When is it time to quit?
How do you know if you should just give up on a book and move on to something else?
I know you don’t want to be a quitter. They tell you in Creative Writing classes around the world (Ok, so I have been to a few in Australia and one in New Zealand). They say the best writers don’t give up, writers push through pain to produce works of genius that reshape the contemporary literary landscape and redefine the scope of human experience… Right? Not always. Sometimes they also quit.
It took a long time to realise I was not onto a winner. It was three years before I finally realised my novel was not moving; another year before I completely gave up on it.
It was my first book and everyone told me it was going to be hard. ‘It’s harder than you think,’ They said, ‘…harder than you can imagine’.
I was prepared for hard. But how hard is too hard?
How hard does it have to get before you realise you have been moulding a gigantic piece of shit?
I struggled for a long time against every instinct telling me to give up. I thought, I have to finish it. I have to get to the end. ‘Keep writing,’ They say, ‘Don’t self-edit…If you can’t finish this, you’ll never finish anything.’
I was trying so hard to pop my novel writing cherry, anyway I could. I expected it to be uncomfortable, I knew it was going to hurt a little. Like the way everyone in sex ED will tell you that the first time is never that good. Yes it will hurt, yeah, you’ll probably bleed a little but that’s natural. A literary rite of passage.
Here’s what They don’t tell you. How do you know you’re doing it with the right book?
My first novel was terrible, is terrible. Three years of insecurity, frustration, writing and deleting; plot holes, and awful characters. I thought I must not be a writer. I thought I should just give up. I thought, I will never finish this, this is too hard. I was a failure.
My first time in the bedroom was lovely, and has continued to be lovely ever since. So why did I buy into this nonsense that my first book was going to nearly kill me, that it would be the hardest thing I had ever done? Because it was nearly killing me – it was the hardest thing I had ever done.
I finally let my first manuscript go
With my first novel, I had simply been clinging to the very first idea I ever had, thinking that was all I was going to get, and all I deserved. When I finally stopped beating my head against my desk, I found something wonderful. I had another idea.
A better idea.
From that moment the words have poured out of me. Writing has been a pleasure. I love the characters and have immersed myself in researching the world where they live. I have enjoyed telling (a few) people about my novel and have relished the moments of heated debate about my book’s pretty controversial premise.
I had no idea how difficult my first book was to write, until I started writing something better, something that worked.
Listening to the advice of others
I listened so keenly to the advice of other writers that I was not listening to my own instincts. I was not picking up the messages that this novel was not working for me, this novel was not making me feel better – it was hurting.
I write fiction only part time at the moment. Once I started this second novel in March 2014, it only took nine month to finish the first draft.
It felt weird to realise I had finished. I guess after my first manuscript, I had gotten used to it never being done. I did not even trust that I had finished it for a long time. I had been trained to think there was always more, it was always harder, always writing -never ending.
K.M Weiland likened her experience with giving up on a novel with ending a romantic relationship. Somewhere along the line she had list sight of her intentions and feel out of love with the work. ‘The first draft was a nightmare to write, and I spent the next two years rewriting the heck out of it. After the last rewrite, I realised something: although there is so much that is right about this story, its plot problems are so deeply entrenched that, in order to fix them, I would have to completely change the story.’ Taken from Three signs you should give up on your story.
How does your novel make you feel?
Since writing fiction I have felt two kinds of pain. For the sake of this article I will try to name them.
The first kind of pain I’ll call, Bone Aching Pain. This is the kind of pain I felt when I was pushing shit up hill. The kind of pain that does not ease off as you continue to write, a pain that breeds insecurity, anxiety, apathy, fear and darkness. This pain comes when you think this is the only idea you’ll ever have. When nothing resolves itself, everything is hard and awful and at night you dream of the terror that is your novel.
Step away from any project that makes you feel like this.
Then there is Muscle Aching Pain. The kind of pain where you feel worked, but not weak. Muscle Aching Pain is like soreness in you legs after an amazing run or dance class. Satisfying, warm, enriching pain, where you feel you have moved past something, gotten stronger and can still smile. From now on I am only going to do projects that make me this kind of pain, the Muscle Aching Pain.
Feature image from the Morgan Library and Museum. James Joyce, Ulysses, manuscript fragment of the Ithaca episode, 1921.