Jeff O'Handley, Author

Jeff O'Handley

The Doubting Writer Finds His Voice

The Gambler (Part II: Gone Fishing)

I need a new metaphor.
Last week I compared the act of writing to playing poker. “Stick it out,” I said. “You’re book will never get written if you fold your hand every time the going gets rough.” I believe that, too.
The problem is, writing really isn’t like gambling (unless you’ve quit your day job to do it, that is).
No, a more apt metaphor is fishing. You take your boat out on the lake, bait your hook and drop a line in the water. Maybe you jiggle the line a bit here and there, but you spend a lot of time waiting for something to come along and bite. Sometimes the fish gets away, sometimes it’s too small and you have to toss it back. Sometimes you land a keeper. Dinner!
The thing is every fisherman has one of those days where the fish just don’t bite. You spend hours out there with your line in the water, waiting. Waiting. Waiting. At some point you have to decide: stay here, or move to another spot?
The resistance to movement is strong: why would any other place be better? You’ve spent all this time here, you’ve been successful here in the past, you know the fish will bite if you give it just a little more time. And then there’s the fact that the act of moving – pulling in the lines, stowing the gear, firing up the boat – takes time; time that’s spent not fishing.
Developing a story takes time and energy. You’ve invested time and energy thinking about your characters and their world, constructing a plot, and crafting dialogue that is true to your characters. You’ve lived with these people in your head. You’ve laughed with them and cried with them, and now you’re telling them, “Sorry, I’m going away for a while. Maybe I’ll see you again sometime.” It requires a mental change of gears to get into another new world and populate it with new people with new problems. It requires stowing one set of gear, moving the boat, and dragging the gear out again. Time and energy.
But again, there’s a time when it’s the right thing to do. The reason this post is so difficult for me to write is because I really can’t tell you when that is. It seems to be something you ‘just know,’ a matter of feel. So here’s where I cop out. I’m going to turn it over to you, the dedicated few who follow and read this blog: How do you know when you’ve really reached the end of all you can do with a particular story? How do you know when it’s time to move the boat? Feel free to comment or write your own post on your own blog. Thanks, and have a good weekend!

4 Responses

  1. Fish or cut bait? Sorry, couldn't resist.

    I'm still experimenting with this issue. Right now, finishing one story, no matter how difficult, has been the most important thing. The stories I've left half-finished, I've yet to go back to. Once I've moved on to another world, the old one is so cold, so far away. I start to dread returning to the prior story. It's irrational, but the old story takes on new proportions of difficulty.

    So, perhaps this develops in stages? At first, as a new writer, it is important to finish one story before moving on. Later, a writer will have the confidence to dip between projects?

    Or, is it a matter of having projects of varying lengths to go between? Maybe it is best to only work on one novel at a time and one short story, but okay to go between the two? Then there is some variety, but the tasks are different enough to keep you focused?

    In the end I've got questions, not answers: Is there a point where you are better served with working on something else? Or, are you just letting yourself off the hook? I just don't know!

  2. If I find myself at my limit, I take a week or two to work on other things. If I can't find at least one little thing to tweak when I return–or if I don't "miss" working on the piece at all–I know it's time to move on. (For the time being.)

    Have a great weekend! 🙂

  3. For me, working on one novel-length project at a time is best. Sticking with one world keeps me from being too indecisive. When I need a break from it though I've been trying to get short stories out, which is a nice way to let my brain rest without getting too side-tracked in a novel-length idea.

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