Knowing When to Throw in the Towel

I’m a finisher. One of the first things I learned writing was the importance of follow through. Of actually finishing the projects you start.

It seems like such a simple principle. One that’s universal. A rule of thumb that should always be followed.

But it’s also sometimes just plain wrong, and that’s something that’s taken me much longer to learn. In many ways, I look at writing rules like math rules. When you’re starting out, it’s nice to believe things are clean cut. There are rules, and you follow those rules to be successful. But as you get deeper into the field, you realize that sometimes the simple rules are just covering up the harsh reality.

Up to now, I’ve started work on four novels, only to set them aside for various reasons. Typically what happens is I have to put them aside to work on something more pressing (deadlines, etc.), and when I come back to them, the thrill is gone. Sometimes the thrill leaves in the middle of me working on them.

The trick (for me) is in figuring out why exactly the thrill left, and whether it’s worth barreling onward until the thrill comes back.

But first, what is the thrill? For me, it’s the passion in a project. The desire to find out what happens next. I get wrapped up in the story and the characters, and I just have to keep writing. It’s almost a compulsion, and it’s absolutely necessary if my writing’s going to be any good. That said, it’s also something that often disappears in the middle of any book I’m working on. I’ll be going gangbusters, and then suddenly I’m not anymore. I’m stuck in the middle. I know where I want the book to end up, and I know how it starts, but the stuff in between is this conundrum, and wouldn’t it be nice to work on something else for a while instead?

That’s an example of when I’ll ignore the lack of the thrill and soldier onward. It’s a known obstacle, and like the leap of faith in The Last Crusade, I’ll make it, confident that I’m not going to plummet to my doom.

But there are other times when I see that a project just isn’t going to pan out. The conflict is broken somehow. The main character is boring. The voice is clunky. The plot is stupid. And so I walk away from it and go find something else to write. I usually only do this if the “thrill” is gone for weeks at a time. If no matter what I try to do, I just can’t get it back.

Will I return to the four projects I’ve set aside in the past? Well, let’s put it this way: I considered listing them here for your consideration, but as soon as I typed them and looked at them, I thought better of it. Some good ideas are stuck there. Sooner or later, they might come in handy. So yes, I might go back to them someday.

Just not now.

And add a fifth project to that list. I’ve been trying to make my latest first draft (about a psychic family) work for the past two weeks, but it’s just not there. The main characters are whiny and broody. The plot is convoluted. The magic tenuous. Yesterday, when I was writing my short story about my pizza expedition, it was so much fun to write. I had a blast doing it, and then I went to work on my book, and it was like pulling teeth.

And suddenly it was clear: time to set it aside.

So I’m on the lookout now for another book. I’ve got a whole long list of ideas, but I’d really like to do another Middle Grade work. Something that’s short, sweet, and to the point. Something that’s fun. I’m not up to broody or moody or whiny right now. Sorry, Psychic Family book. It’s not you.

It’s me.

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