By Sammy Bina
You know what sucks?
Writing. Not all the time, but some of the time. And do you know why writing sucks some of the time?
Imagine this: You’ve been working on your latest WIP for months when you suddenly realize you don’t like it. Not even a little bit. In fact, you’d be perfectly happy to print it off and organize a bonfire, just so you could burn it. Staring at the screen, fingers frozen above the keys, you realize you have no idea why you’re writing this story, and you have no idea what’s going to happen next. In fact, you don’t even care. You consider killing everyone off right then and there and ending the whole painful process. Throwing in the towel sounds like a great idea. Except for one itty bitty problem: your conscience. In the back of your head, that stubborn little bugger is telling you to finish. Heck, you’ve gotten this far, you might as well write to the end, right? How big of a failure would you be if you just gave up now, thousands of words in?
If you’ve ever been in this situation, raise your hand. (For the record, my hand is right up there with you.)
During our last live chat, one of our readers posed a very interesting question that I thought deserved some more consideration: how do you know when to give up on a project and move on to bigger and better things? While we all offered our thoughts during the chat, I wanted to expand on this idea, or what I like to call the mid-write crisis. How does one decide when to give up on a story? And how do you do it without being wracked with guilt? How do you know you’re making the right decision?
I can tell you this now, there are no strict rules for deciding when to abandon a project. There is no checklist you can fill out, no creepy fortune teller who is going to predict the sixth book you write is going to be the one that makes you famous. It’s all up to you and what feels right to you. However, as someone who’s had to deal with my fair share of mid-write crises, I thought I’d try to explain my thought process, and how I’ve learned to shelve projects without feeling like a total failure.
When I first began branching out from fan fiction back in the day, I had no trouble starting a project and never finishing it. Mostly because what I was writing was crap, but that’s beside the point. Really, I just didn’t care. I was happy to be writing. Between trying to write a full-length novel, I probably started at least twenty, and still wrote short snippets of fanfic to keep myself going. Writing was fun. I didn’t care what I wrote. I was content to sit at my computer and pound on the keys and hope something good came out. If it didn’t, I tried something else.
Then I actually got serious about it. I came up with an idea for a novel, and when I finished that first draft, I was ecstatic. I’d done it! I’d finally written something completely my own! I submitted it to contests and did fairly well. But it never went anywhere, and then vampires flooded the market and I immediately lost interest. I didn’t want the first thing the world saw of my writing to be another vampire novel (Nothing against vampires! Just personal taste). So I decided to shelve it. Back then, I didn’t even know what a literary agent was, so I thought I’d done as much as I could.
That’s my first suggestion. If you’ve written a book, submitted it to as many places as you can think of, and didn’t get much of a bite, maybe it’s time to work on something else. Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for perseverance! Sometimes you have to query a couple hundred agents, and that’s fine! Look at JKR, Judy Bloom, and countless others. But for those of you who’d rather not put up with hundreds of rejection letters, feel free to try something else for a while. If you’ve got another idea brewing, run with it! Shelving a project isn’t the same as burying it, and no one can say you didn’t try.
It gets harder when you have a complete first draft but lack the will to revise it. I’ve been in this situation as well, and you know what? It blows. Because you spent all that time writing the darn draft, but now that it’s done, you think it stinks. And hey, maybe it does. But is it fixable? Do you like it enough to try to fix it? If not, maybe it’s time to work on something else. Who knows? Maybe you’ll feel like coming back to it in a few months, and revising it won’t seem so daunting or impossible. And if you don’t? Well, that’s one more story you’ve written, and another opportunity you’ve had to improve your craft. Your next book will be better for it.
Some of you may be like me and start way more stories than you finish. You know what? There’s nothing wrong with that. For me, it’s a tried and true way to see which of my ideas are worth pursuing. Sometimes I’ll write half a book, then abandon it for months, even years. But then, one day, I’ll start thinking about that lonely, unfinished manuscript and I’ll go back to it. And sometimes I never do, and they get moved to my Graveyard Folder. I used to see that folder as a symbol of failure; Oh, look at how many stories you started, Sammy, and never finished. Look at how many books you could’ve written. Look at all the time you wasted. God, you’re such a failure. Nowadays I see things a bit differently. That folder reminds me that I’m a writer. That even when things didn’t turn out the way I wanted, I was still writing. I was still honing my craft. I was learning. I still am.
And that’s how you shelve a project and not feet bad about it. You have to remember that, no matter what, each piece is a learning experience. Writing takes practice, and it takes time. So what if you don’t get published until you’re 50? In the meantime, you’ve honed your craft, you’ve gained priceless experience, and that first book you sell? It’ll all be worth it. People are always going to tell you not to give up. And while it’s good to push through difficult situations, I think it’s impractical to tell a person to never give up. Especially when it comes to writing. You’re going to write things you won’t finish, and you shouldn’t feel bad about it. Because even if you give up and toss it aside, you learned something. And really, that’s far more important, don’t you think?
Sammy Bina is in her last year of college, majoring in Creative Writing. Currently an intern with the Elaine P. English Literary Agency, she is querying THE AGE OF NEVER GROWING OLD, an adult dystopian romance, and revising DON’T MAKE A SCENE, a contemporary YA. You can find her on twitter, or check out her blog.