Writing Help: When To Let Go… And Start Something New

Do you need some writing help?

In broad strokes, the answer may be to switch projects.

Writing Help – Overview

Many of my clients, at some point, realize that they need to let go of their current project.

Not just to stop working on it for a while, but to truly move on to something new that suits them better.

When it comes to letting go and moving on, I have found that writers and writing teachers tend to espouse one of two main ideas:

  1. Never, never, never give up.
  2. If you’re not getting good feedback, or the marketplace has changed, or you’re just not that into the idea anymore… give up.

While there’s an important truth in both perspectives, I don’t think either is quite right.

When To Let A Project Go

It’s important to persist in the face of adversity, but I believe that creativity benefits from having the ability to “yield” and shift gears.

It’s also important to pay attention to your progress and the marketplace, but I don’t think creativity is served by allowing other people and external forces to dictate what you do.

I believe that the reason to let something go and move on to something new is because you have learned why the project isn’t right for you anymore.

Is The Project In the Right Genre For The Next Phase Of Your Career?

Remember, the best time to sell your second project is right after you sell your first project—and the best time to sell your third project is right after you sell your second.

That’s why:

  • Agents and managers like to see that a writer has a lot of material in the same genre. It means that writer is an expert and therefore the kind of person that executives want to hire.
  • Once you break in, you should plan on working in the same genre for at least a few years.

Ask yourself: Do you like the genre of your current project enough to develop and write several more projects in the same genre?

Is The Theme Something You Believe In?

The importance of theme—and how it is the driving force behind a story—is something I learned from Blake Snyder:

In many ways a good screenplay is an argument posed by the screenwriter, the pros and cons of living a particular kind of life, or pursuing a particular goal. Is a behavior, dream, or goal worth it? Or is it false? What is more important, wealth or happiness? Who is greater in the overall scheme of things – the individual or the group?  The screenplay is the argument laid out, either proving or disproving this statement, and looking at it, pro and con, from every angle. (Save the Cat, 73-74)

If you’ve reached a point where the theme that is at the core of the project is no longer something you believe to be true, that can be a reason to let the project go.

Ask yourself:  Do you believe that the core theme of the project is true, and is that truth meaningful to you?

Is The Core Idea Flawed In Some Way?

Sometimes, there’s a fatal flaw in your core concept that doesn’t reveal itself until late in the process.

What constitutes a fatal flaw? It is a problem that upends your script and can’t be resolved without essentially developing an entirely new concept.

It could be anything from discovering through historical research that your concept is grossly inaccurate to realizing that the protagonist you’ve created would never have the dramatic need the concept requires him or her to have. Ultimately, it’s up to you to decide if an obstacle you’re encountering is truly “fatal,” or if really you’re just stuck.

Ask yourself:  Have you identified a specific fatal flaw in your concept?

Adapt To Feedback

If you are not getting traction with your material, don’t just “not give up” and keep sending it out. That’s an easy way to make an amateurish introduction of yourself to everyone in Hollywood.

Instead, figure out what’s going on, and fix what’s not working.

If you can’t figure out why you’re getting negative feedback, or you’re not sure how to proceed to fix the problems you’ve identified, design an incubation process to allow your unconscious mind to generate solutions.

Ask yourself:  What is the pattern in the feedback you’re getting, and how can you adapt accordingly?

When You’ve Learned What You Need To Know, It Can Make Sense To Let The Project Go

When you’re stuck on a project or it isn’t getting much traction, it’s easy to lose enthusiasm.

But we all know that sometimes things look darkest before the dawn, and there are plenty of examples of people succeeding with projects that seemed doomed.

That’s why I believe you should only stop working on something once you have learned why the project isn’t right for you anymore.

This way, if you do have to abandon a project, you have at least learned a lesson about yourself or your craft that you couldn’t have any other way.

And that can be incredibly valuable.

Ask yourself:  Have you learned why this project can’t work–and are you ready to move on to something new?

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Discussion About Writing Help: When To Let Go… And Start Something New

  1. Jim Durkey

    Just as the screenplay’s story constantly evolves until it’s wrapped; the concept should also be allowed to evolve.

    How many times has a writer ended up with a very different story than the one s/he originally initiated?

  2. Dana Udall-Weiner

    As always, such relevant and useful advice, Stephanie. I’m especially grateful for this information as I launch ED Educate, and enter into a new professional arena for myself.

