There comes a time when even the most prodigious writers among us have to put a story away for good. Despite how certain writing memes might make you feel, this isn’t a failure. Everyone trunks a story sometimes, and the trick is to know when you’ve done enough and it’s time to move on. That’s our topic for this week, with a focus on how different types of writers handle the situation in various ways.
Generously transcribed by Linda Ndubuisi. Volunteer to transcribe a podcast.
Chris: You’re listening to the Mythcreants Podcast, with your hosts: Oren Ashkenazi, Wes Matlock, and Chris Winkle.[Opening theme]
Oren: Welcome everyone to another episode of Mythcreants Podcast. I’m Oren, and with me today is…
Oren: So our topic for today is trunked stories. I was going to do a little bit about not finishing the podcast, but honestly, that sounded kind of sad. And I realized this is a little bit more of a serious topic. For definition time, a trunked story is a story that you have decided to stop working on and you have no immediate plans to go back to it. That could mean that it’s half drafted, it could be that it’s finished but it needs to be revised, or that it’s 2% of the way from being published but you just can’t hunt down that last run-on sentence, so you just throw up your hands and run away. So, it just means a story that you have put down and have just not planned to come back to it.
Wes: Why do we trunk them?
Oren: I think it’s because you put them in the trunk. Put them in a trunk!
Wes: Of your car? Or like, steamer trunk?
Chris: No, like a chest.
Wes: Why don’t we chest stories?[laughter]
I don’t have…I mean, I don’t know. Do you have trunks? I don’t.
Oren: I had a piece of furniture growing up that we would refer to as a trunk.
Oren: It was a little bit chest shaped, but it was like… For some reason, I think of chests as being more solid, whereas this had kind of a leathery surface, which to me is a trunk for literally no reason. Like, I don’t have a justification for that. It just is.
Chris: Yeah. And I guess this would have been when all the stories were on paper—it’s probably where this term is from—so you got to actually put it physically in a storage compartment.
Oren: I did a little Googling to see if I could easily find the origin of the term trunked and nothing came up. And I was like, “I’m not spending more than five minutes on this.”
Wes: I’m not suggesting we should, I’m just wondering because…yeah, it’s just kind of funny. Like, car trunk is the most immediate thing that comes to mind for me. And then it’s just like, every time you run an errand, it’s following you around. It’s never…you’re never going to quite let it go.
Oren: I mean, I do collect a lot of weird stuff in my trunk over the years— like in the trunk of my car. So I guess that makes sense. It’s like, “there could be some manuscripts in there. No one knows.”
Chris: Do you think it’s good to note that everybody trunk stories, right? I think when people trunk a story and they’re not feeling good about it, they might feel very alone. I suppose if you’re working on your very first story, maybe you haven’t trunked a story yet because you haven’t had the chance to. But even if somebody tells you they finished lots of stories and have never trunked one, it’s still most likely they forgot about some story they trunked. Right?
Oren: Or they’re defining trunked differently. Right? Like, they might be in their heads being like, “I’ve never trunked a story. I finished every draft. And then I, you know, put the draft in like a little word file that I haven’t looked at for 15 years.”
Chris: And I think it’s just the reality of the fact that stories are a big time investment. They’re relatively big projects. And if you continually do projects that are that big, sometimes you will not finish the project.
Oren: And there are a lot of reasons that you might not. I mean, sometimes if it takes you a long time to write a story, you can find that you have gotten better as a writer, and you are so much better now than when you started, that trying to update the story to be up to your current standards is just too much work. And I mean, honestly, I think if that’s the reason, that’s not a bad thing. Like, you’ve improved to the point where you have to start something new because you’ve gotten better. That’s not the only reason you might do it, but I have seen that happen.
Chris: For sure.
Oren: I’m not going to say that I’m great at writing, but I used to be way worse. And I’ve had a couple of stories that took me so long to write that I was like, “All right, you know, I was just awful when I started this, and I don’t really feel like going back and trying to bring it up to the moderately mediocre level I’m at now.”
