Giving yourself permission to quit

Sometimes short stories, novels, poems, and even science fair projects get tangled up like wet kite string and no matter what one does, the whole thing gets worse and one starts to doubt himself or herself about all projects. Nobody likes telling characters to get out of their lives when a story won’t come together, and yet, trying to force it to come together sort of guarantees that it will never come together.

So, we start avoiding the manuscript for weeks at a time. The next time we look at it, the thrill is gone. What we thought was going to be a joyous story looks more and more like raw sewage.

Have you been there?

If so, you know that the manuscript is sitting on your computer like an evil spirit. It knows you’ve been taught to push through the problems in a story, and fight your way to the end of it. Now, if you’ve signed a contract with the publisher to finish this manuscript, you may have no choice but to get drunk and just do it. Otherwise, it’s causing more trouble than its worth.

I think it’s better at some point to give yourself permission to quit. Set the MS aside and search for something new to write about. I just did that, and it feels like the weight of the world has been lifted off my shoulders. Until the moment I cried “uncle” on the story, I was becoming convinced I’d never write anything again. Now I’m free.

Every story, I think, begins as something with potential, yet it’s still an experiment of sorts. We’re not duty-bound to see it through if it isn’t working for us. Maybe it will work in a year or ten years, but today, it’s sapping our strength.

Let it go.


My short story “Shock Treatment” appears in this new anthology.


Sometimes writer’s block gives you a chance to figure things out in your work in progress

I knew before life got derailed in April and May with unexpected trips to the hospital for unplanned surgeries, that a new character was about to appear in my work in progress, a guy named Rutherford “Rudy” Flowers. I also knew he was going to show up in the next scene in the book.

But after the surgeries–and a reasonable recovery period–I couldn’t write that scene. Uh oh, writer’s block. I even knew what critical piece of information he planned to tell my protagonist. But still, I hadn’t figured out the character, and that meant–well, the writer’s block.

Wikipedia photo.
Wikipedia photo.

This is a potential problem for those of us who write with no outlines and with no nailed-down sequences of events in mind for our novels and short stories. Every once in a while, something is supposed to happen. We don’t know why, and we can’t move until some of that why comes to mind.

When this happens to me–as it just did–I tinker around the edges of the book without writing anything. Since it’s set in the 1950s, I can always go more research into slang, clothing, events, foods and products of the time period. Some of what I learn actually comes in handy. This tinkering, though, ultimately unlocks my writers block. It’s odd, I know, but research often brings things to light that I wasn’t looking for, things that turn out to be vital to the story.

If you believe in muses–and I do–it’s almost as though the muse has put a hex on my being able to open the Word file with the story in it until I figure out there’s something I need to know before I go back to it. Now that I’ve found that something, I see there were clues to it all over the place that I just wasn’t noticing. Now I know who Rudy Flowers is and how vital he and his mother are to the story.

Writer’s block is usually aggravating, especially when your publisher is waiting for you to hand in the manuscript. I’ve never been able to force myself out of writer’s block like those writers and teachers who say it’s better to sit down and write anything at all rather than to write nothing. I’m better off writing nothing (not counting blogs and tweets) than trying to force a story to happen when the words aren’t there.

If you’re a writer, how do you face writer’s block and finally get back to work? As for me, I’m back to my story because the muse has come home.


Malcolm R. Campbell is the author of “Conjure Woman’s Cat” and “Emily’s Stories.”