The Toxic Idea

symbol-34338We’ve talked about the prospects of the evolving idea. We’ve identified the intimidating idea. Let’s also spare a moment for the revelation that all writers dread – that the idea or story they’ve invested time and energy in is a dead end.

Or, at least, it feels like a dead end. It’s been tinkered with for as long as anyone can remember. It’s been redrafted multiple times. Every piece of feedback has been taken on board. And it’s still in the grind. It’s gotten rejected. And rejected, and rejected. Or, it just still has a league of problems you can’t see your way to fixing before submitting is even considered. And you just can’t see what you can do with it anymore.

This happens a lot with novels and larger bodies of work, where the minor issues can pile up across a larger word count – but short stories and poetry can suffer from the same grind. On the surface, the general advice is that every idea has a grain of potential, and it just needs the right implementation in order to be a potentially successful piece. It can take a lot of work to get to that point. But maybe there’s a new thought that stands in the way – the creeping realisation that maybe, just maybe, this specific idea simply isn’t worth putting that much work into it.

That’s a tough conclusion to come to. And it’s also an immensely difficult judgement call to make – what’s stopping one more draft from making this idea one of the success stories of your writing? As with anything else in writing, it’s a subjective decision. One that can be agony to come to if it’s a project you’re so heavily invested in, but so burnt out on that any more revision seems futile.

I call this scenario the ‘toxic idea’ in that it sometimes feels like a specific project can be unhealthy for you as a writer. It’s taking away from you more than it’s giving back. Whether it’s in the redrafting or the pile of rejections it’s already accrued. You just don’t know what to do about it anymore. Does this sound familiar?

The obvious recourse is to step back and allow some time for a new solution to present itself. But that, of course, will have diminishing returns the more often you have to shelf a piece of writing for a lengthy period of time. What if you never have the nerve to get back to it? What if it’s easier to just call it quits and save the trouble later on?

All compelling questions. The trouble with being a writer is that it’s often a very emotional gig – and we get attached to our works in a parental fashion. We want to see them succeed, no matter how much we have to bleed for it.

But let’s look at the picture we’re presented with. A short story, novel or poem that seems endlessly problematic and exhausting to even think about, let alone continue to work with. What are your options? (Assuming you’ve already gotten a variety of feedback during the long process.)

  • Endure. Keep hacking away at the project until something gives and you see some yield from it. The least desirable option, in a lot of ways – some will call it being steadfast, others will say it’s a waste of time. You’re the only one who can provide a personal answer to that question.
  • Flee. Take what’s left of your sanity and run. It’s the most attractive option if you just can’t look at it anymore. But of course, it’s the least satisfying. But never destroy your writing, even the aborted projects. Just keep it in a folder marked ‘Abandoned’ or ‘Unfinished’. One day, there might be some use for it – even if just as a cautionary tale.
  • Cannibalise. Tearing the idea apart into components that could be used in other ways. As a personal example, one of my ill-fated attempts at a full-length manuscript ended up being boiled down into material for a couple of unrelated short stories – one of which was published in an anthology a couple of years ago. It’s often a way to extract some value from an otherwise bogged-down project – but opens up new challenges in itself.

Whatever you choose, there’s one thing that’s always the same. You need to decontaminate yourself. All that frustration will stay with you and irradiate other stories if you’re not careful. Have something on hand that can give you a sense of accomplishment – preferably not related to writing. Maybe it’s your day job, but one bad day can make that dangerously frustrating as well. Physical exercise is probably one of the best recommendations I can give, but you might find something else that works for you. But when you know that you’re working with a toxic idea, you need to quickly act in two ways: figure out how to deal with the hazardous material, and then decontaminate yourself.

It’s tough to work with material that you just can’t seem to get right. Sometimes all the feedback in the world doesn’t provide a clear path – and investing yourself in your writing is a two-edged sword. The stronger your connection to your writing, the more dynamic it can be, but also the more frustrating when it’s just not working properly. Know when you’re working with toxic ideas – the ideas that can sap you of your resolve. And have your preconceived safety measures in place that allows you to keep your general momentum and your sanity.

Beau Hillier | Editor, page seventeen

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