Chris: Right. This might be a good time to talk about the “magnum opus,” which usually ends up in the trunk. So when we talk about magnum opus, we’re not talking about the traditional definition because we just don’t really believe in the magnum opus. We refer to… A lot of times when people start writing or they really get into it for the first time, they take on a super huge project, and usually it ends up being a whole series. Sometimes, they don’t know it’s a whole series at first, but it’s something that’s just like big and overly ambitious. It’s kind of like a writer’s first love. And often the writer’s really, really into it, but it’s just a very large project. And it motivates us to start writing, right? To do this thing that in our minds is our big masterpiece. But that’s a really very difficult thing to do when you are brand new. So it’s both a very ambitious project and we’ve got a very inexperienced writer. And generally it becomes extremely complicated because the writer isn’t used to simplifying, because they don’t know how big their ideas are, and often because they’ve been thinking through every detail of the story in their heads before they even sit down and try to make it happen. And so for that reason, the kind of magnum opus is usually something that a writer can work on for years, but ultimately puts in the trunk. Not universally, there are a few people who beat the odds, but the trunk is usually where it’s destined for.
Oren: Yeah. I think mine was a badly disguised Final Fantasy fanfic where I was going to unite Final Fantasies 7, 8, 9, and 10 into one mega story—that was my magnum opus. And you can imagine that didn’t turn out super well.
Chris: My magnum opus was a trilogy about three characters who were going to destroy themselves. It was very edgy.
Oren: So dark, so mature.[laughter]
I work with a lot of clients, and I’d say probably a good third of them, maybe a quarter if it’s on the low end, are in the magnum opus phase, where this is either, if not their first story, it’s their first big story. And so they don’t really have a concept of how difficult this is,
or a concept of how much complexity their story can handle. They haven’t learned the concept that your story can be about anything, but it can’t be about everything. So that just becomes untenable after a while, and you eventually have to—in most cases, unless you’re one of the extremely lucky few—acknowledge the things that you learned, and put that story away and work on something that you can actually achieve.
Chris: Yeah. I mean, I do think that the magnum opus has a role in providing that initial motivation to learn, and get over that initial big learning curve. And of course, some of that comes from the fact that, you know, especially since we have all these cultural messages that are like, “Oh, you know, just pour your heart onto the page and it’ll be great!” It’s like, “That’s not how it works.” We don’t know what we’re getting into, usually, but that is what gets us there—to a certain extent. But they’re so big and so complicated that what happens is you get so much better, but you are constrained by all the things you made up when you knew absolutely nothing.
I put my magnum opus down because I was just so much happier and more productive working on short stories. Like, when I started working on a short story, I made progress—I actually got it done. I went back to my magnum opus, I just felt stuck, right? And just couldn’t get anything done and didn’t know what to do. And after a while, I was like, “Okay, I guess maybe I should just do the stuff where I am productive and happy”—after a while.
Oren: And that’s actually an important point here. I think that some people get a bit too fixated on the idea that they can fix anything in revisions. Revisions are powerful, and you should absolutely do them, and they are important, and you can make a lot of improvements in revisions. But revisions aren’t infinite. Nobody has infinite energy, and you are sometimes going to hit a point with some stories where it is just not worth the effort it would take to revise this into something you’d be happy with. That’s just going to happen. And I’ve encountered some people. And I went through this phase where I thought you could just revise anything. The threshold is different for different people. Some people can revise way faster and to a much greater extent than I can, and some people are even worse off than me and have an even harder time. So, you just have to learn to balance where your time and effort is going.
Chris: I do think it’s worth thinking that one person’s trunked stories is another person’s completed, because it’s not just about how good the story is, it’s about what your goals are, and what standards you’re holding your stories to. So you’re most likely to trunk something when you’re at the
stage where you’ve become really discerning because you’re learning a lot, but your writing skill isn’t quite up to your new discernment. Like, you can now tell what good storytelling is and what great wordcraft is, but
you’re still practicing and trying to get your own skills to measure up—and you will get there. Right? Because discernment… Once you have that discernment, you’ve unlocked additional levels. Then you just have to get to them. But it can be a really discouraging time, so you might be more likely to trunk something simply because you’re not proud enough of it to show it to the world, and you’re not motivated to get it there. Whereas somebody else could take a similar story that’s of the same level and just be like, “Okay, well, I’m going to move on to something else, but I’m happy enough with it that I’m going to put it out there. I’m going to independently publish it, or I’m just going to share it,” or whatever your personal goals are, because everybody can have different goals. Some people, they write a story that’s really just for themselves to read, and it doesn’t need to go anywhere. So it’s mostly about where you want your stories to be before you consider them complete—whatever that finish line is for you. And for different people, that’s going to look different.
