Sunday, September 6, 2009

Knowing When to Give Up

When is it time to give up on a book and move on to something else? This is a question I think about a lot, particularly as my current project has been going on for more than eight years, and is still not ready for submission.

It's not an easy question to answer, and the water is further muddied by the mix of advice out there in internet land. A recurring theme is that you should never get caught up on "The Book" - the single work that drains years of your time and will probably never venture beyond your own bookshelf. On the other hand, there's also plenty of advice about how to self-edit, how to improve a book to increase its chances of publication, and how you should never, ever, ever give up.

According to popular legend, Jo Rowling spent several years trying to get Harry Potter published. I wonder what would have happened if, after a year or so, she'd decided it was time to move on, put Harry in a box beneath the bed, and gone off to write a story about a girl with a crush on a vampire, or something like that.

In the end, I have no answer to this dilemma, other than to say I think there is wisdom in both sides of the argument, and the truth probably lies somewhere in between (otherwise known as a 'cop-out'). For myself, I currently have one other book bubbling around in my head, and it's something I'm excited about and I'm desperate to get in to. But I've decided to do one last pass on Ghost of Ping-Ling, hopefully finish it in the next few weeks, then feed it to the machine. After that, I can get my teeth into something new in the six-months or so before I hear something.

What about you? I'd be really interested to hear other people's wisdom on this subject - don't be shy!


  1. Well, as someone who is actually in the EXACT SAME boat... I say finish the first one to your relative satisfaction, then move on to your next idea. I, too, have been working on the same book for a little over eight years. I, too, am going to finish my final revision in a few short weeks (after I receive the last of four beta readers' critiques), and I, too, have a second novel in me that is DYING to get out.

    But I'm also determined to complete my first novel - for me, it is as much about THIS BOOK as it is about my future writing career. The book itself is done - but it needs a massive revision (it's way too long right now). And I'm hellbent on completing this novel before moving on to the next and the next after that. I fully believe that self-editing is possible, and if you're proud of your novel following this last revision, I say send it out, Brother!

    But that's my humble opinion, of course.

  2. Earlier this year I was involved in a writing contest, and reached the semifinals, 99 other novels did too. One author seemed to think rather highly of their book, which they said has taken them 20 years to complete, in between times they had had it looked over by agents, but nothing ever materialized.

    Once in the semi's, all 100 novels were read by Publisher's Weekly, and our reviews were posted on our entry page. This person recevied some harsh critisms, and on the forums came over as crushed. I think they believed their novel had potential to be in the final three, but alas, it did not.

    I gave some thought to this person's predicament; in their 60's, time of the essence. From all that was said, it seems as if this is the only book this person has written, or is the only one so thoroughly completed. I'm prolific, and only in my early 40's, a very different situation. But I couldn't stop thinking of all that time invested; maybe this author had no other burning ideas. Maybe like Harper Lee, this person had ONE story to tell.

    But their great disappointment seemed... strange. In that, one can't keep all eggs in a single basket.

    I think in our hearts we have to accept when something is past us, or needs to go in the past. Strictly subjective, and cop out can be applied. I have one story that carries some terrific bits, but the most of it... Phew! Will I ever get to it, smooth out so many rough spots?

    Honestly, probably not. I'm not going to completely shut that door, but, I just don't see it hapening.

    My two p...

  3. Hm, if we apply Pareto's Law to getting published and say 20% of the writing you do will net 80% of the results, you'd probably have to write at least five novels to get one published. :)

    Personally, I can't see doing The Book thing. Probably because I've found that the stories I end up really liking (and, believe it or not, I'm even more critical of my own stuff than I am of other people's!) are the ones that come out most easily, where the first draft is very close to what the final draft ends up being. Too bad that doesn't happen more often, heh heh.

    I'll be interested to see if I can make something non-sucky out of the novel I'm workshopping right now, because it's something I'm coming back to after a six year break, and I'm editing it heavily. I'm kind of kicking myself for not finishing it in the same year I wrote the first draft. (One of the problems with working on something you started years ago is that you're a different person and a different writer than you were back then.)

    Anyway, Peter, I think you should finish up Ping-Ling, send it out, and immediately start working on something new. Maybe you'll win the writer's lottery and sell it right off, but of course most people don't. Getting into a new project helps take the sting out of rejections, since it helps distance yourself from the one that's out there. Don't fall into the trap of editing it every time it comes back from a publisher. I think that's where people get stuck on the waterwheel.

    Good luck!

  4. Laura - I think you're right about finishing a novel before you move on to something else. I was walking home from work tonight and I got hit by an idea for yet another story, and I had to work really hard to stop thinking about it and get on with editing the current project. The danger is we never finish anything :-) Good luck with your project, too.

    Anna - that's a slightly scary story, and a great lesson. I hope that person was able to spring back and try something new. I listened to a podcast today from a guy who's about 64 and has just had a huge success with a novel - not his first, but it sounds like his most successful (he's been writing full time since his early fifties). It's never too late. He also made the comment that a lot of writers only become ready to write when they hit their forties - music to my ears!

    Lindsay - I definitely won't fall into that trap. The interesting thing is that in those eight years of scratching away I've probably written more like seven novels, not one. It's taken on so many variations and styles that many of the versions have absolutely no resemblance to each other, and are really stand alone books. Even if nothing comes of it - I see those eight years as an apprenticeship in the craft, definitely not time wasted!

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts!

  5. I know I'm done when my manuscript is clean of errors in terms of grammar. I usually have my story arc and plot mapped out thoroughly before I begin, so that is not my major concern. Peter has critiqued my work, so he knows most of my writing flaws. Once I have these ironed out, then it's time to submit.

    I think anyone can fall into the trap of tweaking the plot here and there, add a character, lose a character, and get lost in plot manipulation. That's when you become mired in the work with no way out.

    Peter, if your characters and your plot are working, focus on the technical (i.e. grammar) and go with it. Like Lindsay says, you never can tell!