Nathan Bransford, Author


Wednesday, April 21, 2010

When Do You Know if a Project is Going to Work or Not?

I'm sure we all have novels that we gave up on after 10, 20, 50 pages, because while we were excited at first it just didn't end up working. When do you reach that point when you know a novel is going to work? When do you know when it's an idea you want to stick with to the very end of the novel?

As reader Roberto Suarez Soto asks:

You may start your book strong and confident, or doubtful and hesitating. But there's a point when you know that it's going to work ... or not. Maybe your initial strength diluted away, or maybe your initial doubts created a lot of conflict that ignited your plot. By that point your book should have momentum, should propel itself onwards; if it doesn't, you should hit "delete" and start anew.

When do people reach that point? After the first chapter? After the first paragraph? After the first word?






144 comments:

Cameron said...

As for me, I am still not sure. I get an idea, and I can write the entire draft, but it isn't until I read it back later that I can tell if there is something worthwhile hiding in the pages. Part of that may be hitting the wall at some point during the draft of every novel, and trying to discern "the wall" from "the bad idea."

ryan field said...

About six months ago I started a book that I thought would work in the first person. But by the end of the first chapter I knew it wasn't going to work. So I deleted it and started from scratch.

Chris Ing said...

The point where I know I have to abort a draft is when I start adding a ton of characters. That's usually an indicator that the characters I've created are either not fleshed out enough or don't have enough going on in the plot to hold interest.

It doesn't mean I'll give up on an idea, it just means I need to go back to the beginning and polish my approach.

Christina Lee said...

AHH good one. I have two that I began and shelved. How were they different than the one I am currently loving and revising? I lost my passion for them early on, and then I had to ask myself some serious questions. Am I writing to a trend, is my idea too over-the-top, etc.

Serenity said...

Yea, mine's complete and has been through several revisions, and I'm still not sure. I want my agent to say it's working. Then I'll need an editor to say it. But I'm afraid I won't really know for sure until a readers says, "Yep, it worked for me." Tell me this is a healthy perspective instead of proof I don't have what it takes.

Andrea said...

It's different places, but I know it because it's the place where I lose interest. If I'm bored anyone else reading it will be too. Sometimes this just means I need to stop writing and go for a walk. When I come back and read it again and I still don't feel like writing anymore, I start something else.

150 said...

I don't leave novels half-finished; I muscle through, because I find a lot of value in finishing what I start. So either I know within about 3,000 words that it's going nowhere, or I don't admit it until the first edit. Probably not the smartest way to do it.

Susan Quinn said...

For me, I have to know why I'm writing a book. Sometimes it's not to have a finished, publishable tome at the end. Sometimes it's to learn craft, or explore voice - it may morph into a full-fledged book along the way, but it doesn't have to start that way.

Paul and Karen said...

I know after the first page. If it's not "talking" to me, I'm not writing it. I usually start with an outline of characters and story arc and end up in Venice. LOL!

Karen

Jeannie said...

When I do have my doubts, I work on something else. I can be halfway through a piece and realize I’ll never resolve something then switch to another story. Coming back to a story after a little hiatus can make me read it with fresh eyes. If I’m not inspired after a three rounds of this, yeah, it’s done. I’ll file it away; maybe someday I’ll be able to use the idea differently.

Chibi said...

Sometimes I can tell it won't work when I'm outlining, but I do have novels that just don't work. One, I got through a full draft and even started to revise it before realizing that while parts of the idea could be salvaged, most of it needed to be trashed. And another I began in first person before realizing it just didn't work. I think everyone has those moments, unfortunately.

Ted Cross said...

I don't know. I have only ever tried writing one book, and I finished it. I think it is pretty good, but I don't yet know what others will think.

LurkerMonkey said...

I have no idea ... I'm on the third complete retelling of the same story and I haven't gotten it right yet.

Jennifer Walkup said...

Totally depends. I've written one chapter, a few chapters, even a few paragraphs before abandoning. And on more than one occasion, an entire novel that when all was said and done, didn't work.

Christi Goddard said...

I get an idea that I like and I start writing. My sounding board is several readers who get a chapter at a time. I don't send one until I'm proud of it, and their responses let me know if I'm on the right path. My first MS changed course a couple of times, but my current WIP is going full steam ahead and emails asking for more, so this one I'm pretty hopeful of. These are fellow writers, btw, not family members ;-)

Terry Odell said...

Just as I finish reading every book I start, I feel compelled to finish every book I start writing. They may change drastically, but I haven't yet abandoned one completely.

Bethany Elizabeth said...

I think I'm too close to my projects to ever kill them, really. I keep them all, and if the plot doesn't work, I just set them aside for editing when I have more time, and move on to a new story I know works. I don't think I've ever actually given up on one.

Ben Carroll said...

I give up too soon, I think. If it's not great after 10k, I will often either rewrite or abandon.

But on the occassions I persevere beyond that (because it's *never* great after 10k) it gets better.

Clay said...

The book I'm currently working on is my first. I'm going to push to the end so I can at least say I did it. I think I have a great story (says the guy that's never been published) but, at the risk of sounding generic, only time will tell. I'm hoping to use this as a gauge so that my future efforts will be more efficient.

Kathryn Packer Roberts said...

I start having doubts when the revision process begins taking too long. HA.
But, I don't give up, or haven't yet. If I am 'In Love' with the characters and passionate about the story, there MUST be something there.

I WILL MAKE IT WORK =)

JES said...

10K words: feels good. But still flirting at the bar, so to speak.

30K words: the book and I have just exchanged phone numbers, email addresses, and Twitter/FB names. Now I know something's gonna happen, and the pulse is starting to race.

[Disclaimer: I've never flirted with ANYONE at a bar, let alone exchanged phone numbers etc. with them. But this how it goes, right?]

Mike Martinez said...

For me, it's the third (or final) act in the book. I usually know the rough storyline when I begin, and I generally know where I want the characters to end up. If, by the time I'm writing the big ending, it's just too big a stretch to get things where I want them to go, then I have a major problem.

Jaimie said...

I haven't written long enough to know the answer to that question.

I've been going for 5 years, having finished a novel and a few other small projects, but I've never had a moment when I KNOW I'll never lose interest.

John Baron said...

My first one I abandoned after 10K when I realized it was wrong -- wrong characters, wrong genre, wrong for me.