Oren: The reason why we keep focusing and emphasizing so much on different people is that this is the much-discussed process advice that we talk about sometimes. We don’t give process advice that often, just because it’s so individual and it changes so much. But trunked stories are such a sore point for a lot of writers, and I’ve actually had people ask me to talk more about them, that I decided a podcast was a good idea because I’m not sure if what I have to say is coherent enough for an article.[laughter]
Chris: Well, on the site, we have 86 articles marked the “writing process” so that’s not actually much compared to our hundreds of articles. But there are some topics where people do find process advice really helpful. It’s mostly that it’s just not a replacement for craft advice, especially if it’s a craft topic. Whether or not you trunk your story is definitely more about process, because it’s not really a craft topic.
Oren: Yeah. And you just have to look and see where your situation is. Because for one thing, most of us don’t depend on our fiction writing for our income. And if we do, then that’s a different scenario, right? If you’re depending on hitting your word deadlines so that you can pay your rent, then you’re going to look at this with a different priority. And you’re going to be like, “All right, well, maybe even if I don’t like the story and I’m not happy with it, I need that money so I’m putting it out there.” But if you don’t, then you’re not losing anything financially by not finishing a story that you’re not into writing anymore. Which is not to say that you shouldn’t finish it—that’s up to you; that depends on what you want out of it—I’m just saying that there can be a lot of pressure to finish it no matter what. And I don’t really think that’s helpful.
Chris: I do think that if you’re even asking yourself whether you should trunk a story, it suggests you’re already losing motivation. That doesn’t necessarily mean you should trunk the story, but I think at that point, the question becomes, “Are you having an ongoing problem where you’re not able to finish your stories?” Because that sets a very different context than “I can’t finish this story.” Because in many cases, if you’re miserable working on the story and your income is not dependent on finishing that story, and you have another story you can work on instead, then that’s often just the best choice. Now, of course, there’s other factors like, “Are you almost done?”[laughter]
But if you’re not finishing anything, then sometimes that might give you a reason to try pushing through and just see what happens. But even then, I would say that sometimes, the issue has to be fixed upstream in the process. Right? Sometimes, if you’re not finishing anything because you’re not actually interested enough in the story concepts that you’re coming up with, that’s not necessarily going to be fixed if you keep going. But you might find what works for you if you try new stories. Right? Or if it helps you to plan your story out, if that allows you to finish, right? Then that’s something that you can stop mid-story and plan it. But that’s, again, something that you would try and see what process you need to start. But in that case that might be a reason to try just seeing if you can get to the end if you push yourself a little harder.
Oren: Yeah. And if you… You also can think about it in terms of what is the most efficient way to use your writing time? And is it worth spending that time to try to break through a block you’re having on a story? Or are you just staring at a page and not making any progress when you could be spending that time on a story you’d actually write? Just because you started this one first doesn’t necessarily mean it’s the one you want.
Chris: If you’re wondering, “What is the alternative to trunking a story?” Some people do find some success in rediscovering what is important about the story. I mean, I had a client tell me that he took his story out of the trunk after reading material about Centering Darlings because he realized what it was about the story that he loved. And sometimes finding out what’s actually important to us improves motivation. And you realize that you spent the story working on that action plot that you thought you had to have, when really the personal relationships was the thing that got you to write. And sometimes in those cases, once you find out what your darling is and then reimagine what the story would be if you really focused on that and put it front and center, that can be motivating sometimes.
