Is It Okay to Cheat?

On your characters, that is! Just for the record, Sydney Carroll does not advocate funny business in real life relationships. What I’m talking about is finding yourself in a rut with a current work in progress and falling for a new character who captures your heart, your mind, and all of your hard-won creative mojo. What’s a writer to do?


Hey, these things happen. Committed relationships are hard, and unless your chosen medium is flash fiction, getting a project from idea to publication is just that: a commitment–sometimes a lot more long-term than we think. We get in ruts plotting saggy middles, editing, second-guessing. Temptations will inevitably arise: it’s a beautiful day, let’s go to the beach… happy hour, anyone? If writing is a priority, then answering those temptations is straightforward. But some of the worst temptations to stray are the creative ones. A new idea, a setting or time period that captures the imagination is bad enough, but sometimes I’ll get blindsided by love for a new character and his world that the last thing I want to do is sit down at the computer with my old story in Rutsville, USA. When this happens, I’ve learned not to reject any possibility outright, but to consider the situation and tread lightly.


At its best, a little cheating can be good for a manuscript. It can give my mind a break and sometimes it can help me work out a problem with the current manuscript just like mentally hitting the “refresh” button. It can also make writing more fun because I’m anticipating my new project–and what better feeling is there than “OMG this idea is awesome and I can’t wait to get started!” At its worst, cheating can become a bad habit. Just as in real life a serial cheater has strings of meaningless relationships, serial cheating as a writer can lead to a lot of great starts that peter out after a few chapters, and a stack of unfinished manuscripts that get us no closer to publication than we would be if we were still slogging away on the first. Unfortunately, there is no right way that fits every situation. Each time I’m tempted, I’ll consider where I am in my current project, and deal with the temptation in one of the following ways.


  1. Flirtation: If I’m busy with re-writes, or actively drafting, I’ve got to keep my nose clean. It doesn’t mean I’m dead to inspiration, though! If an idea or character attracts me, I’ll use my downtime to search out settings, peruse magazines and the internet for a hottie that resembles my hero–hey, it’s research! At this stage, it’s mostly for fun, and it doesn’t cut into my actual writing time.
  2. Crushing: So the sexy rock star detective won’t leave you alone. And you don’t want to leave him alone, because he’s been through so much already, really someone needs to be on his side and tell his story…. Girl, you are past idle flirtation here. But you’ve still got to TCOB with the old book! Don’t give in–well, maybe just a little. Here’s where character sketches and (brief!) plot outlines help. Golden Boy gets satisfied, before the crush becomes a full-blown obsession. The best part about this stage is that these things can often be done on the fly: keep a notebook with you, or write it on your phone if that floats your boat. In the carpool line, at the doctor’s office, superfluous work meetings (nothing like a little hanky panky on the clock!).
  3. The Fling: Sometimes you just need a break from your main project. If I’m in a line-editing stage, I might put it aside for a while to get “fresh eyes.” This is a perfect time for a fling with Golden Boy. Take your plots and character sketches from the crush stage and put them to good use. Take all that wild enthusiasm and bang out (pun intended) a rough draft, down and dirty style. Take a cue from Don Draper: get it down, revel in the passion, then be good and go home to your manuscript. Then, when you’re querying and submitting the old bag, you can make an honest man out of Golden Boy, or at least make him your main squeeze.
  4. Divorce: Sometimes a relationship is broken. That manuscript you’ve been struggling over for the past six months years might be a struggle because it’s fundamentally flawed. It could be fixable, but maybe you’ve used up all your enthusiasm for the story and can’t muster any more for a total rewrite–and Golden Boy beckons. In this case, I say go for it. Life’s too short! And when Golden Boy has run his course and is off in the world seducing your readers, maybe you might see a little of the old spark in the one you left behind. As long as the doc is on your hard drive, there’s always potential for second chances!


So, to answer my question: yes, it’s okay to cheat. But beware of the consequences and don’t be a writing philanderer!

Do you ever get the temptation to cheat on your story? How do you handle it?

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