My second I got all the way through 95K finishes, revised several times... but it just doesn't work. I've tried for 6 months to MAKE it work by some pretty massive changes. I've started on another project now; maybe I'll be able to come back to the other one in a year or two and figure out exactly what it needs. There's always hope.

Chuck H. said...

Chalk up one more for the stubborn fools who never give up. I may stop working on a project for a time but I know I'll come back to it later. At least this way I'll always have something to work on if I hit a dry spell.

Ink said...

I know before I start writing that I'll finish the book. Part of that is because I don't start writing right away. The idea has to prove itself first. The stories that gain a momentum and a life of their own are the ones I write, and if they have that much momentum (to start me writing) I know I'll finish (beginnings are harder than endings).

And I have complete confidence that I can make the story something I like, that I think is worthwhile. I know that. Will other people like it? I can't say. That takes readers, and even that is always an imperfect scheme. For every book that's ever been written there have been people who liked it and people who didn't. The only difference is in how many of one and how many of the other...

Lynn said...

I post a good of it online and do minor advertisement for it. If I'm not getting enough feed back or returning viewers then I know I did something wrong.

Other things being the fear of continuing on. If i'm to scared to continue (I've completed other works before) then I know its my gut feeling that this just isn't going to work.

Shaun Hutchinson said...

Geez, great topic as I just went through this. But I know a book isn't working when I have everything planned out, know all the characters, am 30k words in, and don't care what happens next. I usually keep trying to work on it, but when I dread sitting down because I'm bored, I know the story's gotta go.

I know I've got a keeper when, like all the books I love to read, I can't wait to sit down and write what comes next. When I stay up for hours daydreaming of the next scenes, when I'm writing dialog and character names on napkins. That's when I know I'm going to finish.

Renee Miller said...

I know if it will work when I'm outlining. If I can't write a simple summary of what it is I want to write, then the idea won't work. I either reconsider and change it up a bit or set it aside for later.

Before I started outlining, I usually knew within the first three chapters that it wouldn't work. If I was bored with it, I knew the reader would be.

Kelli said...

For me, it's never been a number. I've tried to tell stories that were somewhat based on my [albeit stupid] life, and I usually hit a wall when I realize I'm about to reveal something about someone that they wouldn't want the world to know.
So I've moved to straight fiction. And finally making headway.

Tracy said...

If I have enough drive in the idea to start, then story then I know I'll finish it. I also accept that it may take umpteen revisions to get it "To Work", but it'll get there.

Mayowa said...

I think the answer is tied to the reason for writing that particular story.

If it is a story that nags and yells at you to be written, then it should probably never be put down.

Sure there might be false starts and periods of lackluster passion (like i'm going through with my second), it seems the solution there is to keep trying until the right plot structure/pov/characters etc. become visible.

Kimber An said...

It all depends on how you go about writing a book.

I work it all out in my head before I ever sit down to write, so I know. Besides, I have *so many* stories in my head that I never really get around to ones that don't work.

Christina Adams said...

This is a very interesting question and I've enjoyed reading the different responses. I like to let my ideas marinate for months before I decide to work on them. If the idea still sticks with me and I continually find new things to add to it then I know it is something I want to work on.

Moira Young said...

I don't know if I've ever given up on something ... yet. I have ideas that I think still have potential, sitting in a digital drawer.

I like ripping things apart and putting them back together. So I guess it's not "giving up" so much as it's "recycling/reworking/transforming them into something useful".

Zachary Grimm said...

With my first draft of this first novel, I definitely hoped it would work as soon as I got the inspiration. But I guess I KNEW it would work once I hit 50,000 words.

As for my WIP, I THINK it will, but I may not know until I reach the aforementioned word count. :)

GerriB said...

Somewhere between pages 25 and 32. Always. I hit that wall, and things just stop if they're not supposed to work.

sex scenes at starbucks said...

For me that happens in short stories. Well, happened. I never start one without knowing where I'm headed. I plot my novels, write pitch lines, query graphs, synopses and story board them, and I ask agents and editors at conferences, as well as other writers, if it sounds like a viable, interesting idea before I ever write a word of a novel. Life is too short to waste time on a bad book, especially if it's mine!

JDuncan said...

The way I work, being the excessive plotter that I am, I know fairly well before I start if it will work. If I can't get the details figured out in the initial stages, I know that it likely won't work on the page. That said, I've started other projects before that never got completed, but that was mostly a discipline issue. I found a new idea I liked more and started something else. That doesn't mean I won't ever go back to the partials. Since I know now how I work best though, I don't believe I'll ever have a project that plain fails part way through.

Cyndy Aleo-Carreira said...

Twice I've gotten halfway through and realized it was way too dark and depressing. There wasn't any fixing. Even with an outline, sometimes until you actually get into it, you can't know it's going to fail.

WriterGirl said...

when i start avoiding the laptop. it means i've lost interest in the story so it's probably not going anywhere

Alyssa said...

It's the characters, for me. If I have a sense of them as real people with emotions and desires and quirks, I really want to tell their story. If I can't almost feel them breathing, there's no point and I just sack it all. I've had what I thought were really great ideas, but the character realism wasn't there, and I couldn't write any more than a few dry pages.

Anonymous said...

I am working on the first third of the first revision of the first draft of my first novel, so I am no expert and can only say that I haven't given up. So far.

There have been some tough times, but now that I feel like I "know" my characters, the revision process is going much smoother than the 100k-word first draft did. And faster. I'm also much happier with the story.

Perhaps any idea can be salvaged if you can maintain your passion for it.

Dawn said...

I'm Queen of "The First Three Chapters" - after that the momentum fades unless I've REALLY plotted it out. I have about a dozen "first three chapters" books in my desk drawer.

Linda Godfrey said...

I don't think I know until the bitter end. I always discover things that aren't working as I re-read and revise, but plow on because the process will teach me something, regardless. Then if it sucks, it sucks but at least I've told the story. And maybe someday I will know enough to go back and fix it.

Ganz-1 said...

Until someone tells me it sucks and question me why I continue with it.

Or else I won't know.

Carolyn said...

I have one doorstop book, all the others have been published. The doorstop book was written more or less without a contract and without an agent. That is, without the pressures that get me into "fix this sucker" mode.

All my other books (other than the first) were written under deadline and with every single one I have reached a point where I KNOW I'm going to fail, that the story can't be saved and ohmygod what was I thinking that I could ever do this?

