Wednesday, October 7, 2015

Writing Wednesdays - Is it Ever Okay to Give Up on a Book?

(Believe it or not, this is going to be a happy blog post!)

One of my all time favorite sayings is: “There’s a name for writers who never quit: published.”

I love the fairness that this quote implies: the idea that if you just keep working hard and getting better, you will eventually be rewarded with your dreams. I believe it, too. I believe that if you love stories enough to keep writing them even in the face of rejection, you will eventually find your voice and your audience. But as huge a fan as I am of the “never give up, never quit on your dreams” mentality that is necessary to the survive and thrive in the writing life, this absolutist mindset can lead to a lot of unhappiness and wasted time when applied to novels.

I talk a lot about how to save floundering books on this blog. I’ve talked about how to fix your problems, how to avoid them all together, and how to fall back in love with a book you’ve started to hate. But what happens when you’ve tried all of that, and the book still doesn’t work? What do you do when you’ve done everything, and it’s still not enough? What happens then?

The normal writing advice I see for this situation is “Try again. Fail again. Fail better.” There’s a lot of merit to this approach. If I gave up on every book I’d been sure was broken beyond repair, half my current titles wouldn’t be published. That said, I do feel there is a practical limit to failing better. That sometimes, the effort needed to make a book work simply isn’t worth the finished product.

I know that sounds a little like blasphemy, but hear me out! Writing is a creative endeavor. It thrives on big, new ideas, but big, new ideas don’t always work. Sometimes, the only way to make an ambitious plan actual function is to compromise it until doesn’t look anything like what you originally intended. Even then, sometimes that big hairy idea just won't come together even after months of trying, and you’re just plain sick and tired of beating your head against the wall.

In an ideal world, this is the spot where you would double down on your principles and find a way to make it work, but this isn’t an ideal world. This is reality, and real life doesn’t always have neat endings. There’s only so much time in a life to write, which means you don’t always have the luxury of laboring on a struggling project until you have the stroke of genius that will actually make it all come together. Sometimes, you have to look at the reality of your life and future writing plans and decide if this project is worth all the time and suffering required to make it work, and sometimes, that answer is no.

I will never tell any writer to quit on a book. That’s not my place, because the only person who can say when it’s time to give up on your book is you, and it’s okay to feel really bummed out about that. Giving up on a book is a failure, but failure is not a dirty word. It's a natural part of the creative cycle, and every writer faces it multiple times because the very act of being a writer means doing audacious and ambitious things, and those don't always work out.

But just because failure is natural doesn’t mean it’s easy to accept. I think this is why so many writers cling so hard to projects long after we know the end is at hand. This isn't even an artist hang up, but a human one. We loved these books enough to start writing them, and we don’t want them to die.

I know that feeling much better than I’d like to admit. I’ve quit more projects than I care to count, and every time, it was a bitter decision, but it was also the right one. I know it doesn’t feel that way at the time, especially if we’re talking about a book you’ve already sunk months or even years of your life into. In the face of all that investment, quitting and thus losing all of that time and work can seem unforgivable.

This kind of thinking is what economists call the Sunk Cost Fallacy. We’ve sunk so much time and effort in already, the thinking goes, we need to finish this project, otherwise our investment will be wasted. But while this kind of thinking feels like staying strong in the face of adversity (which is a good thing!) it can also lead you to keep throwing good writing after bad. After all, if you can’t save that project, then sinking more time and writing into it will only mean even more will get thrown away when you do eventually quit.

Normally, this is the point in the blog post where I’d introduce my clever strategy to solve this problem, but not this time. I don’t have any steps or clever Rachel metric to figure out where a novel’s point of no return lies, because the only person who can say “enough” on your books is you. My entire blog is dedicated to clever writing hacks and ways to stay on target, but if you’ve tried everything and your book still isn’t working, if your daily writing feels like pulling teeth, if every page you struggle through makes you want to never write again, stop.

Giving up on a book is a failure, there's no way around that, but you are more than one book. You have entire worlds inside you, enormous stories waiting to be told. You are still a writer, and no single project--no matter how brilliant--is worth giving that up. So if you desperately want to quit a book you hate, do it. It's okay. Walk away. You're still a rock star.

My favorite book break-up song. If you hear this blasting from my laptop, a project is getting burned.

Embrace your new freedom! Go work on the new project that’s been capturing your imagination. Go have fun with your writing again and make something beautiful. Something you can love. And if someone calls you a quitter, just tell them that you had more books to write, and you were sick of this one taking up all your time. So long as you never give up on writing, you’ll never be a quitter in any case. You’re just an artist whose project didn’t work out, and that happens all the time.

But while you're doing all this letting go, don't hit delete. Just because you're giving up on a book doesn't mean it can never be rescued. If you can't stand to even look at it, just stash it in a folder somewhere. That way, when you're washing the dishes a year from now and you suddenly figure out exactly how to fix your broken project, your old book will be right there waiting for you. But even if that moment never comes and the book is truly lost, it's okay. You're still a writer, and you will write many books. Letting guilt over one failure drag you down just hurts your career and takes time and energy away from all the future awesome novels you have yet to write, so don’t waste your time. Go out there and write something amazing.

If nothing else, I promise you’ll feel a lot better.

Thank you for reading another installment of Writing Wednesday! If you enjoyed the post, please consider following me on social media (TwitterFacebookTumblrGoogle+). You can also subscribe to the blog directly via Feedburner. I do new writing posts every Wednesday and tons of publishing business/fun stuff in between. It's fun! Let's hangout!

I'll be back with another writing post next week and hopefully we'll be doing some kind of analysis on our recent BookBub, but we need to gather some more numbers. In the meanwhile, please check out any of my titles on the sidebar for some good reads! I'm kind of biased, but I think they're pretty good.

Thank you again for taking the time to read, and as always, keep writing!
Rachel Aaron/Bach


Kessie said...

Encouraging words! I feel sad for writers who polish one book for years and years until all the stuff that made it good is gone. My first book is like that--but I kicked it out the door into ebook. I was able to fix it a year later with a new take on the first three chapters. :-)

Grats on landing a Bookbub! Can't wait to see your numbers! I love numbers.

Jimney said...

Hey! Nice post there, Rachel.

I'm very familiar with quitting books as well. I've finished seven... but I started about twenty. It took me ages to quit my first book, but I know it was the right choice. I just felt so sick just looking at my 'notes for b1' file... and the book file itself I had to keep on a separate USB stick because I could just not look at it any more after fiddling with it for three years! The relief when I finally said 'nope, that's it, I'm done with this' was the best feeling ever. I was finally free to do something else... and the first book wasn't that good anyway. I mean, it did have a decent story, but the plot... and the way it was written... /shakes head.

I freed myself of those shackles. :)

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Nick Green said...

To paraphrase the old cliche, Edison gave up on 99 light bulbs before finding the one that worked. :-)

Giving up is just part of the process. It's editing on a large scale. Sometimes you delete a word. Sometimes a book. (Except you keep the discarded book as raw material to plunder, of course).

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Tiffany Smith said...

I just stumbled across your blog the other day and its one of the best "writing advice" blogs I've found. I'm 18 and I finished my very first novel a few months ago and I've been trying so hard to find an agent (I've failed so far). Right now I'm passing the time by writing another book where I finished the first draft but editing is a nightmare. This post actually helped me a lot! Thank you!