Oren: It’s also worth looking at what you’ve already learned from a story that you’re thinking about trunking, right? Because we’re all afraid of, or at least most—I am—maybe not all of us, a lot of us are afraid of having all of our time and effort wasted. And to a certain extent, I would argue that you don’t really waste time with writing as long as you’re thinking about how these things work and trying to do better because that’s just practice. Now, the tricky part there is knowing how to judge your practice because this isn’t like practicing for something that has an objective measure. It’s like… It’s not like you’re trying to get a ball in a basket and you know if you did or not because the ball went in the basket. You’re trying something much more abstract, but that’s what reading about how storytelling works on MythCreant.com will help you out with. And at that point, you can learn a lot from your trunk story: you can learn what things actually interest you; you can learn perhaps which storylines became too chaotic to manage; you can learn which ones you actually found yourself trying to go back to, and that maybe is what caused the problem because maybe this character should have been the main character in the first place. There are so many things you can learn there.
Wes: Would you encourage somebody then, Oren, to consider repurposing or salvaging aspects of a trunk story?
Oren: Yeah. I mean, that’s… I think that’s a great thing. I think people can definitely do that—I’ve done that a few times. If that gives you the energy to write, then go for it. I mean, the nice thing about the trunk is that it’s not the fire pit.[laughter]
Wes: Fire pitting stories.
Oren: Your story is not gone, probably. So you can go back to it. You can reimagine it for later. I had a story a while back that was just kind of completely untenable after a while, but it had some ship combat in it that I really liked, and I took that and made it on airships instead of regular ships. And that’s the story I’ve got on the site with airships in it. Can you tell I like airships?[laughter]
Wes: Kicking yourself for using actual boats the first time around.
Oren: The problem was actual boats the whole time. I mean, the actual problem was that the protagonist and the antagonist had a relationship that wasn’t good to write, but also I couldn’t figure out something to replace it with—that was what actually killed that story. So I started
fresh with a clean set of characters who didn’t have that baggage. And then I was like, “Oh, hey, I remember all that ship combat that I used back in the day. I’m going to go ahead and don’t mind if I control copy paste, but just do a control F for C and replace it with air, not L.”[laughter]
Chris: I had a story once that I had kind of outlined, and then when I started to draft it, I realized that I didn’t have enough sources attention and I didn’t really have a lot of content to fill it out. But more than that, the story’s appeal was based on a few jokes that I liked. And this was probably a novelette-sized story. I just wasn’t motivated enough to finish this draft because the things that pulled me in weren’t a big enough part of the story inherently, and the idea just didn’t have the potential that I originally thought it had—that was still a good learning experience. Now when I think about story ideas, I really try to think about how motivated I am to write that idea and how much content I really am interested in writing, and then kind of slot it into what I think the appropriate length is for that story based on how much writing I really want to do in that vein.
Wes: I am very curious about what jokes inspired you to write the story. Chris: There were sex jokes.
Wes: Okay, nice.[laughter]
Oren: There were 69 of them.[laughter]
Wes: Oh boy. That’s great.
Chris: I think the working title was called Sex Portal.
Wes: Okay, nice. I would probably stop and thumb through that. Like, “Oh, what’s this book? This is a joke book. What’s happening?”
Oren: And you can, of course, come to the sort of the other side of this where, if your story is nearly done, if you only have like 5% left to write, or you’ve done like several rounds of revisions and you only have a little bit left, at that point it can be worth just pushing through, even if it’s not a pleasant experience, just so that you have the thing that you already put in most of the work for—that can also be a valid tactic. I don’t want to say that you should just stop writing the moment you
encounter a problem, it’s just you have to be able to decide when it is worth pushing through. Like, when will pushing through the story be good for you in the long run, or when will it just be causing yourself unnecessary mental anguish? And that will depend on, “What is it like for you to write a story you’re not into?” Because some people can just do it, and those are the people who are most likely to be able to make money off of this, because if they’re the kind of person who needs to have a really steady update schedule, they need to be able to write at all times, and for them, maybe just go, whatever. But if you’re like me, and writing a story you don’t care about is one of the hardest things, then you have to be pretty close to the end for it to be worth pushing through on that one.
Chris: This is one of those reasons why I’m always telling people they should try short stories.
