NaNoWriMo | writing | Writing Insights

When do you know if a story idea isn’t working?



After finishing my manuscript and sending it out on submission late last month, I was ready to dive head first into November and into a new story idea. And of course, the best place to tinker with a brand new story is NaNoWriMo. So November 1st came and I opened a new Scrivener file and began writing, ready to tackle my story idea with gusto.

When it comes to the first draft, I’m a pantser* by nature, meaning, I start with a basic premise, a main character or two, and  vague idea of the plot. But, I don’t plan anything. I simply let myself free on a blank page and let the characters direct the story. I love this way of writing. And I love first drafts for this reason.

* Pantser vs Plotter
Image courtesy of


The first few days went well. I hit the word targets and my story was moving along nicely. There were a few surprises along the way though. One major one being the voice and tone of my main character, the narrator of the story. It was not the voice I was expecting! So, I was a little bit taken back, but I kept writing. I like her. And if I like her, chances are readers will like her – and in commercial fiction that is important.

Then, by day seven of NaNo, I hit a block. It was a brick wall, and I couldn’t see past it. I sat at the keyboard dumbfounded by the fact that I felt I had to do some serious plotting to get the story moving again. So, I took four days to sit with my thoughts and a notebook and work out my story. By day 11, I was at it again, but it was slow going. It was then it hit me – it’s not working. At least not for now.

Today, after another attempt to kick start the story I’ve decided to let it go. Not entirely, but at least for NaNo. There are probably myriad reasons why it’s not working, but these are my main ones:

  • The idea hasn’t percolated long enough
  • My head is still in editing mode from the past few months spent heavily editing and rewriting my previous manuscript
  • I don’t know my main character and her motivations well enough yet
  • I can’t stop thinking about my other 90,000 word manuscript that I want to edit.


After examining my reasons, I’ve come to the realization that the main reason the story isn’t working, isn’t so much the story, but me.

I’m not in the right head space to write this story yet. It needs more time to roll around in my head. More thinking time. I also feel that while I’m playing the waiting game (waiting on replies from publishers/agents on my first manuscript) I need to be busier. Although you would think NaNo is busy, I always find a first draft requires a lot of thinking time. And every time I sit to think, my thoughts head to ‘I wonder if xyz has read my email/synopsis/first three chapters yet’.


My sad NaNoWriMo graph



Having experienced a story idea not working made me think ‘When do you know a story idea isn’t working?’ So, I’ve put together my thoughts.


When your head is elsewhere

You can’t fully commit to writing a story/novel/whatever unless you are 100% focused. Well, at least I can’t. So unless you are really ready, and very much in the right head-space, don’t tackle a new story idea.


When it becomes changes the way you write

Although I admit, editing a story to completion has changed the way I write, I still know I am very much a pantser when it comes to a first draft. When you find your story idea is making you change how you write, or question the way that feels most natural for you, maybe it’s not the right time for that story.


When you don’t know your main character well enough

A lot of the writing process is thinking for me. I have to have the character in my head for quite a while to understand them. For plotters, I guess this is where interviewing your characters, plotting their backstory and planning their motivations comes is much the same thing. But, unless you really know your main character – who they are, what has shaped them, their backstory, and their goals and motivations, I firmly believe you shouldn’t start writing.


You’re not loving the process

Writing is a roller-coaster of emotions, we know that. And it’s of course not possible to love every minute you spend at the computer, but if you are not loving the process as a whole, stop. Leave it. Come back. I love writing and I love the process. But, if I find my head hurting too much with something and I begin to procrastinate (more than usual!) I know it’s not going to work.


A story idea that isn’t working doesn’t mean completely binning the whole idea. It may just be that it’s not working for now (hopefully this is my case!), and that when you come back to it, you will be able to see through the barriers.

I don’t ever feel that writing is wasted. The 13,362 words I’ve written this month were not a waste of time and energy. They could be the start of something, but they may not be. Either way, I am still learning and practicing the craft. I am experimenting with different styles, tenses and voices. And every chunk of words I write, ultimately makes me a better writer.

So now, I’m off to dive into editing my 90,000 word manuscript. Wish me luck!

And to all those still plugging away at NaNo, Go! Go! Go! I’m with you in spirit.