It doesn't matter where in the writing of this book the feeling crops up, it does and it will, and (so far) I have been able to fix all my POS books, because at some point they're all a POS.

Learning to fix your POS book is a valuable skill. I no longer expect to end up with the idea I started with, but that is closely related to my writing process.

Jess said...

When I found the inspiration for the novel I'm currently revising, I knew it was special. It has changed so much since the original idea that it's hard to remember how I knew, but I guess the best way to describe it is just that it felt different than the other books I had failed to write. I really cared about the characters and the story and the world they live in. It mattered--maybe not to anyone else, but it mattered to me.

About half-way through, I hit a point where I stopped writing. I still cared, but I didn't see a purpose for the book. It was a great story, but there was very little that was original or fresh to keep my interest. I read somewhere that your feelings as you write a piece will reflect the feelings of your readers. If you are excited, scared, sad, happy, etc. as you write, there is a good chance your readers will feel that, too. But the same goes for disinterest and boredom.

I didn't want to give up on the book because I had already dedicated several years of my life to it, and I still felt strongly that it had potential. It took a major shift in focus and HUGE changes to the plot to turn it into something worth writing. Once I let go of what I wanted for the story and allowed it to tell itself, it turned into something beautiful.

So even if it is never read by anyone outside of my circle of family and friends, I still think this project "worked", as it significantly improved my writing and proved to me that I can do this.

Taryn Tyler said...

I never abandon a piece entirely. I think any story idea can work. Eventually. If you put enough time into it. Unfortunately no one has enough time to write every story idea that ever runs through their heads. I usually will put a piece away (for later I tell myself) when the call of another story is stronger. Unfortunately this leads to many --many--- half finished projects.

Christina said...

With fantasy full length manuscripts, I've generally written the first draft by hand pretty quickly (we're talking in a length of time between a couple of days and a couple of weeks) then typed it up on the computer, fleshed it out, reorganized, and then started my obsessive editing. I know that it's going to work when it flows in the handwritten.

With science fiction full length manuscripts or any short stories I generally write the first draft on the computer. It's more precise and I find that the feel of a piece is sharper that way. It feels more technical. I know those are going to work if I don't get bored with it in the first five pages/chapters.

Rick Daley said...

When ink is drying on the contract.

(Not you, Bryan, actual ink ;-)

Ink said...

I was a little worried there for a moment...

Josin L. McQuein said...

I think this is the thing that trips so many "idea" people up.

They get what they think is an awesome idea for a story, but don't have any of the story itself in mind. They fire off twenty pages or so without a direction in mind and then can't sustain the storyline because there was no real plot to go with the idea and no ideas to act out the plot. Then, they get bogged down in trying to make those twenty pages work instead of tossing them out or reworkig them.

Carolyn V. said...

Usually by chapter two.

T. Anne said...

I once 'pants' a novel and end up with 50k of trouble. That's the only novel I gave up on. Now I use a loose guide to get me to the end. If I over outline, I seem to kill the novel. However, every now and again I hit the end and still feel meh about the work. Those novels I just consider practice.

Christine Macdonald said...

When you feel it in your heart. If it works for you, you're already there. If you attract an audience, even better. It has to work for you, the writer, otherwise there is no point.

V said...

I know that a project will work when I feel the need to write it down.

I do most of the plotting, character building, world building, dialog bits, and so on for my novels in my head before I ever sit down at the computer. This "pre-writing" stage occurs when I'm working out, cleaning, or doing other things that require physical effort, but little or no mental effort. If the story idea survives that, it gets transferred from neurons to electrons via keyboard.

The competition for brain space with the other stories in my head and develops a "survival of the fittest, most interesting" scenario. When a story gets to the point where no other stories can distract me, I start typing. As a result, a lot of stories have come and gone and never seen the light of day. I also have stories I've been mentally working on for over a decade as well as new ideas to be mulled over.

Of those "survivors", I have two in active keyboard production. I find it easier to edit and revise if I have been away from the story for a while.

Lydia Sharp said...

This is going to sound like a bunch of made up crap, but I actually know before I start writing it. By the time I get those first words down, I'm fully committed to finishing the project.

Fact: Lydia has never given up on a novel yet, and she doesn't plan to don that quitter's attitude anytime soon.

Don't hate me because I finish my stories. I probably just do more planning ahead than most authors. If it doesn't feel like it's going to work, I don't even start it.

reader said...

Eighty pages in, unfortunately.

Unless I finish it, and then try and get an agent for it and can't. Then it's more like 240 pages.

D. G. Hudson said...

At some point, you may feel the momentum starting to fail, or you reach a point where it's not clear what should happen next. I usually leave the project for a few days or weeks, while working on another.

After that time, if I can't revive it, or generate new interest in it, it's scrapped. No sense wasting time trying to revive a dying ember.

I keep a notebook of ideas that could be generated into stories or novels, so I always have another to work on. Sometimes you have to play with the idea a bit before it develops. Recognition of when we should put a project aside is a learned skill, with a good dash of 'gut-instinct'.

I just file the idea away for later use if I can't bear to part it. Files can always be ditched later.

Melissa Gill said...

I've never given up on a MS all together, but I have a few under the bed with the dust bunnies. Oh, and one that's about half written, where the voice went away and I haven't been able to call him back. Someday, I hope that voice will re-appear. With the others, I hope to become a good enough writer to re-write them the way they deserve to be written someday.

scott g.f.bailey said...

I'm with Ink: "I know before I start writing that I'll finish the book. Part of that is because I don't start writing right away. The idea has to prove itself first." I had a project that I'd outlined in detail, down to a list of scenes for each chapter and a big graphic chart of plot and character arcs, and I just knew that the story didn't work for me and I couldn't write it. So I wrote something else instead. I've figured out that the more I have to work in the outlining phase to come up with something attractive to me--the more I have to convince myself--the less likely I am to care enough about it to write it out. My other test is that if I can't make myself write a full chapter in one or two sittings to get the book started, then I should just bag it.

D. G. Hudson said...

Correction to my last sentence -- That's if I can't bear to part 'with' it (the idea).

katharrmann said...

There's no magic page number for me. When I'm reading ... it's when I suddenly realize I don't care about the characters. At all. That's when the book gets tossed shut.

Kristi Helvig said...

