fantasy parody, is written in third-person omniscient, but all of my CPs have pointed out head-hopping as a problem. The POV mostly sticks with the MC Kat for the first 10% (since the other major characters aren’t really introduced/developed until after the inciting incident). After 10%, it still sticks with Kat for most of the time, but has occasional POVs from other characters, major and minor. In addition to omniscient POV feeling the most natural for this story, I chose that POV because the scope of the story is bigger than just the MC, and the POVs of other characters really contribute to the overall storyline. (Think Terry Pratchett: though there’s a main character and a main plotline, there are also lots of side characters who have their own stuff going on in their own scenes, but still tie into the main story)

    I try to keep it to one POV a scene, though sometimes it’s necessary to use two, especially with the scenes between Kat and and her friend, who’s supposed to be a literary foil to her character. The narrative voice is constant througout, so it shouldn’t read like third person limited with switching POVs, and many of the character switches happens in the same chapter. I think the problem is that people don’t realize this is omnicient POV at the beginning, since we follow the main character for so long (the first POV switch is in chapter 5). But at the beginning, there’s really not that much going on with the other characters, so adding their POVs would be redundant.

    I’ve looked at many omniscient POV books in various styles, especially THE LAND OF STORY books by Chris Colfer and the DISCWORLD books by Terry Pratchett. Chris Colfer uses the extreme headhopping type of omnicient POV, where he changes perspective every few paragraphs (as the story demands), with no clear scene breaks. Terry Pratchett uses the multiple POVs with scene breaks type, though I have found a few examples where he changes POV within a scene. My current style is a combination of the two, though I lean more towards Pratchett’s scene break method. Am I head hopping? Should I keep it to one POV per scene, even though it’ll cause the story to lose some development? Is there any way I can make it clear at the beginning that it’s omnicient POV without stating it outright or changing POV where it’s not needed?

    • I haven’t tried to write omniscient (yet?), and it sounds like you’ve done a lot of research, but I’ll try. I wonder if it would help if you started the first couple of paragraphs from a neutral/narrator-only POV before focusing on Kat’s. For instance, Austen’s “It is a truth universally acknowledged…”

      I just picked up “The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe” because I remembered liking the omniscient POV. It starts “Once there were four children whose names were Peter, Susan, Edmund, and Lucy. This story is about something that happened to them when they were sent away from London during the war…”
      Dune starts with some telling that’s clearly not from any one character: “In the week before their departure to Arrakis, when all the final scurrying about had reached a nearly unbearable frenzy, an old crone came to visit the mother of the boy, Paul.”

      So in all three, you can tell right away that this isn’t supposed to be 3rd limited. It seems like it’s a bit older style, but we still love books that feel this way.

      • Here’s another example from one of my favorites, “A Lantern in her Hand” by Bess Aldrich. Again, you can tell from the first two sentences that it’s omniscient. The narrator voice is clear.

        “Abbie Mackenzie was old Abbie Deal’s maiden name. And because the first eight years of her life were interesting only to her family, we shall skip over them as lightly as Abbie herself used to skip a hoop on the high, crack-filled sidewalks in the little village of Chicago, which stood at the side of a lake where the bulrushes grew.”
        It takes four paragraphs for us to slip into Abbie’s thoughts.

  4. i have had difficulty with getting with a book I’ve been working on, and found a solution. I just that of another book, got ideas, and worked on that book. So then my brain could get ideas for the previous book i was working on, now i have 6 books to finish though x3

  5. I have a character with a sort of condition/curse that causes him a lot of pain and discomfort at certain times. I have no trouble describing it because I got the flu recently (the kind where you ache so badly and you’re so weak that you can’t walk across the room), so I can envision exactly how he feels.

    My problem is, I’m worried that I’m making him seem whiny or wimpy when I write about it. He never actually complains about his pain, but I keep mentioning how he’s feeling, or mentioning actions such as rubbing a sore joint, in order to get the point across; however, as I read over it, I feel like he just sounds kind of pathetic. He’s supposed to be a silently suffering but ultimately strong kid, but I’m not sure I’m achieving that.

    Any tips?

    • I think it may help if I include an example, perhaps, so here goes…
      The king cast an apologetic look at Oliver. “I am sorry to take you to the dungeons,” he said. “But I assure you, you are by no means a prisoner.”

      Oliver could not find the courage or strength to reply, so he nodded vaguely as he rubbed his aching arms.

      “It’s just down here,” said the king gently. Sir Rodrick pulled an extra torch off the wall and followed after Oliver, who tentatively descended after the king. It was a spiral staircase, and though there were no windows, there were so many torches that it was brighter in the staircase than it had been in the hallway. Oliver wasn’t sure if he had the strength to make it all the way down; his legs were throbbing, even his skin stinging as his transformation drew painfully nearer.

      “I’ve put a few extra torches up for you,” said the king as he descended the stairs ahead of them. “I see no reason for it to be dark and dreary down here during your stay.”

      Oliver could not find the strength to thank him, so he nodded weakly.

      “Only a bit further,” said the king, who had noticed his fatigue. He shot a glance past Oliver to Sir Rodrick, but Oliver did not know nor care what he was communicating.

      The spiral staircase made him dizzy and seemed to stretch on forever, but at last they reached the floor. It was cobblestone like the paths outside the castle, only this floor had no shoots of moss and grass peeking through the cracks; only dry, hard earth or, in some places, mud.

  6. Gail Carson Levine says:

    He doesn’t seem either whiny or wimpy to me. He seems heroic. But I’m adding your question to my list, because there are aspects I think we can explore.