Chris: Because again, when you’re in that magnum opus stage, and you’re trying to decide whether or not you want to trunk an entire series, or push through, that’s a pretty big decision that involves a lot of time, and you’ve got like the whole sunk cost fallacy, right? Where it’s like, “Oh geez, I put so much time into this.” And again, that time is never wasted, because a lot of times, writers learn a lot of storytelling by working on their magnum opus, even though they made things as hard for themselves as possible. But the nice thing about a short story is that if you get bored of it halfway through, then you can see, okay, what is it like to actually finish this and get that sense of accomplishment without forcing yourself to finish three more books to get to the end of the series you planned.
Wes: The other thing that might help with inspiration with short stories—I’ve been thinking about this—and obviously it depends, but talking to your support network can be helpful for this kind of stuff. And feedback is always nice if you have people willing to provide it. But time is a big ask of people. You don’t want to drop your magnum opus on their footstep and say, “I’m stuck, please help.” When you could say, “I can’t quite wrap up this 2000 word short story, do you have a little bit of time?” I think that’s why a lot of us who took writing classes in college, for better or for worse, it was… I think that there’s value in talking through some things with drafts, more or less complete. Because at that level, then, you’re dealing with some external accountability, which can be helpful for some people.
Oren mentioned, “What’s at stake with your writing? Is this professional? Are you getting paid for it?” And if you decide to open up to a friend or colleague or something and ask for their advice, you’ve kind of brought them in. And that could be a little bit more motivating now, because it’s
not just you working on it, somebody else is kind of coming to help you a little bit. And that might be the juice that you need. It’s not for everybody, but sometimes getting out of your own head for a while can help avoid the trunk.
Oren: Yeah. I mean, if you know someone who is like a person you can talk to about your stories and will enthusiastically talk to you about them with you, that can be invaluable—and be nice to that person.
Wes: Buy them chocolates.
Oren: Because let me tell you, that is not a guarantee when you go to writing social circles, whether they be in person or online or whatever—those are the Wild West. And you need to be careful who you choose to do this with, because you can be like, “Hey, so I’m sort of stuck on my story about the necro-industrial complex.” And you can have someone be like, “I don’t like skeletons; they’re boring. What about dragons? Like, what if it was the dragon industrial complex?” And you’d be like, “This is not what I wanted.” That’s not uncommon. I went through a phase where I went to every writing group in Seattle I could find, because I was convinced that if I just went to enough of them, I would write more. And this was what I encountered—people who would just… you would tell them what you were trying to do with your story and they would be like, “Well, what if you did something entirely different that I think is cool?”
Wes: Oh no.
Oren: And it wasn’t really until MythCreant started that I met more people who I could actually talk to about my stories, and then they would respond in a way that was helpful. And I’m not going to pretend I was never that guy, right? I’m sure I was. I’m sure someone came to me and was like, “Okay, so I kind of want to do a story about sand crawlers.” I’m like, “Oh yeah, sure. Sand crawlers, whatever. Have you considered making them airships?”[laughter]
They probably have their own podcast now to complain about me. [laughter]
Chris: But yeah, there is a lot of people who… It’s not about necessarily the story or working on the story, it’s just about being discouraged about your skill level. So finding that one person,who sometimes is your mom, but may not be your mom, who will cheerlead—who will be a cheerleader—is very valuable.
Oren: All right, well, with that perhaps surprisingly upbeat and heartwarming note from the cold, cynical hearts at the MythCreants saddle of sadness, we’re going to go ahead and call this episode to a close.
Chris: If you found this episode helpful, please support us on Patreon. Just go to patreon.com/MythCreants.
Oren: And before we go, I want to thank a few of our existing patrons. First, we have the popular writing software Plotter; you can find out more about them at plotter.com. Next, we have Callie McLeod. Then there’s Kathy Ferguson, who’s a professor of political theory in Star Trek. After that, it’s Ayman Jaber; he’s an urban fantasy writer and a connoisseur of Marvel. And finally, we have Danita Rambo; she lives at
We’ll talk to you next week.[Closing theme]
P.S. Our bills are paid by our wonderful patrons. Could you chip in?