I've finished every ms so far (and know I'll finish the 2 I'm working on now) because I think they work. However, as to whether they actually work or not, I'll have to wait until I jump into the query pool before I know for sure. :)

Lyla said...

I also just finish whether I'm excited about a project or not. I'm easily distracted/discouraged and it's better to learn the discipline of finishing what I start at the moment. I haven't done it enough times!

However, I usually have the idea bouncing around in my head for a while before I decide it's worth writing.

Mike Jastrzebski said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Mike Jastrzebski said...

I outline so I usually finish what I start, but I have tossed a manuscript after as many as 50 pages if it doesn't seem to be working for me.

Alice Luther said...

When it surprises you over and over again . . . when subtle details connect in perfect twists—seemingly on their own accord . . . and when characters have life, and breadth, and personality independent of the writer . . .

D. G. Hudson said...

After reading a few more comments, I'd like to add that I also do a lot of pre-planning and mapping.

(Rick Daley and INK keep me smiling - thanks for the humor.)

Perry said...

I'm a plotter so I know it's going to work when I have plotted out the first act. If I can't get to that point, it's not going to work and I will spend (waste) a lot of time getting to the point where I accept that it's not going to work.

Jeni Decker said...

You know this was a really interesting question. It's never happened to me before, so I had to figure out why. I think it's because I do a good 30% of my writing in my head before I even sit down to the computer.

The main thing, I think, is that every story has to start with me actually having something to say.

A sort of one sentence in my head that sums the book up. What it's about. Not plot or a logline. But what the story says in the grand scheme of things.

What I want the book to, in the end, convey to the reader. So if I've got nothing to say, I probably wouldn't even start that book.

Steppe said...

It can be an organic natural death if your writing along and have no word count objective. An idea that works as a short story has more archetype/cliche characters and makes some small victory for this-x & that-x defeating that-y & this-y and the plot closes out because a longer conflict was not present.

If in the early chapters you state the story is a prelude to a great conflict; then if it gets shelved its because the conflict really wasn't important enough to justify getting the reader to like and dislike the main and supporting cast members.

Proofing a script numerous times makes
injecting key elements to use as plot line resolutions easier.

Personal quirk I guess but; short stories are "happy failures" and long form novel length are "neutral success" as long as they are resolved and on the shelf.

Maybe that gag: "Only so many bunnies should jump out of a hat per story" When the plots moving along gags and comedy relief are good indications of pace for the reader. But if the story is all chase scenes and sudden murders of secondary players then maybe the story is in as much danger as the supporting cast.

Wildheit said...

You mean there are people out there that start writing their manuscript at the beginning?

Forgive me the pun, but what a novel idea.

Francis said...

Stephen King in his memoir said he and many of his writer friends start writing spontaneously, without pre-planning and go from there... as opposed to those who plan ahead.

I'm one of those who plan. I'm not anal, I'm a perfectionist. I simply cannot dive into something without having at least an idea of where I am going. That's how I was educated already in high school all the way into medschool. Before I began writing my novel, I had a clear concept and premise with the backstory all figured out, as well as characters, even though I had no names yet.

I began writing and soon found out no amount of mapping, planning, research or drawings will help you get from each of your "writing lighthouses" to the next. What I call writing lighthouses are sort of plot navigation markers... the first thing I did was write the ending, then the beginning, and I went from there.

I think I imagined the end first, it was very tactile and alive in my head. This allowed me to know exactly where I was heading, and without having to worry about providing a "good" or "satisfactory" end, the relieved pressure allowed me more versatility in developing the story. I also didn't want to go over a certain word count (like write a 130k novel and edit 35k to bring it down to a more acceptable 95k afterwards). J.J. Abrams said he did this with Lost, already by season 3 he knew season 6 would be the last, so he and the writers could pace the show correctly by spacing the plot as they wanted, so not to give the illusion of a botched ending had ABC canceled the show early.

So I knew where each climaxes of each act should go, but getting from point A to B, then to C, D all the way to Z... well, planning doesn't help one bit. Imagination and tenacity is the only way to go.

The turning point involved one big decision I needed to take. It's a science fantasy novel, and I wasn't sure if I should create a secret and massive city, or go with a simpler urban setting... I went with the first, it worked beautifully, and that is when I knew the novel (hell, the whole premise) would work.

I think I actually heard a click in my head.

It felt really, really good. I confirmed this with my friend and first beta reader (he got the 2nd draft) when I told him the premise and his eyes sparkled.

Abby Stevens said...

Ha. I constantly feel like doing that. It's so much easier to write until you get stuck and then start a new project. However, after starting 3 books, I decided I needed to finish this one, even if it turns out to be junk (which I don't *think* it is, I'm just kinda stuck right now).

I think knowing when to move onto another project isn't something clearly defined - you know when you know. :D

Marilyn Peake said...

I usually know either a few chapters in or certainly by the middle of a novel if it’s going to work. With a short story, sometimes I only know toward the end of writing it. I get the sense that a project will work if the story continues to flow, I begin to see symbolism developing within the pages, and the plot takes shape with enough conflict in it. If I hit a dead end that I can’t get past or I find that I can only "tell" rather than "show" large amounts of the story, I know the project is one that doesn’t really work. Right now, I’m editing a novel that was very difficult to write. Even with edits, I sometimes hit a wall. With this latest novel, I keep breaking through the walls and solving the problems, and I find that very rewarding. In order to know whether or not a project might work for readers, I always give the final version to a professional in the publishing industry and ask their opinion.

Liesl said...

It depends on the love and commitment I began with. If I'm just testing the waters, dating my idea, then I give up fairly quickly when things go south. No reason to torture myself.

But there comes a point when I fall in love with and marry an idea. Then I refuse to give up until I've done all that I can and yet the story still dies, meaning there is no way to revive the lifeless mass of words stashed in my computer.

It doesn't always have to be burning passion, but as long as I know the story has a heartbeat, I keep going.

Marilyn Peake said...

Rick Daley and Ink,

LOL. You guys make me happy I read the comments. :)

bcomet said...

I love this question.

I have had a few starts that needed research trips to continue that have not yet become possible, so they stalled there.

Maybe someday for those.

For the ones that work *at least for me anyway* I think it is when the characters form AND the plot forms.
When the characters and the plot have a life of their own, then it's alive.

Kait Nolan said...

Oh great question. I think for me it varies from book to book. I don't believe in writer's block in a traditional sense. If I'm blocked, it means that the book is telling me something is WRONG. If I haven't figured out what it is after a month or two, it's a sign that story isn't ready to be told.

