Last night, I received an email from an editing client with a question I am often asked: How do I know when to give up? Of course there is no one specific answer to this, because the decision to continue or quit a project is deeply personal. Are you still in love with the project? I asked her. She said Yes, and so I told her what I tell all my clients (and friends) when this urge pops up: Stop rushing, keep writing.
Determining Your Desire (and the Story’s)
Now, before we go any further, I am going to clarify: I have given up many projects. I have a “compost pile” 100+ documents high. Once I spent over a year writing and revising a novel and that too ended up getting the boot (actually, two of the characters did make their way into a story in my forthcoming collection, WHAT SHINES FROM IT, so it wasn’t a total loss). Abandoned stories litter my NOW folder. Twenty drafts, fifty drafts–and then, nah.
But I’ve also stuck with the projects I know are worth it. Another story, “Esther,” went through about 100 drafts before reaching its final (publishable) state. WHAT SHINES FROM IT was rejected by 33 publishers before it found a home with Alternating Current Press. The novel I’m now working on arose like a dusty phoenix from a seed story started and abandoned 4 years ago.
Stick with this game long enough, and you’ll start to get a sense of when to hang on and when to let go. (Hint: it doesn’t have anything to do with exhaustion or rejection.)
And When You Stick With It, How to Stick with It
As a culture, Americans are obsessed with speed and ease.
While I am, notably, not a patient person, I’ve come to realize that rushing is bad for writing.
Some stories come out fast. But most of the time, the good stuff is slow.
But if, like me, you are a rusher, how do you actually slow down when it comes to writing?
The key is to practice.
During the month of July, when I was on social media hiatus, I wrote a short story: a full draft, from beginning to end, by longhand.
I wanted to see what would happen if I didn’t shuttle back and forth between paper and screen, which has been my main method for fiction writing for forever now. I’m a relatively non-linear writer, and have espoused this method as really allowing my mind to follow disparate tendrils.
But for a while now I’ve been having trouble pulling those threads together.
So I wanted to see what would happen if I went “old fashioned” and sat down with a pen and “forced” myself to finish an entire draft (i.e., a story with a beginning, a middle, and an end).
I’ll be the first to admit my surprise that I actually completed a story by doing this. And it wasn’t the constraint that inspired me (though I’m sure it helped), but the joy with which the process filled me, that got me returning to the page regularly. There was no word count staring at me at the bottom of the page. I made notes to myself in the margins about possible plot twists, but rather than jumping ahead in the story, I wrote scene by scene, from beginning to end. I thought the end might be one thing, but it became another, naturally.
And while I still have to revise (which I am doing linearly, via transcibing into a Word document), the pleasure of having completed a full draft has really buoyed me.
Writing Isn’t Easy, But It Should Be Fun
Here’s something we often forget, especially as writers with an eye toward publication: writing should be fun. It isn’t easy, and I doubt any of us would keep doing it if it was. But it should be something you look forward to, something that fills you with longing.
Whether that longing stems from the desire to tell a story, or the process in which you discover how to tell it, or something else entirely doesn’t really matter.
Removing Speed from the Equation
So how do you stop rushing and start writing?
First and foremost, it’s about mindset.
If you haven’t recently (or ever), I highly recommend making a list of reasons why you write. Now keep that list handy, and when the urge to rush arrives, or the urge to quit looms, pull that list out. Give it a glance. Usually seeing “Because I have to” or “Because I have something important to say” or “Because I want to go on a book tour” will keep you in your seat.
Keep Your Seat
I love this expression, given to me by a good friend during a time of much struggle. A time during which I often wanted to rush my life into the order I thought it needed to be in. (Life, like writing, should not be rushed!) I’ll spare you all the details, and suffice it to say, in the end, my life gave (and continues to give) me what I needed.
Writing is like this too. By curbing the urge to rush, by curbing the urge to force, control, or coerce your writing, your mind becomes free to… you guessed it: write from your full potential!
Looking for practical tips?
Here are a few:
- Write longhand.
- Set a timer and only write for 10-15 minutes a day.
- “The best way is always to stop when you are going good and when you know what will happen next. If you do that every day when you are writing a novel you will never be stuck. That is the most valuable thing I can tell you so try to remember it.” Ernest Hemingway
- Stay the course; don’t jump ahead in your narrative.
- Allow a little bit of laziness; don’t force the story if you don’t know where you want it to go next.