Coping with False Starts

25 Apr


by Julie Eshbaugh


It happens to every writer.  An idea comes to you, and you are floating around the ceiling with inspiration.  For a day or two, or maybe even a week, you’re ecstatic with the beauty of this concept.  You write with an enthusiasm you rarely feel, until…  the good feeling is gone.  

 You can’t say why, but you know this idea has lost your fancy, at least for right now.  That initial spark might rekindle later, so you tuck the work you’ve done so far away somewhere, whether it’s in a folder on your desktop titled “Graveyard,” or a trunk at the foot of your bed full of partial manuscripts.

 What causes this phenomenon, and how can you avoid it?  I can only speak for myself, but here are some things I’ve learned by examining my own short-lived “false starts”:

 You don’t have a story as much as an “idea.”  An idea is a concept or a premise that sounds cool, but has nowhere to go.  “A girl is born with gills” is an idea, but not a story.  A story requires a goal, motivation, and conflict.  The best ideas in the world fizzle out quickly if there’s nothing for the characters to do.  (A good idea can become a good story, of course!  But the process of pulling the story elements together is often the task that reveals that your feelings toward this idea are just infatuation, not true love.)

 You have a story, but you don’t like the person it’s about.  You know that good friend who gets on your nerves so thoroughly, at times you wonder how you stand each other at all?  Generally it’s common experience and loyalty that will see that strained friendship through.  Unfortunately, those factors don’t exist if your characters get on your nerves.  You don’t have a history with your MC.  You can walk away at any time.  And sometimes, that’s exactly what you do.  I’ve gotten to a point with a character where I’ve said, “Why am I wasting my time with you?  I could delete you and create someone brand new!”  Unfortunately, the whole story usually dies with the main character.  A new MC generally takes the story in a whole new direction.

 You come to the sudden realization that you are rewriting your favorite book.  No one sets out to be derivative.  But your favorite (and not-so-favorite) stories have taken root deep in your subconscious mind – the very same place you are trying to coax that next idea from.  It’s possible you didn’t recognize Harry Potter because he was masquerading as a girl born with gills, but when it’s revealed that she is the only one to ever face the evil villain and come away alive, having been protected by a now-dead loved one, Harry can be glimpsed beneath the disguise.   And once you realize you are reinventing a very well worn wheel, you have to walk away.

You thought it was the real thing, but it turned out to be a passing phase.  If you’re going to write a novel, be ready to live with it every day for several years.  Committing to an idea is like committing to a romantic relationship – it’s not enough if you really like it most of the time, you need to (almost) never hate it.  You can get tired of it sometimes, and maybe other times you see that it has faults, but if you find that at times you loathe it, you should move on.  Bad feelings tend to snowball, and the things you don’t like about your story can overshadow its strengths rather quickly.  If you have doubts about a story early on, there’s a good chance you fell in love with the idea of a new idea, and not with the actual idea itself.

So what’s a writer to do?  Can the “false start” be prevented? 

I don’t think false starts can be prevented, because every idea needs to be tested.  In my experience, the best ideas and the ones that flame out quickly seem the same in the earliest stages.  It’s only after putting the idea on paper that I’m able to see if it has staying power.

More importantly, I don’t think false starts should be prevented.  Experimentation is vital to discovering new things.  Testing ideas is a big part of being a writer.  Sometimes, you look at what you’ve started and feel relieved that you haven’t shown it to anyone, but even your worst writing is writing.  You took a chance, and maybe you ultimately shelved the project, but somewhere in that experience,  you most likely learned something.  Something that will inform your next project.  Something that will make you a better writer. 

Writers write.  Not all of what we write will see publication.  Some of it will turn out to be practice.  Some of it will turn out to be false starts.  But none of it will turn out to be wasted.

What are your thoughts on false starts?  Do you think they have value, or do you think they only waste your time?  Please post your thoughts in the comments!


Julie Eshbaugh is represented by Natalie Fischer of the Bradford Literary Agency. You can read her blog here and find her on Twitter here.


