What to Do When You Hate What You’ve Written

Imagine with me . . .

You’ve been working on a manuscript for months, but sitting down to continue feels like a Promethean life sentence. Notes lay scattered about the room obscured by crusty coffee mugs, wine bottles, and tragically empty beef jerky pouches. Your family has been avoiding you in fear of some kind of eruption. Your friends have assumed you’re dead. This story is slowly draining the life out of you like some demonic leach until you start to dizzily consider that your friends may be right. Any attempt to re-read what you have already accomplished summons the desire to burn everything in sight, smash your hard drive, and either howl your rage or lie quietly sobbing in the debris.

“How could I have written this filth?!?” (Apologies to my son for using a baby picture.)

We’re not talking garden-variety block. You despise everything you’ve written. The characters make you gag. The plot seems less exciting and more soul-killing than listening to your boss explain how he’d like you to refile the entire building’s personnel files, all 3,496 of them, by hair color. And the effort to care anymore has bled out of you along with any commitment to complete a sentence ever again.

This horrible circumstance begs the practical question, what do you do when you hate what you’re writing? How do you know when to scrap a story?

The answers are greatly dependent on the individual situation, but there are a few questions that will start your discernment in a healthier manner. You’ve got to ask yourself:

Am I contractually obligated to finish this story?

It’s important to establish this up front, because it will shape the rest of the approach. If you answer yes, then the road might seem fairly dim, but the branding iron of responsibility wielded by someone willing to pay for your work might prod you in the back long enough to avoid trouble by finishing. If you answer no, then glory-be, hallelujah, you could walk away from this story without legal action being threatened! Except that then there’s that next pesky question to consider.

Am I emotionally obligated to finish this story?

In other words, how important is it to you to complete this thing? There are some folks, like myself, who are crushed by half-told story, and if they succeed in leaving one in such a state it may haunt them for the rest of their days. And then there are others who are capable of saying who cares? and moving on. If you’ve reached the point where you’ve started to research what it would take to hire a monkey to finish this manuscript for you, you’re either the first type (sickened by the thought of not finishing one way or another) or you’re stuck in a contract and have glossed over this entire paragraph.

Having a sense of the legal and personal ramifications of your decision, hopefully, will guide you in determining whether or not to continue with the reviled story. Answering yes to one of the above will likely indicate that you’re headed back into the fray.

Full steam ahead!

If you’ve decided to continue, congratulations and my condolences. Seriously, it’s a brave thing to plow on when the end lies on the other side of what looks like a minefield. Here are a few ideas to help navigate the journey:

  1. Put it in a drawer. If you have time (contractually) or can stomach the idea of abandoning it (emotionally), step away for a while. Ponder, sketch, and let the physical task of writing be assigned to a different project while the white-hot hate for the other story cools to a simmer dislike.
  2. Turn the whole thing on its head. What would happen if your main characters’ circumstances were switched around? Or you wrote it in a different genre? This might seem extreme, but it could either free up the material in a new way or it could end up so ridiculous that your original idea seems far better than it did before.
  3. Put it in front of new eyes. Find your most trusted reader/editor and send them the draft-of-doom. Having another opinion might dislodge an idea or two.

I’m so outta here . . .

no dumping croppedIf you decide to not continue your manuscript, for the love of all that is holy, do not permanently destroy it! I say this, lovingly, as a person who has always floundered in every attempt to keep a journal, because I could perish tomorrow in a freak squirrel attack just a few yards from my back door and any journals would later be found and read by someone else. I understand, wholeheartedly, the desire to remove all trace of what seems a Frankenstein’s monster before anyone can discover it and, worse, that you were responsible for its creation. However, there could be a single, golden sentence or a rusty strand of narrative bailing wire that could be salvaged months or years from now when the scars from this massacre have shrunk and paled enough to look for salvage. Stow it in a file labeled SCRAPHEAP just in case.

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