  3. Steve Mielczarek

    To write, or run: that is the question: I like your “yield” and shift gears advice. Downshift, slow down. You say: “I don’t think creativity is served by allowing other people and external forces to dictate what you do.” You’re right; but no one can really, dictate anything. My dramaturge might offer suggestion, and insight, but in the end, it’s the writer who pens the final stroke. Listen to what others say to you with a tablespoon of salt. You say “If you’ve reached a point where the theme that is at the core of the project is no longer something you believe to be true, that can be a reason to let the project go.” I think you struck plutonium 210 with that piece of advice. Whether character, plot, or facts, they must be error free. Then again, just to throw the dog a bone I trust my instinct.

  4. Burton

    I have about a half-dozen serious scripts completed, and several reached development, only to be lost in obscurity. I have about a twenty other ideas percolating or still freeze-dried, ready to pitch.

    So what’s the problem? Throuhgout this journey I’ve been tinkering with a monster trilogy. I’ve been wrestling with it for about 9 years now! And it was only last year that I finally found a logline that I could live with.

    I’ve been told by some it is brilliant, others horrifying or sickening (maybe not my audience). Major re-writes ARE required. The story is badass. It just needs cleaning up. But the page count for all three parts are 2.5 hours each and everyone just keeps shouting that they need to be shorter, but I don’t feel the same way. One exec suggested I condense the first part into the first 40 minutes and make it all one movie.

    Another issues is there are a cast of characters and everyone seems to identify with a different character. The whole point though is to demonstrate the similarities of all these different people. Despite their drastically different professions.

    It’s just too big and I am having difficulty mananging this one dream sequence in the beginning, which is a visual overature to the rest of the plot. I cannot settle on what this vision contains.

    I got troubles with this baby. Should I drown it?

    • Stephanie Palmer

      Sounds like you have done a ton of work. It’s good that you have so many ideas in development. Regarding the “monster trilogy,” this is tough. My advice is to focus on doing one thing well first–in this case, the first part of the trilogy. I’ve seen a lot of projects fail because they were envisioned too broadly, and there was too much material, none of which was of high enough quality to sell. The metaphor I use is that you are trying to solve a 500-piece puzzle, but you’ve got 900 pieces in the box. Try to see what you can eliminate. Alternatively, take a little space and incubate for a while. That may help things to settle so that when you come back, you have a sense of which pieces are required and which ones belong to other projects.

  5. Joey May

    Another great article Stephanie and just in time for a project I am currently ‘stuck’ on.

    Great advice.

    Thank you,

  6. Mark Martino

    Thank you for laying out the factors to consider when deciding whether to persist or move on. It’s rarely a clear and easy decision. To make it a little easier, I like to remind myself that I can always pick up a project later if the situation changes. Computer memory let’s you store projects so that they don’t have to disappear. They just become inactive for a while.

  7. Alec

    Thanks for the word of advice. As an aspiring screenwriter, I find every shred of advice and insider info to be priceless.

  8. Chapter 2 of Least Wanted « Random and Sundry Things

    […] Never, never give up … unless you should. Ha ha ha … […]

  9. Harryj

    Stephanie Palmer, Great article. I had to give it a positive spin . My heart soars when I’m actually working on my current project. I love the genre and have others, but I decided to bring this one to completion first. Its themes are universal and precious to me. The core idea may be perfect, irrefutable. So the spin for me could be “Telling a go-script from a let-it-go script.”
    Thanks for all your work, very helpful.

  10. Chris

    Thank you for not stopping at the platitudes but giving actionable advice. Your thoughts resonate with me because you help to put competing realities in perspective rather than just dismissing the concerns. “Knowing the path is a very different thing than walking the path.” Thanks for helping us see where to put each foot down, and why.

    • ben

      Thanks for the kind words, Chris.

  11. John W. Bosley

    Here’s an interesting question I’ve proposed to others. If a script you’re developed has been rejected and you are ready to move on to it and consider it “old news” and something you don’t want to pursue anymore, but you know you have many people (audience members not industry people) who want to enjoy reading it, should you give it away for free? This is more an idealistic proposition than anything else. We write so others can experience. If something will never be enjoyed as a film or book, etc but people would benefit from the script is it better to allow people to gain from it with no monetary gain to the writer? Is is better to allow the script to just sit on your shelf collecting dust, to never be seen by the general public, or is it better to release it into the public like a wild animal is released by it’s owner?

  12. vicky

    I’ve been trying to let go of lots of habits lately and start something new – and your comments are helpful beyond writing – so thanks!