Aspiring writers are told to keep writing and keep writing and keep writing, no matter how hard. Look up any writing advice column or listicle, and one of the first pieces of advice you get is “Persist.” If you ever want to be a Real Writer™, you need to keep at it until you’ve polished that turd into a mirror shine.
All great advice. But, is there ever a time when you should stop writing a piece? Is there a point when we can look at something and say it’s time to give up on that and move on to something else? Is there a point when persisting is a waste of energy and time?
At some point, it’s not just a challenge an inexperienced writer needs to overcome; it’s time to stop entirely. Continuing to work on a project that’s better left alone becomes a creative sinkhole rather than a creative mountain to climb. It can suck up your time, your energy, and your will to continue. When it starts destroying your will to write, it’s not writer’s block; it’s writer’s black hole. That’s when it’s time to give up.
When Not to Give Up
The first thing to know about giving up is knowing that giving up is, quite literally, the last option. Before you give up, you have to try, well, not giving up.
When you haven’t completed a rough draft.
Some of the best advice I’ve ever gotten is, I paraphrase, “There’s no limit to how rough a rough draft can be.” And while that’s a hell of a thing for someone like Neil Gaiman to say, it’s still true.
The point of the rough draft is to just get everything out on paper. Once it’s out on paper, you can turn it around, look at it upside down, take it apart, and figure out how to make it better. But you have to get it out first.
If you let the story stay in your head, you’ll never be able to do anything with it. You can’t find the
plot holes, develop the characters, or figure out what to do with the story arc you forgot to finish. Trying to work with a story you haven’t written out is like trying to cut and polish a diamond before you’ve even started mining.
Keep writing. You can take a hiatus when you’ve got the first draft out.
When you’re bored
I have a habit when I read a book where I will pause and try to imagine how the story will play out. Maybe I try to develop a way to save the characters I like from certain death. Maybe I’ve thought up an awesome character to join this merry band. Maybe I think out ways that I could have done this differently. Or, maybe I just got inspired by something.
Then, suddenly, I want to write a romance about these lesbian orcs instead of working on that horror piece about the water that possesses people (true story, yo). If I can get a better word count with this sudden blaze of inspiration, I will want to drop my current WIP and work on something else.
This is not the time to give up. The muse is a siren: they may lead you to treasure, but they’re just as likely to drown you in a sea of unfinished WIPs. Writing takes dedication, and if you flit from piece to piece to piece like a hummingbird with too many flowers, you’re never going to get anything to drink.
Every flash fiction, poem, short story, novella, and novel gets boring at some point. And it should. You, dear writer, should be so familiar with your story that there are no more surprises in it for you. You should keep at it until you’ve finished that first draft, at which point, it’s time to take a break.
So, write that new idea down, save it in your “AWESoME IDAES!!1!” Folder, and keep plugging away at what you have.
When the going gets tough
Let’s say that you’ve come to a point in the possessing-water story, and it’s just getting to be too much. The pacing is a mess, the POV is all over the place, and you’re not sure where you put the villain.
You’re questioning whether it’s worth saving, and suddenly, you see a picture someone posted some pretty orc pictures and think about those awesome orc lesbians, and you think, well, this horror story’s absurd, bring on the orc lesbians!
Don’t do it!
Writing’s hard. It requires a lot of hard work. And if you stop when you can’t get the pacing right, you’re never going to learn how to fix your pacing. You’ll find yourself running into the same problem over and over and over, and suddenly, those orc lesbians are bored with each other and you’re now trying to conquer not-China with a bunch of orphans you haven’t even named yet.
Instead, take a break. Go for a walk. Read a book. Check out those listicles. Do your daily writing exercises and come back later when you’re refreshed.
When you haven’t tried to save it.
Let’s say you got that rough draft out. And let’s say it really is a turd. It’s boring, it’s confusing, it’s just not very good. Should we call it DOA?
Not until you try to figure out what’s wrong.