Kimberly Kincaid said...

Rick- HAHA! Made my day :)

And Lydia...I'm with you! I toss around a lot of ideas in my head, but I never actually write anything unless the idea evolves into...more. I know a novel is going to work- *really work*- when it wakes me up in the middle of the night and begs to be written. I have to keep a notepad by my bed so that I can scribble *on my way downstairs* to the computer, and that's when I know. It's like falling in love. You don't know when or where it will happen, or with whom, but when it does...wow. Once the words start coming together, I am in- hook, line and sinker.

This is not to say that I don't edit substantially- as a matter of fact, I riped out the last 100 pages of my 2nd MS and completely re-worked the entire conflict resolution and ending. I will change everything if it needs changing...but I don't abandon projects once I start writing.

Call me a glutton for punishment. What can I say? I like a challenge :)

Great post, Nathan!

Deni Krueger said...

When I would rather watch tv instead of working on my story... that's when I know it's a bust.

Bane of Anubis said...

Orange Question: Yep, ink on contract, book on shelf... otherwise, failure.

Other questions: NFC

silvia said...

Mmm hard to tell... I guess it's kind of a romance thing between you and the story.
There are times when I give myself in to the act of writing without any hesitation! Totally INFATUATED with the story!!!
(Who cares if it turns out to be a best seller or just a miserable draft in my drawer! The passion, and the adrenalin that comes from the sole experience of writing the piece is well worth it!
( Like a one night stand... you're not really thinking about the tying the knot, right? hee,hee)
However, there are other times when the romance starts with some kind of "flirting". Then it grows into a more "meaningful relation" between you and the novel! Until the time is done for both to take it to a next step. Then you get this gut feeling about the story being great and you stick with it! or you may get get cold feet and simply run away! :)

bowenwriter said...

I recently completed my second novel and was asked to write a sequel to the first one. I spent about a week outlining the sequel and then started really thinking about it. My gut told me that there was just not enough there to justify a sequel. I am however working on a sequel to the second book and I find myself wishing I could just think the words onto the page! I would say a good way of knowing is whether you can honestly feel the book coming to life. If you are forcing it, then others will see that too.

J.J. Bennett said...

I'd say when you loose faith in the project yourself. I believe all stories can become something. It's whether or not you are willing to give it what it needs. Sometimes you have to examine what's standing in your way in the process. It could be a scene that doesn't work, a dirction you're finding yourself going that seems all wrong, or a portion of the idea it's self could be something that just didn't work. Whatever it is, it's your job to straighten it out. You created it didn't you?

Michael Pickett said...

I don't have a set amount of time, but when I start to realize that no secondary ideas are joining the primary idea in my mind. One good idea can only take me so far. I need multiple good ideas to fit together in creative ways for me to know that something is going to work.

Jenny said...

Several months in, after completing the draft.

K Simmons said...

If I can write an outline, I can write the novel. That outline may change in the course of writing, but for me, the process of identifying main characters and figuring out what story they have happens before I even put my fingers on the keyboard. Once I've passed that hurdle it's just a matter of butt in chair and edit, edit, edit.

Aimee said...

I got to 35,000 words before I ditched it. It took almost a year to get that far. Man, it was a terrible story. But I learned a lot from it. Not every word you write has to be publishable material. Maybe in a couple months (or years) I'll take another look at it. It might have potential...

Kristin Laughtin said...

It varies. 30,000 words is a good point for at least realizing I've started the novel in the right place. I've gotten to 80,000-100,000 words before realizing there was no way I was going to fit everything into one book, though, and would have to restructure it so the first book could stand alone. I probably wasted a lot of time trying to make it work before conceding that 1) it would have to be heavily revised no matter what, and 2) it would probably have to be a series if I wanted to follow the story arc I had outlined to completion. (You'd think the outline would have let me know it wasn't working, but no! The outline seemed great. Sometimes a story just isn't as wonderful as you thought it'd be when you try to put flesh on it--or maybe you're just draping the flesh wrong and you could make it work after letting it sit for some time and gaining some perspective.)

Kelly said...

With my first four (unpublished as yet) novels, I was able to push past any doubts and keep writing, but now I'm writing a YA novel and I'm stuck at four chapters. I'm just not "feeling" it like I did the others, and I'm not sure what to do. I think the problem is that there is necessarily very little humor in it (because of the serious subject matter) and that's depressing me.

Tabitha said...

That's a tricky question.

If I start writing a story, then I've already formed a connection to the plot and characters. As a result, this story means a lot to me, and it's not something I will give up on easily.

So, if something's not working (I can usually figure that out early on), then I take a step back to figure out *why* it's not working. Is something missing? Is it too chaotic? Is there some aspect of writing that I need to learn? Do I need to do more research?

If I ask myself all these questions and still don't have an answer, then I will set the story aside for a while and come back to it later. I have a MG novel that I started almost eight years ago, and I finally figured out how to write it last year. It's fairly solid now (good enough to send to my agent, anyway), and I'm pretty proud of it.

I have a YA that I started over a year ago, but it was clear that something wasn't working. So I set it aside, and I'm just now getting an inkling of what will make it work. I have no idea when I'll have a solid draft, but I'll keep plugging away at it until I figure it out (and I will). :)

Jil said...

Before I begin, I think a lot about my characters, the setting and what I want to happen. I have to like all of that before I start. The only novel I stopped writing was one that got too depressing but I went back to it later, with a different angle, and enjoyed our time together.

Naomi Canale said...

I give up on a story when I loose interest and it's nothing but blab! I'm A.D.D so if I can't read what I've written a million times over I hit the...NEXT

TraciB said...

With my first novel, I knew it was going to work if I just persevered and kept going back to it no matter how many times I felt stuck.

With this second one, its sequel, I'm in the 13th chapter and wondering if I need to shorten the story arc. Problem with that is, the climax of the book needs to happen at a certain point in time, and the story is about five months from that point right now. I'm not sure how to resolve the situation without sacrificing my original idea or doing a major rewrite.

So to answer your question, I apparently have no idea how or when to evaluate whether or not a story will work...

AndrewDugas said...

It's like asking an architect when he knows a house is going to work. As much as I rely upon inspiration, ideas that won't go away, etc., I think one needs at least a rough blueprint before really getting under way. Nothing written in stone, but certainly more than just starting to type.

