False starts

Crossposted from Silk And Shadows

My writing group met this last weekend and I was on a Q&A panel of new published authors. (OMG am I still considered new? I feel ancient.) We A’d all sorts of Q’s from our fellow writers, and one that particularly caught my attention was this:

What do you do about false starts?

I thought this was interesting because there are so many ways to interpret the question. False starts in what? A story? A career? What constitutes a false start? Is a false start different from a test run? Who decides it’s false?


I think it’s inevitable that everyone has experienced this: You’re going along, thinking everything’s cool… Right up until it isn’t. The smooth-rolling wheel catches, and suddenly you’re airborne.

(And then, at least according to this illustration, your head pops off.)

False starts don’t always happen near the start, which makes it worse. But when that sinking feeling comes (and it comes shortly after the airborne feeling ends) I try to deal with a minimum of moaning.

1. Is this a false start?

Sometimes what feels like going off track is really something else. Exhaustion, boredom, burnout, lack of needed information or skill or confidence, all these can manifest as the feeling I’ve gone astray. I have to stop and assess: Am I lost or do I just wish I was lost so I could make my way back to a path I already know?

If it’s the latter, if I’m secretly just trying to weasel out of a difficult moment and lying to myself about it, then I scold myself soundly and get back to work. (Not really. I have other, crueler techniques too but that’s not this post.) If I have legitimately gotten lost…

2. Ditch it and do something else.

There’s a school of thought that says finish what you start. And pathological non-finishers should recognize that weakness in themselves and correct it. But most often, I don’t believe in throwing good energy after wasted energy. I have projects that will never be finished and some of those give me a twinge of regret. But I had good reasons for letting those go, and I know I’ve put that time and effort to better use elsewhere.

3. Make truth out of false starts.

Usually I find a note of truth in every false start. When I’m writing the hot draft, I often start my story about three chapters too early. I have a lot of back story, info dumps, and unnecessary characterization. It’s painful to realize that the start is all wrong, but in those soon-to-be-cut words, there are pieces I can use: a hint of the character’s issue, a telling detail of physical description, whatever. Because I know to watch myself now, I try to NOT write those false starts and JUST keep the diamonds buried in the dust.

Sometimes I waffle back and forth between giving up too easily and clinging too long. I think it takes a lot of practice to find the balance, and each step of practice requires a start. So get started.

Which are you, a quitter or a clinger? Do you find that you tend toward the same trait in writing and in real life?



5 thoughts on “False starts

  1. Waaaahhhh! I’m a quitter! In everything I do, wow! I have an unfinished quilt in my closet, unfinished scrapbooks on my desk, unfinished latch-hook rugs buried under the unfinished quilt…and about 15 unfinished manuscripts hidden away on my flashdrive. How sad is that? I start each book with such hope and promise and about 10 chapters in my hope and promise have morphed into fear and frustration.

    I guess I should work on that. I need to finish a book! (writing one, that is. I’m great at finishing reading them)

    Thanks Jessa!

    • Oh man, I have dozens of started books under the bed. And dozens more that were lost in various moves. And dozens more scraps of ideas floating around on paper and in my computer.

      So I totally understand the serial quitting thing. I think there’s a reason one of the popular writer battle cries is “Finish the damn book!” You need a battle cry when something is as difficult as charging into the fray against an entrenched enemy. And pulling a book out yer nose (or your soul, if you want to be poetic) counts as entrenched.

      So, yeah, FINISH A DAMN BOOK! (Or a short story, to trick yourself into the thrill of The End.) Most people never even start; you’ve overcome that hurdle, so you KNOW you can finish!

  2. Pingback: Tweets that mention False starts « Jessa Slade -- Topsy.com

  3. I’m a clinger. I’ve got a bunch of finished stuff all over the place. They are novels, short stories, etc, etc. Done but not polished because they are easily determined as unmarketable and unworthy of additional time or effort. But I don’t toss them and I continue to store them years later. For what purpose?

    And I also start a story too soon, but think maybe I’m breaking that habit by storyboarding.

    My career as a romance novelist has had numerous “false starts” but I prefer to call them learning experiences. Each time I return to my chosen career as a romance novelist I seem to be a better writer, telling a better story for the experience.

    Of course my track record of finishing projects but quitting the career more than once probably means I’m a clingy quitter.

    • > I’m a clingy quitter

      Terri, you’ve always been an overachiever 😉

      In some ways, being a writer gives us lots of uses for false starts. Like you say, it’s all grist for the mill. The worse we do, the more we have to write about.

      Okay, that’s more a tinfoil lining than a silver one, but we’ll take all the shiny we can get.


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