There are plenty of articles about how to fix common problems, too many to list here. Maybe you’re writing about the wrong protagonist. Maybe you made it too easy on them and there’s no tension. Maybe you started the story way too early in the timeline or way too late. Maybe you just need a good editor to help you cut out all the purple prose.
Put the rough draft aside for a few days, maybe even a few weeks. Then, come back and try again. Get someone who’s not afraid to tell you why you suck to read it. You may or may not you be able to save the story, but you will definitely grow as a writer.
So, until you’ve tried resuscitating the piece, don’t bury it.
When to Give Up
You’ve gotten it all down, you’ve got everyone who will speak to you anymore to read it, you’ve done what you can to fix it, and you still hate it. Maybe, just maybe, it is now time to give up.
When an essential plot point is impossible with the rest of the plot.
I’ll give an example on a novel I spent eight years trying to write. Inspired by Holly Black, I wanted to write a piece about a young woman 13 years after having been kidnapped by a fairy. There was one key plot point that was both essential to the plot and impossible to rectify with the rest of the story: a changeling was never left in her place as a child. If a changeling had been left, there would never have been an investigation into her kidnapping, and there’d have been no reason for her mother to pursue the kidnapper and therefore to disappear forever. If there was no reason for the protagonist’s mother to disappear, there was no motivation for the protagonist.
But, I couldn’t find a reason to explain why this particular fairy, bound by ancient law, would disobey that law by not leaving a changeling.
The whole story as I planned it just couldn’t stay together. I tried every explanation I could think of. It made the plot more complicated, but it never really explained why a changeling was never left. Finally, after trying to plot out three books to explain this one plot hole, I had to admit it to myself: the plot just couldn’t work.
If you find yourself having to give long, in depth, and complicated explanations for a plot point and cutting it out kills the whole thing, than your story is DOA. Let it go.
When there’s nothing at stake.
When I was getting a degree in something unrelated to writing, one of my professors always asked “what’s at stake?” Why is this thing you’re reporting on important? What are you actually adding to the conversation? It couldn’t just be a summary of other works – you had to be producing something new and important.
The same goes for writing fiction. There has to be something at stake, in all the dialogue, in every scene, in each story arc, or you’re just engaging in a fun exercise.
One way to discover “what’s at stake” is to summarize your story into a single theme. It’s not a summary of the plot, but a summary of what your story is about. The story I described earlier had a one sentence theme: Sometimes the only person you can save is yourself.
Themes are sort of like the moral of the story in Aesop’s fables, but usually you’ll be more subtle. A main theme of To Kill A Mockingbird is that all people of capable of good and evil. A major theme of Animal Farm is the dangers of communism.
Finding a theme isn’t the first step to writing most of the time. As Stephen King noted in On Writing, first you write the story, then you figure out the meaning. So, you may have to write a couple of drafts before you figure out what the story is really about.
There might even be multiple themes. Most novels certainly have more than one if they’re going to carry on for more than a couple dozen pages. But it has to be about something.
Write down what you’re trying to tell people in the story. Get it down to a sentence or two. If you’re just writing out a summary of your story, you may not have anything there at all. Let it go.
When you’re not willing to sacrifice the problem
Maybe you’re not willing to get rid of a character, a subplot, or a setting. If it’s just because you like it, then now is the time to make a folder of “AWEOSMe IdAES!!!1” and plop that character, subplot, or setting right in there and move on. Period. You can play with it later, but for now, you gotta work on this piece.
But, what if that changes the entire story?
For example, let’s say that you’re writing the water-possession story and you get to the end and you realize that you’ve been writing this story from the point of view of a character who should never have been there to begin with. He’s an outsider who had no reason to stumble into this backwater town, no reason to stay, and nothing at stake. But he was ASEsWOME!
Removing the POV character means changing the entire story. Suddenly, it’s not first person and you may not even have a protagonist anymore. The whole way you tell the story has to change. But, does it change the story you were trying to tell?
