It Wasn’t My Idea. It Was Better.

On deciding when to set a project aside

Earlier this year I had an idea for a story. It was an exciting idea and a different take on a common genre. It wasn’t totally unique, because no creative idea is actually original, but it felt fresh and fun. It had a philosophical twist that subverted the genre. I was excited and jumped right in.

I worked on outlines and structure. I created the characters and started tracing their relationships. I started building the world. I shared the idea with a few folks whose creative judgement I trust, and they responded well. I wrote the first chapter.

Then one day I shared the idea with another writer friend. His reply shocked me a bit. “Oh, you mean like _____?" I could fee my face fall. “No. I mean, what?” I stammered. He told me all about an indie property with a similar premise. I brushed it off. “Oh, that’s not the same thing at all.” I was sure of it. Kind of. Then I went home and looked it up. It wasn’t the same thing, but it was, well, very close.

Then last week a TV adaptation for this other property came out. I watched the first episode. And two minutes in I realized I saw the problem. This story wasn’t the one I was writing. No, it was close to my idea, but it was also much, much better. Next to this, my story was flat and uninspired. My heart sank.

When is the right time to set something aside?

When should you stop working on a project? Many artists and creatives struggle to finish things. I know I do.

The doubts and fear flood in. Am I quitting? you ask yourself. Or even worse is the nagging doubt: Am I just a quitter?

Maybe. We all are, sometimes.

Sometimes dropping a project is not a reasoned and conscious choice. Sometimes it dies because we are lazy. Or scared. Or tired. But, if you want people to experience your work, these answers should never be good enough.

But sometimes, sometimes, the idea just needs to die. Sometimes, it’s not good enough. Or you don’t have the craft and skill yet to pull it off. Sometimes it needs to be set aside for a long time. And maybe for good. In these cases it’s a brutal choice. It’s a choice laced with doubts and fears. This decision brings with it all the insecurities that artists face. What does it say about me? Will I ever finish something good again? Why am I a failure? These questions and more will come to many artists like wave upon wave.

There’s a paradox all artists have to face when it comes to what we make: Most of the time the most courageous thing we can do is sit down and do the work every day. But at other, rare times, the most courageous thing we can do is stop and remind ourselves that we are not defined by our failures.

As for my barely started novel...

For now, I am going to set aside this project. I’m not going to delete it, but I’m going to stash it away on a hard drive and revisit it in a year or so. Seeing another take on my premise took the wind out of my sails. I just don’t have the fire in my belly anymore to get up at 5:30 am and work on this story.

I have other projects that I believe in. Other stories that need to be told. If I were to keep pressing this one forward just because I don’t want to be a “quitter,” I’d be laboring at something in vain.

The time we spend creating and consuming art is precious—especially in this distracted age. I don’t want to spend months writing a novel out of obligation. Instead, I’m going to write things I really believe in.