When to Quit a Work in Progress

RIP WIP 001Doubt is something that every writer faces. When is it time to stop beating the dead horse? Will this story ever be good enough? Have I improved my writing skills at all, ever? Why am I bothering with this drabble?! Should I keep working on this WIP (work in progress) or abandon it because it will never be good enough?

This is something we all face every now and then. Some of us face it more often than others, but we've all been there at some point in time. I'm going to spend a few minutes talking about when it might really be time to abandon an old WIP versus needing to scrounge up willpower and keep trucking on. There is a point in time where a WIP should be abandoned, though. While there is something to be said for persistence, sometimes it is a greater use of your strength and energy to pursue something new with the skills you've learned while working on the previous (and newly abandoned) WIP.

Every writer is different. I think it is really important that I reinforce this fact now: What works for me when I'm abandoning a WIP won't necessarily work for any other person. This post draws on my experiences as a learning writer, and the decision-making process I used when deciding to abandon a WIP — or declare it is finished and move on. There isn't much difference in abandoning a project and declaring it finished if it lacks the quality to be realistically sold and published. Just like my little doodle, some things just shouldn't see the light of day and be sold to people who are expecting a quality product. Yes, you may as well insert the usual ‘please edit your books' commentary here.

I think there are several basic stereotypes that resurface when it comes time to decide if a WIP should be abandoned. Here are the groups I have fallen into at one point or another during my learning phases. For this, I'm going to list in () my thoughts on this grouping and if it was a good reason to abandon the WIP. Explanations on my opinion will follow.

  1. I got bored with the story. (Not a good reason.)
  2. Too much work to make the story viable for market. (Good reason.)
  3. I hated the story and myself for writing it. (Depends on circumstance.)
  4. Someone told me it sucked. (Not a good reason.)
  5. Lazy. (Not a good reason.)
  6. I got rejected by a publisher. (Suck it up buttercup, not a good reason.)
  7. I really wanted to chase the next cool idea. (Not a good reason.)
  8. The market changed. (Not a good reason.)
  9. I lack the skills to write this story properly — right now. (Good reason.)
  10. Rage quit!! (Not a good reason…. really. It's not. Satisfying, though…)

Just like when editing or critiquing, saying something is or isn't a good reason without justification isn't good, so I'm going to talk about each one of these points in detail.

I got bored with the story.

This really isn't a good reason to abandon a WIP. Boredom is caused by story problems. This can be fixed. Add conflict, add tension, add mystery and intrigue, add things that catch your attention. You can go back and fix the beginning of the story after you have transformed it from boring to awesome.

Don't kill it because of something so easily fixed. Boredom is a symptom of a lack of conflict and tension. Put your characters in danger. Give them a problem only they can solve. Ruin their happy, comfortable lives for your entertainment. Creating ideas to resolve boredom symptoms can be difficult, but it is well worth the effort.

Don't give in to this problem. Put your chin up, sit down with your writing, and add the things you need to add to give it a whole new life.

Your story can be something much better than boring, if you put your characters in situations where they must give their all, do their best, and still run high risk of failure. Go ahead, give it a try.

It's too much work to make the story viable for the market.

Sometimes, the only way to salvage a story is to rewrite it. That's a lot of work, especially if you're learning things like plot and characterization. There comes a point where a story is just too much work to make viable. Most of us rewrite stories — and many times, too. But, there comes a point where you're rewriting something that is so flawed that you can change the shape of the garbage, but you can't turn it into anything other than garbage of a different shape.

Consider that piece a learning experience, especially if you've rewritten the same story ten or more times. Storm without End took me six tries to get right — there won't be a seventh try. It is time for line and copy editing with light consistency and plot edits. Then, the novel must face its do-or-die-trying trial.

This is not saying that you can — or should — walk away because the rough draft is a mess. That is what a rewrite is for. However, if you've rewritten it many times and have gotten nowhere fast, it is time to consider hanging its hat on the wall and filing it away for a few years.

If, by then, you find you're still in love with the story, come back to it several years down the road.

Write something new and practice those skills you've learned while trying to make the failed WIP better. There is no shame in admitting a story just isn't viable for market. There is no shame in saying, “I'm done!” and walking away when there's no real point in rewriting it for the eleventh time without a drastic change in results.

It is okay to say enough is enough and retire a novel.