Granted, I allow an exploratory phase in which I'll write out scenes that come to me (don't we always start out with one or more specific and compelling scenes in mind?) and work out an arc indicated by those scenes.

So I guess I know it's going to work when I have enough scenes worked out and an pretty solid idea of the arc and storylines.

That's when I really sit down to start writing.

Other Lisa said...

When I type "End" and sometimes not even then.

Erica75 said...

I'm guessing that I have about a dozen three-page starts lying around. So, for me, 3 pages adn they languish. I have a couple hovering at the 30-page stage and those are keepers, just wasn't the right time. My first completed (60,000 word) ms - heard voices for a month, wrote for 3 months, knew I had something. Wish that would happen everytime, but of course, it doesn't for anyone (human, that is).

Victoria Dixon said...

I agree with Cameron. The only real way to know if it has a shot is to complete a first draft. Find the plumb parts and rework from there.

Kate Lacy said...

Since I began writing stories instead of making plans for doing it someday in the future, I have been reading farther than before. If I begin to get bored or confused by a story, I remember what the writer has gone through, and I skip 5-10 pages and begin again. I might do this 3-4 times until I've jumped to about half-way. If I still don't care what-who-why-when, I pitch it back into the library bag. But I want to recommend Edward Bloor's "London Calling" that began as a private school-miserable boy story, and after my first skip, became so wonderful as a generational mystery, I went back and read every single page, and then checked out the audiobook to 'hear' the voices again. Wonderful story, beautifully and slowly developed. I give it to you as a gift.

Whirlochre said...

I suppose we'll never know whether the bow and arrow arrived fully formed in someone's brain, later to be crafted, or whether it evolved from a succession of interesting plungy/ploongy accidents.

What matters is that you can kill people with a bow and arrow, and that ought to have been evident fairly early on either way.

Otherwise — why the hell invent the thing?

Scott said...

Pen doesn't touch paper in earnest until I know it's going to work. I've never abandoned a project, save the usual "it's done".

wendy said...

I obviously have little clue if something will work as I love almost everything I've started and invested vast amounts of time in each project. The last novel I've worked with for over ten years (also have done music and illustrations) and enjoyed every moment of it. Really had a ball writing it, and I console myself that perhaps this is the main thing. But...
the last agent I sent it to replied accidentally several times and each time he gave major reasons for not liking the work. The last reason he gave was that he was disappointed by the narrative. If the narrative is hopeless, well, there's not much left. I still love the story, though, and think it has merit.

But to answer the question about whether a project is working or not, perhaps if one experiences a growing sense of disappointment or boredom with the way the elements are coming together, then this signals a new approach is needed or a fresh start with something new. However if a story is working, then you'll feel an excitement, an involvement with the characters that creates a momentum which will carry you through to the end.

Anonymous said...

The answer varies according to the tage of the writer's career. Before I had sold anythin, my answer was something like the ones you gave in the post--after the first chapter, after the outline, after the first draft whatever.

Later, my answer became "after I sold it to a publisher," and nowadays if you ask me I say, "After I receive the first royalty check comes in."

Adam Heine said...

See, I plan, so that that never happens. Well, almost never.

Rebecca Land Soodak said...

Ten years ago, i started to write a novel. I had three characters whose excellent voice came through and I knew the story would take place in NYC. The problem was, I couldn't find the plot. I started and stopped, but ultimately, decided I wasn't a fiction writer. Fast forward ten years. Some agents had read my narrative work and encouraged me to give fiction a try. When I sat down to do just that, my NYC characters were waiting for me. This time around, however, I had goals leading my way. (What do women artists need? What makes a long term marriage work? to name two.) But still, that doesn't make a plot. So while writing, I read many books ON writing. (As well as in my genre.) The two tips that helped were: Have the character start off in one place, end up in another ... and have many obstacles along the way. The second was to write my story, scene by scene.
And finally, once I got about 50 pages down (after cutting at least 20-- which instead of deleting, I put in a notes folder)I gave my manuscript to a respected reader. My main question was: Is there enough tension? Enough reason to turn the page?
I believed her and kept on going. Many agents requested fulls, I signed with someone wonderful; and sold it a few months back. Now... revisions.

Dara said...

Not sure, it always depends. Mostly I feel it after the first two chapters, especially if I'm not feeling thrilled about writing it. Thankfully I haven't experienced that in awhile!

Jeannie said...

Usually when I get an idea for a project, it's with a blurb-type summary and a few sketches of scenes. If it's not going to fly, I lose interest, and don't write anymore. If it's working, I keep getting more scene ideas and plot details and continue sketching. Anything that I've sketched six to eight scenes or dialogue sections for will usually work. It's just a matter of digging deep enough to hit the heart of the story.

Anonymous said...

if you get a royalty check for it, meaning that A) you were paid on advance by a publisher and then B) you earned out the advance to earn a roaylty check--that's when you KNOW it worked! Anything before that is premature.

Tori said...

If the story has no soul then I know it isn't going to work. If I find myself writing a book that I did not plan on writing, one that I find myself hating, I start fresh. If the characters walk around doing nothing that MATTERS I scrap it and start again.

But sometimes I mistake writing something I shouldn't be for just having a bit of writer's block. It's hard to tell the difference sometimes.

Dawn Maria said...

I started what I thought would be my next book in a class last fall. 2/3 into the semester I knew it wasn't the next book, and probably not a book at all. I might use some of the characters, but that's all. I just knew. I didn't feel like a failure or that I'd wasted my time either.

Pam said...

Whenever I reach the 75% completion point and realize that the momentum stayed constant. IOW, no sagging middle.

Fernanda said...

So this has happened to me before. However, I usually know whether a story is going to work or not from the get go. Sometimes I'll think of a story and just so I don't forget the idea I'll write some excerpts or the first few pages, etc. That's when I take the time to actually think about the story: Does it have a typical cheesy ending? Are the characters memorable? Is it something everyone has read before? If I picked up this book and read it would I laugh?- These are usually things I ask myself and then I know if it will work or not. This mostly happens because I lose motivation for it right away. This even happens sometimes in the middle of the novel and I know that specific chapter needs to be changed. However, I don't think its a good idea to delete a story. Maybe it just needs some work. Put the idea aside and later on when you think of other ideas you might possibly be able to incorporate them into that old story and actually make it work. Or if you know it needs some work, write down what ideas you think would actually work about it and think of new ideas. By the end of the process you'll probably have a different story than intended, but in the end you'll have a story that actually works.

