On Quitting

My friend Leta Blake wrote a great post of writing advice here, and I agree with almost all of it, but, of course, I want to talk about what I don’t agree with. Unlike her, I think that quitting is sometimes the right thing to do.

She opens the piece with this David Sedaris quote: “The only real advice you can give anyone is to keep writing.” And that is true, but keep writing what? Her final advice is “Finish your work.” Which is good advice to a point, but we have a limited amount of time and energy in this life, and always finishing a piece of writing is like always staying in a job until you’re fired or always staying in a relationship. It’s not always the best choice.

Sometimes it’s just not working. That doesn’t mean people should quit without really trying. But sometimes a piece of writing is just an exercise. Sometimes it’s a warm-up for something else. I don’t like short stories very much, so I feel like most of my short stories are that way.

Before I started working on The Viking Novel, I started many other novels. I always got about two-thirds through the story and entirely lost interest. Novels are a huge amount of work–even fluffy romances, even swashbuckling space operas. My calculation is that for every 10,000 new words, the difficulty of managing all the plot threads and characters gets twice as hard.

I don’t think quitting a piece of writing, especially something novel-length should be done lightly, without learning from the quitting. But it can and should be done. Things I learned from the novels I quit:

  1. Always begin a story with the end in mind, or it won’t go anywhere.
  2. Just because a genre seems easy or fluffy doesn’t mean it is easy to write. I’m more comfortable writing a door-stopper historical novel than a 220-page light romance.
  3. Write something you can feel proud of.
  4. Ask yourself: if you only had time to write one book in your life what book would it be? Write that book.

What would have happened if I’d finished that historical novel without an ending? Or that light fluffy romance? Or that other space opera romance? I don’t know. But I wouldn’t be where I am now, working on a final draft of the book that I’ve been wanting to write for my whole life, the book I dreamed about. I would have taken a path that was both harder and less fulfilling.

Most things that are worth doing are hard, but not everything hard is worth doing, and that goes for writing too.

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  1. I replied back on the original post, but I’m going to c/p the reply here, too. 🙂 I loved this commentary and don’t disagree with you at all, Linnea. 🙂 I think that you bring up a good point that I didn’t throw into the soup of this bunch of mixed-up and random advice. The real question is, indeed, what will you choose to finish. But choosing to finish something is absolutely a must at some point if you really want to be published or have any success as a writer.

    I also have a number of abandoned works. Usually, though, I personally don’t abandon things that are over half done. I usually shelve those (if I lose interest or choose to focus on something else instead) in case the drive to finish them returns to me one day. But, yes, abandoning books that aren’t driving you toward your goal is a-okay so long as you are clear about why you’re abandoning it, I think. (Though, again, shelving them until some later date is more my personal cuppa. But, yes, sometimes there comes a point where I realize that this particular piece is never going anywhere ever again, and then I do abandon them entirely.)

    So, I hear you and agree that at times quitting a particular work is a good idea. But some people never finish anything and in order to publish something, you’ve got to finish something. So I do stand by my advice to finish your work, but also embrace your advice that choosing what to finish is something to consider as well.

    1. Yeah, you can’t publish anything if you don’t finish anything! And it’s easy to sit around and think how much better your (my) stuff is than some published work, but until I finish something, the difference is that they actually did it. Which was your point, I know!

  2. 3. Write something you can feel proud of.
    4. Ask yourself: if you only had time to write one book in your life what book would it be? Write that book.

    I think these questions actually depend on your end-goal for writing and your life circumstances. For example, in my situation I am the breadwinner in my family and make a lot more money than my spouse. I also really dislike my job and want to eventually make my living writing, or at least be able to cut back to part-time work. In order to do that, writing one good novel that I’m proud of isn’t going to cut it. Not unless I am suddenly Catherynne Valente or Jonathan Lethem or someone that I’m never going to be. So, for my situation, where the end in mind is to earn money writing, I’m less concerned about choosing the one book that I’ll be proud of it I died tomorrow and more concerned with quantity that is of good-enough quality. That means, necessarily, that there will be some books I like better than others, some that I’m proud of, and some that I write in a secret pen name and put up for self-publication on Amazon Kindle because they’re basically porn. (And make more money at that than I do on my published novels!) So, for me, these questions are good to contemplate in terms of my entire life, but not in terms of what I’m writing at any given second.

    1. That’s a very good point. I have job options that pay better than writing probably ever will, and I don’t hate them, I just don’t love them the way I love writing. And I feel like I can only do 2-4 good hours of writing a day, and usually closer to 2 before the well starts to run dry, and the next day will be worse for writing.

      I also find writing challenging enough that I’m very glad I’m not trying to base my earning on it. So yes, begin with the end in mind is good advice not just for the end of the story, but the purpose of what you’re doing.

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