Every missing character, every removed subplot, and every changed plot point changes the story. You have to decide how much of the story you’re willing to change; that is, when the story your trying to write is not longer the story you’re trying to write. If you hit a point past it, it’s time to give it up.
When you really just don’t care anymore.
There’s a point beyond boredom with a story where you just don’t care about it anymore. I guarantee, plenty of stories you had have hit this point without you even realizing it.
Years ago, I wanted to write a story comparing a dictator with a popular spiritual leader. They were foils, and it was based around a piece of graffiti I had seen sprayed onto Atlanta’s Kroc Street bridge for months: “I forget nothing. I regret nothing.”
I got pretty far into it. I wrote out character sheets, had a good solid outline, and had written a rough draft. It had it’s problems, sure, and it probably could have been resurrected, but ultimately, I just stopped caring about it. I had put it aside to work on other things, and when I came back, I wasn’t at all excited about it. I was ashamed of it; I was apathetic. I realized it just wasn’t the type of story I wanted to write. I have no idea now where any of the character sheets or anything else are, and that’s fine, because I’ll never go back to it.
This one is the hardest to determine: are you bored or do you just not care anymore?
The answer takes a lot of honesty. If you find yourself still thinking about it later, you do still care. If you let it go without regrets, than letting it go was probably the best thing to do.
What To Do Once You’ve Given Up
Giving up isn’t the end of it though. Every piece of writing you do can improve your skill, if you’re willing to look at that piece good and hard.
Perform an autopsy
What went wrong? If you can do that, you can figure out how to avoid that in the future. In the case of my most recent death, it came down to a poorly developed plot point. The fact of the matter is that I saw it very early on – right after the first draft in fact – but I was determined to work around it.
I should have been more ruthless. I should have cut the problem piece out before it got out of hand. After a few years and a bunch of attempts, I was too emotionally attached to the plot as it was to do what was needed to fix it.
I’ve learned, though. I’ve grown as a writer. I’ve gone through, looked at what did and didn’t work, and now I’m ready to move on. I’ll share my findings with you.
- Write an outline – even if it’s just a few sentences on a page, get something down so you can start making sure all the pieces that need to be there are actually there and they make sense together.
- Write character sheets and make sure you know their motivation. That was a huge issue with the plot – I couldn’t figure out why the fairy, who is supposed to leave changelings upon kidnapping a child, wouldn’t.
- Try to make it work. Look, a lot of stuff can be fixed with creativity and determination, and that includes writing. You have to try to save it. If you don’t, and I can’t stress this enough, you will never grow as a writer.
- Know what you’re willing to sacrifice for the story. If you know what you are and aren’t willing to sacrifice to make the story work, than you know how flexible the story can be, and you’ve got a threshold to work with.
Save the awesome pieces
I’ve joked about the “Awesome Ideas” folder, but I do encourage you to keep one. I have a whole box of papers with awesome snippets I wasn’t willing to destroy. I have character profiles, subplots, ideas, dialogue, all sorts of things, digital and on paper that I keep so I can refer back to it. Sometimes, the characters show up somewhere else. Sometimes, the dialogue finds its way into another story. Sometimes, it just serves to remind me that I can write.
In the case of my most recent DOA, an entire subplot I loved is being worked into a new story.
Just because you’ve had to give up on a piece doesn’t mean it’s not got elements worth saving. There are gems in that mess. Pick them out and hold onto them until you need them later.
Take a short break
By the time you’ve gotten to this point, you’ve spent a lot of time writing this thing and trying to save it. You’ve autopsied the piece to learn what the killing blow was. You’ve worked hard, and it’s time to give yourself some rest. Let yourself mourn for the passing of this project. Let your creativity muscles recuperate.
It’s okay to feel burnt out. It’s also okay to be disappointed. Give yourself a breather.
Start a new project
Once you’ve had a week or so to get that story out of your head, it’s time to try again. Brainstorm. Do daily writing prompts. Pick an awesome idea out of your “aWQESOME IEDAS!!?” folder and run with it. Soldier on. Make something better.
Just keep writing.
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