34 Responses to “Coping with False Starts”

  1. cclester April 25, 2011 at 1:04 AM #

    Great post – as someone at the ‘ideas’ phase of my next book, and contemplating which project to take on next, I find it particularly pertinent. I particularly like your allusion to a relationship with a book to a romantic one, and also the relationship with the MC to a friendship. All the best, C-C xx

    • Julie Eshbaugh April 25, 2011 at 6:50 AM #

      Thanks C-C! I’ve been juggling a lot of new ideas lately, too. Best of luck in your quest for your next book idea. 🙂

  2. M. Howalt April 25, 2011 at 2:47 AM #

    Nice one!I’m glad you got to the “they shouldn’t be a voided” bit. I do want to write complete stories, novels, but I think it’s interesting and worthwhile to explore ideas that never turn into long stories. Somewhere in them, there could be a character who turns out to be an asset to a different story or a concept that needs modifying to fit somewhere else. And sometimes it’s just sheer fun.
    What I do think is important is to realise it when we hit that wall. No need to push forwards on a false start and refuse to let go for hundreds of pages if it’s clear that story wasn’t meant for it.

    • Julie Eshbaugh April 25, 2011 at 6:52 AM #

      Great point! I completely agree that it’s important to know when to shelve a project, and to let go without guilt. Thanks for commenting! 🙂

  3. Stephanie Relf April 25, 2011 at 3:19 AM #

    OMGosh only yesterday I considered shelving a new project! (but I’d dedicated a whole pretty moleskine notebook to it so I decideed to stick it out.)
    I agree that any writing is writing and I can practise with this and learn lots about what to do and what not to do… I don’t have to show it to anyone 🙂

    • Julie Eshbaugh April 25, 2011 at 6:56 AM #

      Hi Stephanie! Ah, yes, the moleskine… Maybe you dedicated the entire moleskine because you subconsciously wanted to compel yourself to stick with the idea? Good luck! I hope you find this idea helpful whether you decide it’s “the one” or move on. 🙂

  4. Alli April 25, 2011 at 3:24 AM #

    I wholeheartedly believe we need false starts! You likening it to relationships and love, I totally agree we need to shop around for the right one before we commit. I’ve had my share of first dates, but when I find the one I want to be with, I most definitely give it my heart and soul. I’m about to make a commitment to the new book and I’m already planning the wedding. Ha!

    Thanks for a great post!

    • Julie Eshbaugh April 25, 2011 at 6:57 AM #

      LOL great “first date” metaphor! Looking for that next great idea is like dating! And yes, I think I’m one of those writers who starts planning the wedding right away, too. Thanks for your comment! 😀

  5. Susan April 25, 2011 at 7:00 AM #

    Awesome, awesome, AWESOME post! I think part of being creative is having a TON of ideas–some grow into full novels, but most peter out… Yet what you say is totally true: none of it is wasted!

    ❤ Love this post, Julie!!

    • Julie Eshbaugh April 26, 2011 at 6:24 AM #

      Hey Susan! Thanks for the nice words. I agree that a big part of being creative is generating ideas. I’m so glad you liked the post! ❤ 🙂

  6. Dawn Brazil April 25, 2011 at 8:00 AM #

    I agree false starts can’t be prevented. But it’s still writing and writing is good.

    • Julie Eshbaugh April 25, 2011 at 6:45 PM #

      Couldn’t agree more, Dawn. 🙂 Thanks for commenting.

  7. Stacy S. Jensen April 25, 2011 at 8:05 AM #

    I think I’ll put “every idea needs to be tested” on my computer monitor as a reminder. I hate false starts, but they help.

    • Julie Eshbaugh April 25, 2011 at 6:46 PM #

      Hey Stacy! I hate false starts, too, even though they’re necessary. Maybe I’ll put that line on my monitor, too! 🙂

  8. Caitlin April 25, 2011 at 9:26 AM #

    This is true indeed! I do this a lot when I’m trying to write short stories for class. Aaaaaall the time. Which is generally not good, actually, since I have a “this is due tomorrow” problem looming as well as the “well… this idea isn’t going anywhere” problem. Ah well. It works out most of the time.