  7. You can use a cue to let the reader know what he’s going through without having to repeat yourself. For example, earlier in the story the reader finds out that his right elbow aches so badly that he can’t bend his arms, so he grabs it as a reaction to his pain. Later, when ever he grabs his elbow, the readers know what’s going on without going through the details again.
    Are there times when his symptoms are better than others? You could sprinkle those in throughout the story. It would give him a break and give more weight to when he’s suffering.
    Hope I was able to help!

  8. Thank you, Gail!

    And thank you, Poppie – those are some very helpful suggestions I will definitely be keeping in mind! And you’re right, he does get well for a bit sometimes, so I’ll definitely have to be sure to take advantage of those times for giving him a breaking and making a contrast with his unwell times.

  9. Okay, here’s a question. How do you deal with multiple emotional reactions at once?
    My main character Keita just fell into a river and needed to be rescued. She needs to react to the problems she caused her friends, her feelings for her rescuer, and her feelings toward crossing the river in general (it’s the boundary between kingdoms and she’s leaving her home for the last time). I need to cover all three of these, all of them sparked by the same incident, but I don’t want to have a whole lot of emotional internal thought all at once.

    • Do her feelings all revolve around the same thing(I.E. falling into the river)? If the other things kind of come from falling in the river it might be easier to link them together.

      • She comes from a culture that looks down on admitting weakness, so she’s feeling guilty that her weakness messed things up for her friends (specifically, a lot of their food was ruined in the water). For the same reason, she’s embarrassed that she had to be rescued, but she’s also impressed that her rescuer could do things she couldn’t.

        • Well, in situations like that, my favorite way to deal with it is to dump it on them just let wallow in the turmoil a bit, playing out all the emotions they’re feeling (especially having them think in circles – feeling sentimental, then sad, then scared, then grateful, then sentimental again, and so on). Granted, that may just be me! But either way, if she’s from a culture that doesn’t often show weakness (and therefore, perhaps, frowns on being emotional in general?) I can see how that might not work so well! Would it be possible to add the bits of each emotion one at a time, only as things are happening? Such as feeling sentimental when she first sets off across this river; but then switching to feeling regretful once she’s actually thrashing about in the water (on second thought, that would probably just be panic, wouldn’t it?). Then switching again to being impressed by her rescuer as she is being rescued, and then, once she is safe and dry and not in mortal peril anymore, having the regretful feelings set in.

          Or that might not work for your story! But it’s just one method that came to mind….

      • “How do you deal with multiple emotional reactions at once?” Me personally? I break down and cry. But it doesn’t sound like Keita would be likely to do that. (Actually, I doubt I would cry right away if that all happened to me – I’d probably be too full of adrenaline at the moment. I’d probably be more likely to burst into tears later on at a tiny provocation, wonder why I’m crying about it, and then analyze each emotion, all while tears are still coming.) Maybe Keita could work through her emotions bit by bit; Or maybe she could bottle everything up until she blows up at someone. Often people who are afraid to appear weak react in anger rather than allowing themselves to cry (been there too).

        Anyway, it might not be realistic for her to properly deal with all the emotions at once. One, possibly embarrassment, would likely be at the forefront right at first. That would be fairly simple to show with outward and inner reactions, such as not meeting someone’s eye or wincing while looking at the damage or determining to make up for it somehow. As for the feelings for the rescuer, how has she felt about him (or her) in the past? Could her attitude toward him change in some visible way that would show a new respect? The feelings of leaving her country might be more complicated, and harder to pin down quickly. Perhaps some of them could be touched on as they plan to cross, and some of it come up briefly once they’re out of the river on the far side looking back toward home. It might be best to explore the depth of some of those feelings after the immediate crisis has settled down, when the attention of the others is off of her (so embarrassment and shame won’t have to be first in her mind).

        I guess what I’m saying is that emotions can be layered one on top of another. They may not be directed related (sometimes not related at all) but they all add to emotional weight. And sometimes one has to be processed at least a little, in order to set it aside and figure out another one. You can always have her continue to deal with those emotions as the story moves on – she might cringe every time the lack of food is mentioned or even every time she sees a river.

  10. My question is very late, so you may not see this Gail… But I was wondering, if you don’t read fantasy or fairytale retellings anymore, what DO you read?

    Also, the advice from literary agents these days is to be well read in one’s category so that we can be sure we have a fresh take AND can name some comps. Safe to assume that’s not a requirement for you since you’ve been published for so long, unlike us newbies?

    • Gail Carson Levine says:

      All comments come into my email program, so I see them all.

      I’m always a little embarrassed about this: I read for pleasure much less than I used to. When I do, my go-to tends to be Terry Pratchett, and that’s fantasy, so I guess I do still read fantasy. Lately most of my reading has been academic tomes for my historical novel that’s set in the 15th century. Right now, I’m slowly reading one called

      • Gail Carson Levine says:

        My finger twitched and hit Reply.

        THE EUROPEAN DISCOVERY OF AMERICA, in hopes of getting insight into life aboard the ships of the time. When I started the project, however, I read the YA novel, THE PASSION OF DOLSSA and the middle grade novel, THE INQUISITOR’S TALE, not for comps, but to see how these writers handled the period.I liked both books..

        When I was starting out, writers weren’t expected to know about comps. But in those days, I read every middle grade book that was getting any buzz, and I read all the award-winners.

        • Thanks for the honest reply! 🙂

          I get what you mean. The last several books I’ve read have all been either for research purposes or for promised reviews for friends recently published. Not much time left for casual reading!

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