Tuesday, August 04, 2009


In quilting we have insider acronyms for projects that we never finish or that we perhaps should never have finished:

The UFO (Unfinished Object): Something like a king-size all-white wholecloth quilt with twelve stitches per inch; in my life time I've only seen one master quilter actually finish one, and it took her seven years (as I described to Darlene in comments to my old Genreality post here.)

The WOMBAT (Waste of Material, Batting and Time): That tumbling block patchwork pattern baby quilt looked so gorgeous in that catalog back in the 90's, as did the hot-pink and electric-blue leopard-spotted fabric chosen for it. Only the quilter didn't get it finished until the newborn was in their senior year of high school and now wouldn't be caught dead with that pink-blue horror, not even if you offered a large cash bribe.

Once a year the wise quilter will find the courage to get rid of her UFOs (usually by donating it to the guild kitty for someone else to pick up and brood over for another year or five) and repurposes a WOMBAT into something less revolting (personally I can make anything into a tote bag) so she is free to move on to new projects with little or no guilt. Alas, not all of us are that wise, so we save things and work on them here and there and wallow in our guilt.

I think the same thing can be true of writers:

The NFS (Never Finished Story): Five to five hundred pages of that brilliant idea that should have written itself, but didn't; half of an epic novel that lost so much steam in the middle it could pass for a half-eaten donut; or whatever other opus that fizzled out on us.

The WOMPET (Waste of My Paper, Energy and Time): Big strong alpha male homoerotic Were-Sloth Brotherhoods were going to be the next big thing! Writers knew it! And wrote it! And then they weren't (whimper.)

I don't think there is anything wrong with writing the NFS, as long as you don't make them such a habit that you never finish anything. One good way to thin out your unfinished work file is to make a committment to finish at least one decent NFS before you start a new project. Why finish what sucks? Because you're developing good work habits. Keep making a promise to finish what you start, and eventually you'll never need a NFS file.

Too many WOMPETs, on the other hand, can be tough to handle. We all have them, and any writer who says they don't has simply done the brave thing and burned all theirs. It can be the Trunk Book, the One That Was Supposed to Sell Like Hotcakes, the Book of Your Heart or any painful variation thereof. It's sitting somewhere in your home or office unread, unwanted, and silently gathering dust, and that's probably all it will ever do.

But the WOMPET says something about you as a writer, and not what you think. It's not a symbol of failure. It may look and feel like one, but in a sense the WOMPET was the complete opposite of a flop. You used your talent, practiced your skills and gained experience, something you can't be taught, you can't buy, and you can't pay to have done for you. You wrote, and you learned. That's a genuine achievement.

The only real, practical way to learn how to do this job is to do the job. Every day or as often as you can. As the ladies of RWA say, backside in chair, hands on keyboard (BICHOK). Start to finish. Over and over. You make it your job to write as many WOMPETS as it takes to find your voice, develop your skills, refine your style, and bring your writing up to professional level. This doesn't happen over night. You have to want it, pursue it, and work for it.

A finished story that didn't sell is not an object of shame, nor is it really a waste of your paper, energy and time. Instead, think of it as a HIPMA: How I Practice My Art.


  1. Very true.
    No such thing as wasted writing.

  2. Thank you Lynn - it is reassurring to remember that everyone needs practice their art, and it doesn't need to be perfect first time out the block!

  3. UFO's - lol - My group of old college friends has UFO parties, fewer than we used to.

    It could be knitting, quilting, almost anything.

    Then we started teaching each other some of our other hobbies: soap making, string quilts, Quilt in a Day. And in a week and a half, marbeling fabric. Later this fall - natural dyes and maybe silk painting.


  4. PBW said... "The WOMPET (Waste of My Paper, Energy and Time): Big strong alpha male homoerotic Were-Sloth Brotherhoods were going to be the next big thing! Writers knew it! And wrote it! And then they weren't (whimper.)

    Don't take this wrong, but... thank God. Don't wanna read about were-sloth brotherhoods.

  5. It seems I have found you and this website just in the nick of time. I have many NFS and WOMBAT's and thought I was the only one who couldn't handle it all! Now I'm realizing I'm part of a 'club' and this is just part of the dues :) Thanks so much for sharing your insight and experience. I've come late to the party, writing pro at age 48, now 55 and still loving it. I haven't published as many books as you, but I also live in different genres at the same time - its gets mighty crowded sometimes!

    Thanks again and you've got a fan for life.

  6. AnnaM.8:39 AM

    Thanks for the peptalk!

  7. Most NFSs can be salvaged and finished in my experience. Although whether or not they should have been, if that was the best use of time, who can say. Maybe that's how a NFS becomes a WOMPET. It's all learning, though.

    I have one NFS I am seriously considering putting in the "move on now" file, because I've taken several runs at it and still not come to a successful conclusion.

  8. My grandmother quilts, and sometimes she even finishes quilts for other people. I'm not sure how she manages though.

    I have a lot of NFS's. They live in a portfolio and a few journals. I read them sometimes and even take another shot at them.

    As for WOMPETS, I like to think of them as material I can work into new (hopefully better) stories.

  9. LOL Great post, Lynn.

  10. Anonymous9:58 PM

    BIC backside in chair
    HOK hands on keyboard
    TAM typing away madly

    that was the battle cry

  11. I loved this post. I have lots of UFO sitting in a tub that I started for my kids and hope to finish before theirs are grown. I haven't been writing long enough to have a lot of UFO's I try to work on each unfinished item whether it is outlining or research or whatever. Thanks for the reminders.