Face Down the White Whale


NaNoWriMo is a few days in now. How’s it going for you? I can’t speak to how it’s going for me because I wrote this post a week ago. I’m sure it’s either fine or I’m staring at a blank screen for hours at a time hoping I can cause words to appear by sheer willpower.

If it’s going well, then great. If not, if—like me last year—you’re finding yourself under-prepared already and wondering if you’re going to be able to keep this up for thirty days, then I have a little experiment for you. (And this is still relevant outside of NaNoWriMo.)

I bet you’ve had an idea in your head for a while. You may or may not have written anything down about it, but it’s there. You’ve imagined the characters, some scenes, an awesome twist or even just a cool setting. These things have existed in your head for so long that they’re vivid to you. You could imagine a conversation with your main character, or you believe your setting is a real place you could go to if you had the right transportation (Dragon? DeLorean? TARDIS?) You’ve repeated that twist over and over in your head getting it just right so many times that you swear you’ve seen it before in a movie that doesn’t exist.

If you’re like me, you’ve had this idea for years and you might have tried starting it without any preparation. Then you took a break from writing it so you could develop the setting, characters, etc. until you ended up with a 20,000-word, 60-page plan printed out in a binder that you leave on a desk. You tell yourself, “One day I will write that one. But not now. I’m not a good enough writer to get it right, yet. I’d screw it up if I did it now.”

Well, let me tell you about “one day.” “One day” isn’t a day of the week. It’s a day that doesn’t exist. You have to seize it yourself. Carpe unum diem. I think that’s right. Latin’s not my first language.

This sounds counterintuitive, but if you’ve found yourself struggling to come up with new ideas, then this could be the solution. The great ideas you keep in your head can actually get in the way of new ideas. Plus, if you have no other ideas, why not go with the one you’ve kept locked away for “one day.”

These stories sometimes look better in our heads than they do on paper—and that’s not a reflection of your skills as a writer. If you write it and it sucks and you can’t think of a way to save it, well, you’ve given it your best, and now it’s out of your system. You wouldn’t have known it sucked if you hadn’t written it, and it’s out of the way of all the other good ideas you could have been having for new stories.

And if it’s good? Congratulations, you have the skills you thought you needed to write it. The only way left to go is up.

I’ve done this multiple times. Sometimes, they’re stories that I realize I hadn’t thought through well enough, but with a little work, I can try writing them again from a new angle. Other times, I’ve realized the story just doesn’t work for a book. It might have been a decent short story, or cartoon even, but not a novel.

One of my projects has been in development off and on for about four years now. I’ve written about 12,000 words of story for it, and I return to it when I don’t have other ideas and do a little more work on it. But then I often get a shiny new idea and run with that instead for a bit, until that project is either dead or successful. In fact, I was going to write that story for NaNoWriMo this year until a new idea came to me around mid-October. And if this project falls through, I’ll probably pick that one back up.

The honest truth is, I get excited about new story ideas. So when this new one came to me, I had to get it out of my system. And maybe it’ll suck, I’m perfectly willing to accept that possibility. But when I didn’t have any other ideas, I was excited to write that “one day” project. I think that’s the real key: Find a story you’re excited to write, and write it at least until it no longer excites you.

And if you’ve kept an idea tucked away for later and it still excites you, well, you know what to do.


Hey there, still reading? Here’s some behind-the-scenes stuff. This post was actually one that I’ve had planned for a long time, and like so many writing projects, I thought I’d screw it up. I think it came out well in the end, so I’ll keep it. Usually, if I write a post that sucks, I’ll either rewrite it or use parts from it in another post. (Don’t Call Me Talented went through three rewrites, for instance). And now that I’ve written this post, I don’t have to write about this topic at length again. I’ll probably allude to it and add to the ideas here in future posts, but I do that with most of my posts already.

Photo by Ameen Fahmy on Unsplash


About David Shank

David T. Shank is a writer, runner, and musician, in that order. His blog is hopefully an oasis among the vast ocean of negativity that is the Internet. He lives in Cleveland studying how to write good.

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