Persistence is important in writing, but you need to practice creating new stories so you don't get trapped in the old ones.

For me, five or six is the maximum threshold. Storm without End was worth the headache and heartache of rewriting six times. I think if I had gone for seven, I would have bust, as there comes a point where you climb to the top of a mountain in a novel and you just can't climb any higher without completely changing the story and the characters that made the story.

I hated the story and myself for writing it.

I'm pretty certain low self-esteem happens to all writers. I have a graveyard of started novels I never finished for this reason. Try not to give up. It gets better. Really, it does. Go ahead and cry in your tea or coffee, but pick yourself up and keep writing. Writing is hard, and don't let anyone tell you otherwise. You'e accomplished a lot just from completing a draft, for all there is still a lot of work to be done after the draft is finished.

If you really hate the story, identify why. Then, fix it.

Keep on writing.

Someone told me it sucked.

I wish someone had told me “Suck it up buttercup” but they didn't. I have a sad graveyard with a few stories that died due to my low self-esteem and my inability to tell myself to “Suck it up buttercup”.

So, to you, I say with much fondness and love — “Suck it up, buttercup.”

Critics happen. Stick with it, rewrite it, learn what makes the story less than great, and fix it. Suck up their criticism and turn it into your strength. Then, in your head, when you've finally overcome all of those things the naysayers were spouting, you can snap your fingers and think, “I told you I could do it!”

You can, if you don't lose sight of the prize and you're willing to learn and improve. Make “Suck it up, buttercup” your motto and your drive.

And there's nothing wrong with using the need to prove someone wrong your motivation for success. Maybe it's petty, but if it works, I'll dance to that tune. That's exactly what pushed me over the edge and helped me improve my writing. Someone told me it sucked, and that I should seriously consider quitting because I wouldn't account to anything in the writing world.

I didn't quit. I won't quit.

I was lazy.

Do I really need to talk about this one? I guess I do. Laze isn't a reason to quit a WIP. Some parts of writing hurts. It's hard. It's work. It's work that needs done. The faster you do it, the sooner the pain ends. I bet you can guess what I'm going to say next.

Suck it up, buttercup.

I got rejected by a publisher.

The first time this happened to me, it was like a dagger being stabbed through my heart. Now, granted, my first rejection was actually for professional contract writing work. Over the years, I've accumulated thousands of rejections. Rejections happen. If you aren't what the publisher or contractor is looking for, don't sweat it. Just work harder to become better until they can't look away from you and pick you over the 10,000 other schmucks also wanting to be hired or published.

The competition numbers in the tens of thousands. You have to work really hard to beat those odds.

Suck it up, buttercup, keep calm, and carry on. There's always the next book, and one rejection won't hurt you that much. They aren't rejecting you personally. You work just doesn't fit what they're looking for.

I really want to chase the next good idea!

I have a graveyard of novels that fell victim to this insidious plague. I didn't have the discipline, the willpower, or the desire to finish things. I just wanted to chase the next bright idea. This didn't make me a writer — let alone a good writer. Writers finish things. Writing a book is a multi-stage process. First, you have to draft a completed story. Then you have to rewrite or edit the story. Once you have climbed that mountain, you must properly declare it as done and let it go.

If you can't finish a draft, you haven't taken the real first step as a writer.

If you have a great idea, write it down. If you think it is great after you finished climbing your first literary mountain, come back to that story and start to write it.

If the idea was all that great to begin with, it'll be waiting for you when you can dedicate yourself to finishing the project.

But the market has changed!

Suck it up, buttercup. It changes every day. Write your story. Edit your story. Proof your story.

Then, and only then, start praying. That's how the writing industry works. We can't predict what will be popular in the time it takes us to write a novel. Don't sweat it. There will be an audience for your book somewhere. It won't hurt your book if it is released a year before the wave hits the shore, especially if you're self-published — your book isn't going to run away. It'll be there, waiting for its readers. Trust me on this one, it's a lot more patient than you or me.

Traditionally published authors have to worry about the market a lot more — and the simple truth? The traditional publishers are the ones who decide whether or not your book fits their predictions. You have no control over it.

Just write. The market will come to you, if you provide what the market wants to read. You just won't know if you're providing what the market wants to read until you try.

I lack the skills I need to write this story right now.

Shelve it and come back when you've learned the skills. Sometimes, a project is just out of our current skill level. There is no shame in that. Write down notes. Write down the concept. Write what you need to remember the heart and soul of your story.

Come back to it when you have the skills you need to write it. In the meantime, work on another novel so you can learn those skills. There is no shame in admitting you currently aren't good enough for something — with hard work, effort, and dedication, you will become good enough for that story that requires a skill you don't yet have. Don't be ashamed of it.

Learn the skill(s) you need and come back when you are ready.

RAGE QUIT All of the Things!!!!!

We all have days where we want to start flipping tables. My motto on these days is “Becna SMASH!”

There's nothing wrong with getting frustrated. There is absolutely nothing wrong with getting upset. Just try to mitigate the damage and avoid being too public with your rage quit.

Don't toss your novel because you're having a bad day. You're the only person who can control your mood. Your novel isn't the blame. Best yet, it'll be waiting for you when you're not ready to rage quit all of the things and can work on it properly.

So, some 2,000 words later, I've covered ten or so reasons have quit writing a novel. In a way, I wish I could identify which novel projects I quit for which reason, but I suspect the list would depress me. However, I am going to share with you some tidbits from my personal novel graveyard, their word counts, and a few things about how I learned to write — and how I learned how to dedicate myself to writing.

I just opened the spreadsheet that shows my recorded word counts. I sorted from smallest count to the largest, and started to laugh.

Under Project Name, there are a bunch of novel names. When I didn't name something, or I have no idea what I was thinking when I started writing, I wrote WTF MINIATURE BEES?! as the name. In the note column, many of these projects simply have a note of “WTF?”

Many of the other projects just list the character's name as the project name.

With that little bit of my clever organizational notations out of the way, it's time to get serious and grind some numbers:

  • Abandoned Projects: 39
  • Abandoned Projects Word Count: 499,170
  • Average Word Count of Abandoned Projects: 13,136
  • Number of Abandoned Projects over 50,000 words: 4
  • Number of Abandoned Projects below 5,000 words: 20
  • Number of Abandoned Projects between 5,001 words and 10,000 words: 7
  • Number of Abandoned Projects between 10,001 and 15,000 words (near average): 5

So what does this mean? I had a tendency to write for 2-5 days and give up. The 5,000 word mark is often the determining factor on whether or not I'm actually serious about a project or if I was just bored one evening and started to vomit out words. I know at least three of those twenty projects I abandoned were one night's worth of work on a Friday night in the wee hours of the morning.

I kept them in case I ever decided to return to the concept. Some of them even make me giggle.

Once I hit 10,000 words, the chances I abandon a project halve. Not only that, half of the four that were abandoned were abandoned after I finished the rough draft. I abandoned them because I felt I either lacked the skill needed to make them marketable, or I felt that they were too much work to market. Two of them were abandoned Nanowrimo projects I never had a real intention to continue writing after November.

All four of these projects are on the ‘revisit' list. One of the abandoned Nanowrimo projects has a moleskine and I've already started the process of rewriting it from scratch. It's still considered abandoned, however — I don't have the time to dedicate to it right now, so it's on the shelf until I have time.

Now is the time to drop the weapon of mass destruction:

I have not abandoned a project in years. The time frame I ceased abandoning projects directly correlates to when I decided I was serious about writing as a career.

When you write as your career, you can't afford to abandon 3-6 month's worth of work easily. However, what I have done is this: I have stated “This is the last rewrite, for better or for worse. Non-rewriting edits only.”

I find I work harder and write better just knowing this is the last chance for a novel. It forces me to write to the best of my ability. It forces me to view my edits seriously. It forces me to work harder, better, and longer. This is a mentality thing. It's a discipline thing.

It's been one of the best things I've ever done for myself as a writer.

Sometimes, though, it is perfectly OK to quit a work in progress. But, consider it twice and ask yourself a few key questions when you go to do it. Will quitting the project let you work on something that will let your skills shine? Will it let you revitalize your creativity? Will it let you shed off your old, cracked, and dying skin for a new you? Have you rewritten the project 7, 8, or even 9 times? Maybe 10?

If so, make a folder somewhere and give the project a decent burial.

Fortunately, we have the power to raise our old, dead, and abandoned projects back from the grave when we're really ready to give them a complete makeover, so it isn't just an end, it is a potential for a new beginning…

… in a few years.

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