    • Julie Eshbaugh April 25, 2011 at 6:48 PM #

      Hey Caitlin! Glad to know your false starts work themselves out. Throwing a deadline in there can make the process brutal, I’m sure. 🙂

  9. Rowenna April 25, 2011 at 11:02 AM #

    Great post, Julie! Sometimes you have to dive into something to discover what doesn’t work–it’s practice of the best kind 🙂

    • Julie Eshbaugh April 25, 2011 at 6:49 PM #

      Hey Rowenna! Yes, “practice of the best kind” is a great way to describe it. 🙂

  10. Girl Friday April 25, 2011 at 4:00 PM #

    Love this post – I’ve had a few false starts lately so it came at the right time 🙂

    • Julie Eshbaugh April 25, 2011 at 6:51 PM #

      I’ve had a few false starts lately too. Good luck with your next idea. 🙂

  11. jenn fitzgerald April 25, 2011 at 6:20 PM #

    Great post, Julie! I’ve been having trouble with this a lot lately!

    • Julie Eshbaugh April 25, 2011 at 6:53 PM #

      Hey Jenn! Thanks. I’ve been plagued by false starts lately, too. And my present idea was a false start about a month ago. I guess that’s why it’s called a process. 🙂

  12. Brenda Kezar April 26, 2011 at 11:03 PM #

    This happens to me quite a bit and I always get frustrated about it. But you’ve given me a new way to look at these false starts: they aren’t failures, they are tests . . . and they are WRITING!

    Thanks! You’ve given me a much needed attitude adjustment! 🙂

    • Julie Eshbaugh April 28, 2011 at 5:29 AM #

      Hi Brenda! Glad the post was helpful for you. 🙂 I think this is a message we ALL need from time to time! Thanks for your comment.

  13. Raquel Byrnes April 27, 2011 at 12:43 AM #

    I can’t tell you how many first chapters I wrote only to realize that’s all the story was. Bleh.
    Edge of Your Seat Romance

    • Julie Eshbaugh April 28, 2011 at 5:30 AM #

      Hey Raquel! One chapter of “false start” beats ten, (I guess?) Thanks for commenting! 🙂

  14. Charlotte April 27, 2011 at 6:56 AM #

    I can really relate to this post, I’ve been going through this very problem with my current work in progress, I didn’t realise there was a name for it. Thanks for the post, it’s reassured me that it’s not only me!!

    • Julie Eshbaugh April 28, 2011 at 5:32 AM #

      Hi Charlotte! Alas, it isn’t just you. I hope it helps to know you are in really good company. 🙂 Thanks for commenting!

  15. Elisa Jaime April 27, 2011 at 1:52 PM #

    I think it’s all part of the process. You can’t ever really know how things will turn out until you’re in the thick of it (same thing happens with relationships). The important part is to recognize when something doesn’t work and walk away without feeling like you’re never going to write anything ever again. I love your thoughts on false starts, Julie, thanks for sharing!

    • Julie Eshbaugh April 28, 2011 at 5:31 AM #

      Hi Elisa! Yes, the walking away without guilt is KEY. Glad you liked the post. 😀

  16. Victoria Dixon April 28, 2011 at 11:28 AM #

    They have value, but thank you for reminding me of that! My time is so valuable to me, I tend to look at false starts or half thought out ideas and push them to one side because they’re not marketable or are incomplete. I need to remember to play more. Wish I wasn’t so serious! LOL

    • Julie Eshbaugh April 30, 2011 at 2:52 PM #

      Hi Victoria! Don’t be too hard on yourself for being serious; that’s important too! I think finding a balance between play and seriousness is best. 🙂


  1. Mind Sieve 5/2/11 « Gloria Oliver - May 2, 2011

    […] Coping With False Starts – Julie Eshbaughs’s take on it and how it might actually be good for you. […]

  2. Write what you know love | Pub(lishing) Crawl - September 11, 2015

    […] When I find myself searching for a new writing project, I always go through a period of false starts. (I wrote an entire post about false starts here.) […]

Comments are closed.

%d bloggers like this: