Monday, July 22, 2013

In Praise of Quitting

by Eric Beetner

Recently Joelle Charboneau gave us all a great lesson in perseverance and not giving up in the face of self doubt. Her words were welcome to any writer and she even offered a personal hand if we ever needed a boost of confidence. And this lady knows a thing or two about putting words on paper. Terrifically prolific, her books are good and please readers and reviewers alike. So know that I take nothing away from her wise words last week when I add my two cents by saying, yes, keep on working through the dark times . . . but maybe . . .

You see, I recently abandoned a book. I tried to save it. I tried to stick with it in the face of doubt and fear that it was no good. But here’s the thing I’ve found – sometimes those instincts are right.

I’ve always written with the notion that there are always more ideas. Ideas are free. And like anything free, sometimes you get what you pay for.

Not all my ideas are great. Sorry to say it, but neither are yours. I think it’s good to know when to walk away and move on down the road to the next idea.

I think we’ve all been in a relationship that went on a little too long past its expiration date, right? With the benefit of hindsight, we can see the point at which we really should have called it a day. But we didn’t want to give up!

With my book, I was fighting my own instincts. I knew what I was writing, or at least the characters, wasn’t mine. They just weren’t my kind of guys and girls. My fatal flaw, is that I was trying to write something more marketable. An easy sell.

Big mistake.

I switched it from first person to third person. I reworked my outline. I tried cutting the top and starting the action sooner. Bottom line was, I dreaded sitting down to work on this book. It was no fun, and I wasn’t doing my best work when it became a death march to sit at the keys.

The best thing for that book was a bullet in the head.

And that’s fine. There are always more ideas. I’m into my new book now and it’s going along great. My kind of characters in my kind of scenario. A guy just did target practice on a severed head in one scene. I’m having fun again.

So, by all means, first try everything on Joelle’s list. Get to the bottom and go back to the top and try them again. But if it’s just not working – kill it. It’s a zombie book and it needs to be decapitated before it eats your brain. If you know, you really know its not right, trust your instincts.

Don’t take it out and burn it. Don’t delete the file, reformat your hard drive and salt the earth behind you. Just walk away. You might find the fix for it later, even years from now. You might change and evolve as a writer and find yourself the right person to write that story.

But don’t be afraid to move on. Don’t fight with your own creativity. The solid advice of don’t doubt yourself I think also applies to knowing when to say when.

True, every writer goes through a phase of disliking their book, of trust issues, of doubt. But sometimes the truly courageous thing to do is write that Dear John letter and leave that abusive relationship in the past.

After all, there are always more ideas.


Al Tucher said...

My experience exactly. I have resurrected projects years after declaring them dead, and I have let others RIP.

Dana King said...

Exactly. Even if you never resurrect this project, there are bits that can be cannibalized with a little tweaking.

It's not just that some ideas are bad. They may be good ideas, but not well suited for how you write. James Ellroy might come up with an idea for how a cat solves a mystery. Might even be a good idea, if we're willing to say "cat solves mystery" and "good idea" are not mutually exclusive. That still doesn't mean he should write it.

Eric Beetner said...

Thanks, Al. Thanks, Dana.

Joelle Charbonneau said...

Ah ha! Yes, there are times where you have to trust your instincts. However, I would argue you are an author who understands your own writing and has finished projects. Those who have not finished projects cannot trust their instincts because they don't understand yet what it is like to write a novel from beginning to end. Once you have done that...well, then you at least have that information to help advise you on the next trip through the writing meadow.

The worst thing for an author is to abandon a project or to kill lots of words because they are going in the wrong direction. That's something that all authors have to do at some point and takes lots and lots of guts. Been there....done that....still look back on it and wince remembering how it felt.

Eric Beetner said...

Good point, Joelle. The experience is very different for new writers. I'm sure some never get off the blocks because of doubts, fears, etc. and that would be a shame.

Dana King said...

Great point bu Joelle. I'm someone who always finishd what I started because I'd seen too many people not finish things in general. A couple of years ago I walked away from a project because I realized I was writing it for the wrong character, and had the confidence to do so because I had finished several novel-length project in the post and trusted myself to know I wasn't getting anywhere. I threw away everything but the premise and now have what I think is a first draft with promise.

Robert Bailey said...

Great advice, Eric. I found that when I moved onto a new project, I didn't feel I had so much invested in the book I was struggling with for so long, and then later I was able to go back to it with fresh eyes and a willingness to make major changes.

James R. Tuck said...

Fuck Yes.