#94: Unfinished Story Choice Paralysis

Hello! I mostly write realistic/literary type fiction, with some excursions into horror. I have five or six unfinished projects languishing in Google Docs right now, ranging from short stories to novels.

My problem is that every time I sit down to write, I feel paralyzed by all of these options. I can’t decide which project I want to work on. Instead I get distracted by thinking about my aspirations for each story (submit to journals, self publish, whatever) and/or I just sit there with a general sense of panic that I will never get any of this done. Each of my stories has its own mood, so I’ve tried to pick one based on the mood I’m in, but lately my only consistent mood has been “Dammit I need to write something!”

I’d love to hear your thoughts on how to pick one story to focus on when there are so many begging for attention. Thanks for taking the time to read this!

—Emma (they/them)

Dear Emma,

What you have is something called choice paralysis, a well-known psychological phenomenon. It happens a lot to people in grocery stores: faced with seven thousand varieties of ketchup or toilet paper, we feel totally overwhelmed. We know we’re supposed to weigh all the alternatives and pick the one that best meets our needs, but sometimes it’s just too much, and we go with a familiar brand because it’s familiar, choose at random, or flee the store.

The reason there are so many varieties of ketchup and toilet paper is that different people have different priorities. One person needs a big bottle of ketchup for a big family; another needs a small one because they rarely use it. One person loves the luxurious feel of the three-ply toilet paper; another, pinching every penny, gets the cheap one-ply. So it is at least theoretically possible for there to be a best choice, one that you identify once and get again and again. It sounds like you’re trying to apply that metric to your writing in a way: you’re asking “Who am I today?” and attempting to optimize your story selection for yourself as a consumer. But you’re not a consumer—you’re a creator. That requires a very different approach.

Consider those other classic ways of dealing with choice paralysis. Choosing at random is great if you genuinely don’t have any preferences to account for—and also great for identifying hidden preferences. Since you have six projects, number them 1 through 6 and roll a six-sided die (or use the random number generator of your choice) to select the one you’ll work on today. If you react negatively to the random selection, strike that one from your list and roll the die again. Either you’ll eliminate five projects and work on the one that’s left, or you’ll hit a number that makes you think “Oh yeah, I’m excited about this project!” and then you’ll dig in.

If bouncing from project to project every day doesn’t work for you, you can use the random number selection to choose one project for the week or month. You may be surprised how much relief you feel at having spared yourself any kind of decision-making during that time. Structure and parameters can be really supportive and soothing. If you end up absolutely blocked on that one project, instead of trying to switch to another, take a break and otherwise treat your writer’s block as though you didn’t have anything else to work on—it’s that designated project or nothing.

Your equivalent of the familiar brand is the story that’s most often or most strongly on your mind. That might be the one you’ve put the most work into; the one that’s closest to finished; the one you like the best; the one with your favorite characters, setting, or plot; or the one that’s stressing you out the most. Start with that one and stick with it until it’s done. This tactic recalls Dave Ramsey’s “snowball” method for paying off debt: if you have several sources of debt, pick the one that’s charging the highest interest rate and put every spare penny into it until it’s gone, and then snowball those payments into the next most costly debt. It’s a great approach if you hate having multiple ongoing projects lurking over your shoulder. “Pay them off” one at a time, staying closely focused, and (this is important!) don’t start any more until they’re all gone.

Some writers can have lots of stories going at once, and flit among them like a hummingbird in a field of flowers. Others need to have one or two at maximum. If your choice paralysis is teaching you that you’re in the latter camp, then listen to that! To stay focused, move your inactive projects to their own folder in Google Docs, or to somewhere else altogether.

Extending the debt metaphor, you also have the option to declare project bankruptcy: consider each project and whether it feels like it can be finished, and if it doesn’t seem like it has the potential to go anywhere, move it to your project graveyard (don’t delete it altogether, just in case there’s something salvageable in there) and breathe more easily with the weight of if off your back.

And then there’s fleeing. If none of this works and you can’t get traction on any of those ongoing stories, that’s when it’s time to look at this as a more general case of writer’s block. My post on identifying and addressing the different varieties of writer’s block can help you on that front.

It’s also worthwhile to examine when and why you decide to start new projects when you’ve got some already going. Starting something new is a very common coping mechanism for writers. If you have trouble staying focused long enough to finish anything, or you feel panicky or miserable when you hit the three-quarters slump, that’s what you need to work on. All those new projects are symptoms of something, as well as sources of stress in their own right. Dig into that root cause and you’ll help yourself get over the bump and headed toward the finish line.

Happy writing!


Story Nurse

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One thought on “#94: Unfinished Story Choice Paralysis

  1. Great advice!

    I had that thought that some of the issue might be how far into the story they are.

    They may have gotten through the inspirational part — where the story idea/concept is just getting out on paper — and hit the part where moving forward requires Hard Work. And if you’re used to writing from inspiration, that transition can be HARD. You feel like the story isn’t flowing, so you want to try something new.

    To me? That just means the honeymoon’s over and it’s time to settle into a ‘weekly date night’ sort of schedule, pushing forward slowly until we get to the next stage.


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