Cab Sav said...

Five chapters. If I can make it past five chapters I know I've got a stayer.

Claire Farrell said...

I don't think I ever really know for sure. I wrote a novel a couple of years ago, left it aside. I read it again and saw where I was going wrong but felt the characters were so strong that it deserved another go. I re-wrote it recently and am having another crisis of faith with it. It's gone wrong somewhere, I'm just not sure where. I can't see myself giving up because I feel like there is something there. I might be wasting my time on it, of course.

I've never put that much effort into a manuscript before so I've invested more time into this one which makes me want to find a way to fix it. Usually, if I start something, I'll finish it. If I get stuck, I'll plot again. If the idea interested me enough to start writing then I think I'll find a way to make it work. I hate the idea of giving up.

Tambra said...

This is a great question. I don't have any easy answer. I had a short story that grew into a long novella, but that's how long the story needed to be. Yes, I had slog through it but my crit partner said it was the best thing I've written so far.
Sometimes, I'll pull a story I've started back up and with the distance I've immediately discovered the problem: wrong character's point of view, started in the wrong place etc.,

Never throw anything away, you might be able to use it later on or at least pull sections of it out and use those.

Best,
Tambra
www.tambrakendall.com

lexcade said...

for me, as i'm sure it is for a lot of people, i have to be completely head-over-heels in love with an idea to see it through to its end. if i'm still passionate about an idea/manuscript/whatever after i hit that inevitable (for me) phase of "this sucks, why am i torturing myself?" then i know i've got something worth investing my time in.

in a way, writing is like a relationship. sometimes you're sick of looking at each other, but you know that there's something great between you that you don't want to miss out on.

...i really should have slept today.

Mira said...

Hmmm. Like alot of other commentors, this is a hard one for me.

I don't think I ever give up on an idea. But I have alot of false starts. The way I write is really irritating, and alittle scary for me, because sometimes I'll write something almost fully formed the moment I put it to paper - with some editing, but it's basically there.

But most of the time, I start - and it doesn't work. Then again, and again. I'll begin the same section dozens of times, over and over, and it's just not right! That's when it's hard to trust the process.

But it does work. Eventually it gels, and I suddenly find IT. It works. It's right. The tuning fork hums. But it takes alot of trust to keep going.

I have one story that took me literally years to write. It just took me that long to find the 'click'. But I go long periods without writing - if I were writing regularly, it might have happened faster. Although maybe not. Maybe I needed to grow into the story, and not the reverse.

But I don't ever want to give up on anything - it's there for a reason, and it sort of haunts me until I....find it.

Interesting discussion.

Elliot Grace said...

...I can usually sense it while outlining the plot. If it feels right, if it clicks, I move forward. If I stumble, I set it aside and allow the kettle to cool for a while. The project will never be scrapped...but may collect a little dust while I attempt to regain focus:)

Kimberley.M.Love said...

For me, I know something is going to work when I can't wait to get to the computer to write it. My system involves family and friends reading a few chapters at a time, to give me advice and suggestions. It fuels my creativity to continue when I hear their responses. If I didn't have that excitement, than I would know it wouldn't be worth writing.

Joe G said...

It may be because I'm the world's most efficient procrastinator but I come up with ideas and shelve them all the time. This is probably a good thing because sometimes the ideas merge or evolve and become better ideas.

So I guess what I'm saying is that I only really start into something when it's clear in my head. Then I won't be distracted from it. If I can be distracted from it by another project, I probably wasn't that passionate about the idea in the first place (or I was blinded by initial enthusiasm and once I saw the evident flaws, I switched gears).

It's not much of a problem for me to walk away from something that just isn't working. The real tragedy is when something you desperately want to work just isn't clicking into place. That's when it's hard to walk away, because you never know which new draft is going to be the one that finally does click, or if it ever will.

Drew Turney said...

It's not if the book's working you should be asking. It's whether the idea still works for you. if it does, you shouldn't give up hammering the book into shape to service it. If the idea's worth it, you should never consider the book's not working.

Kate Evangelista said...

To be honest, I haven't reached that point yet. I usually have the ending in mind when I start writing. I think that's what makes the process on going for me. Knowing how a story ends helps fill in the gaps.

dellamarinis said...

I think has more to do with the kind of person one is than any tip or truth about developing a story. We're all motivated differently and some more self-motivated or patient than others. We might feel finished with an idea before it has the chance to blossom into an obsession. Who's to know where this border lies for each of us and is it really beneficial to know? There's always that magical something that makes a story work I think, and often it's just stumbled upon.

GhostFolk.com said...

Finally, an easy question. I know when a book is going to work when it keeps creating new plot more or less on its own and my job is to force the story and characters to focus.

This can occur before you've written a word and are sitting in the bathtub. When the premise is perfect (for the partiuclar writer) and the characters grow along with the plot, the book is working.

It takes off without you. Some writers worry and pace the floor over what happens NEXT in a novel.
I've even seen some workshop teachers of the published word define PLOT as "what happens next."

I disagree. Plot is what happens NOW. When a book is working you have to take a softball bat and beat back the plot twists. Oh, and you know it when you get blisters from swinging that bat.

Richard said...

I have finished one novel and am just now starting the second. The first took me nearly three years to complete because I took 18 months off after the first 12 chapters. Why... the inspiration left me. I had been inspired to write because I was in a bad place in life - that's what motivated me to write. It wasn't until my life was in order and at least back on the tracks, and actually happy that I could continue with the story.

So, for me, the only way I could start the novel was to be depressed and the only way for me to be able to complete it was to find happiness and peace. :-)

Wanda B. Ontheshelves said...

For better or worse, I never have this problem. I'm always thinking about it and writing about it in my journal, before I even start a project; so if I discard a project, it's still while it's a (somewhat) stray thought in my journal, or on a walk, etc. Plus there's the whole intangible "vibe" factor. Just follow the vibe.

Not saying it's a good way to be - just the way I am.

Geoff said...

I live a world of delusions where I think ANY idea that was good enough to have in the first place could work, if enough time and energy is given to it. So of the many many ideas I have or have had, I consider none of them out of the question until I am dead. Ideas may shift and take a lot of patience and perspiration, but for me, any idea can always work.

Pregnancy and Beyond said...

Ink, love what you said! Lately, I've been working on a story, in my head, mostly. I have never done that with a book before and I find myself daydreaming about my characters while I'm driving, and even putting on background music. I figure either I'm nuts or I have a story. I find myself putting off work to write the story because my fingertips are eager. I am in love with my story; I guess that's when a person should finish. Thanks for your insight!
-Danielle

Sara said...

So far this has mostly happened to me with short stories. Usually it's at the point when I sit back and say, okay, what's this about, really? And I don't have a good answer, and can't think of one. Pretty prose, no real story. Or I really don't like the answer, it's not what I intended but it's inextricably tied to the piece. Toss.

I learned to plot a novel by writing my first novel. Despite many revisions, it never quite came together - there just isn't enough conflict, the relationships aren't that interesting, the reader ends up rooting for the wrong person and disappointed by the ending... So, it's in a file, along with a three-inch pile of notes and thoughts and pages. It's gradually changing in my mind, and I may end up chopping it up and rewriting it sometime. But right now I'm working on a novel with a much more zappy plot, and it's working.

Kristi said...

If its a project that's going to work for me, its because I can't get the darned people out of my head until I write "the end".

If the characters go quiet, then I let the work go. I only have one manuscript in progress with more than 1 page written that stuck in a time warp, and occasionally the protagonists still whisper something, so it might not be stuck forever.

Whether the project is one that will sell, well, still working on that aspect.

Rebecca T. Little said...

A project will work, for me (with a few caveats), when the outline is finished and makes sense plotwise. Those aforementioned caveats are, of course, time, discipline and patience.

Rebecca
http://rebeccatlittle.blogspot.com/

Julieanne Reeves said...

Honestly, when I start with an idea, I let the characters lead the story. Of course I have an end in mind, but just as with real life, it takes some bends in the road to get there.

If somethings not working, or a plot goes dead, I do back and interview my characters. I get to know them and find out what makes them tick.

If I know that "Amy" has been abused, and neglected by a father, after her mother died giving birth to her younger sister when Amy was twelve. I know she's more than likely not going to have had much of a social life. I know that she's probably going to be afraid or cautious around men. I know she's going to be very motherly, even though she herself is only seventeen. I know she's going to be protective of that sister, fearing that her father will start doing those things to her.

While most of this did not go into my manuscript, because Amy was not a main character, I still ended up with over a hundred pages figuring out Amy. (She actually ended up with her own story from this)

But, by knowing who she is, or who >Insert name of character here<'s deep dark secrets, I know how they would act or react in any given situation.

You have to build a relationship with your characters. Just like were someone to say, "Hey, I saw your best friend and she/he was doing >fill in the blank< you could laugh and say, Yep, that's so and so for you. Or you could look at that person and say. Not if it were the last >whatever< on earth.

YOu have to know them, you have to love them, and then they will love you. That doesn't mean it's always easy, and that doesn't mean you can control them, just like yuo can't control your real life friends. What it means is that you can respect each other(I know that sounds crazy)and work together to make a story happen.

Carpy said...

In regards to fiction, I'd say after 10 years you should know. If a book or series is still stuck in your craw and you've revised inside out, even adding different POV's, and the book surprises you with a power of its own, keep going. I've had a project for over 10 years, and have learned enough from reading hundreds of books, that I know my characters almost as well as they know me. At that point, it becomes a whole new project because I update characters, places and plots. If the project is non-fiction, you have to have a cut-off point sometime, and I think that's what queries are for. From what I've heard, agents can tell whether or not a non-fiction project will work before you put another 10 years into it.

Lucinda said...

I agree with what Carpy said....ten years.

One of my current WIP's began as a short story and after 150 pages I realized it was going to be at least three novels long. Upon finishing the second in the series, it will end now with a fourth.

When I feel a project is being force fed, I let it sleep. Some of them I may never revive at all, but most continue to play in my mind like movies.

This was a very interesting question with great answers.

Jaleh D said...

I can't answer yet with any definity, but I do have one story that I am gradually considering as being doubtful. Yet the one that I have working at for far longer, I still believe in, despite having to go back to the beginning to fix some major flaws in characters and plot. I care too much to let those characters fall into oblivion.

The Red Angel said...

Honestly, I get slightly bored with all of my projects at some point, especially when I get really deep near the middle of them. But even then, I can tell if the project is working or not simply based off of how rich my plot and characters are. Those two elements must be fully developed in order for the project to work in the end.

The less I've written for a project with undeveloped whatever, the more likely I'll be able to go back and change. But if I've already started on a project and it's already halfway done but I just happened to get stuck in a place in which I can't keep on going, I'll have to start all over again.

Marjorie said...

I know an idea is working when I am enjoying the process. If it makes me laugh, I generally get a good response. If I get good feedback from friends, I am encouraged and produce more material. Nothing should be forced or painstaking. It should be fun.

It's in the blog, marjorie-pentimentos... which is an ongoing project.

AM Riley said...

When my editor says "this isn't working..."

Cory said...

Isn't every project different?

Isn't doubt like a slowly lifting fog, always there but growing less and less.

Are there people who would say something like, "I always stop on page 87 of my first draft and decide right then and there if I should abandon the project or keep going to the end."

I think if you're sure it's going to work, you're not pushing yourself enough creatively.

And I think even if I were number one on the bestseller list, I'd still be wondering if I should have moved this scene over to here, and made so-and-so more likeable, or so-and-so less arrogant. Nothing is ever perfect, nothing ever done.

Writers trade passion for pages. If you run out of passion before you have enough pages, you have to put it aside and work on something else.

Daniel L Carter said...

I know a book is going to be something I want to finish by the first few pages. I'll be honest I have a limited attention span and if you don't catch it within the first few pages then I don't finish the book. However to judge my own writings I imagine myself seeing a movie. Each scene needs to build character, plot and keep me asking questions or wanting to know what happens next. If I read a chapter that doesn't do any of these things then it isn't worth putting in my books.

A.M Hudson said...

If you feel a connection to your story, but something doesn't feel right, then you just keep going until it does. I think you know from the very first second that the idea, or character that inspires, pops into your head.

It just takes hard work and perseverance from that point. Never delete. You may have had a diamond in the rough all along.

For me, I follow my heart when it comes to writing, and so far, all of my stories are very engaging. My sense of modesty needs work!!

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