We’ve all been there, and it’s a tough place to be: we’ve all faced the daunting question of “Should I continue writing this?” and not known the answer. But there are signs on the road that leads to doubt, signs which can tell us more or less reliably when the project needs to make a quick exit from our lives … and when to press on.
My first impulse as someone who works in author services is always to encourage, to say … you can do it! You can finish the thing! All it needs is a little more time and focus! … and sometimes, I’m right. But sometimes, I’m not. And a lot of my job relies on me being able to parse the right time to–yes, encourage–the writers I work with to part ways with their current piece.
It all starts with time, and waiting.
The first sign that it’s time to quit is that you’re waiting for inspiration. A lot. Maybe all of the time. It’s like a divine fire which descends from the skies and burns its way out of you, this inspiration. You can work through the night without even noticing, when it comes … but it doesn’t often come. The difficulty here is that if waiting is your M.O., you’re likely to eventually produce a manuscript … but not a workable book. Writing frenetically and disorganizedly, powered only by brief flashes of inspiration, isn’t enough to hold a book together–the secret to writing a novel isn’t to work through minor problems quickly and leave major ones until after the first draft is complete, but this is where waiters-for-inspiration tend to end up.
The second sign that it’s time to quit is when you wake up and realize you’re writing for someone else, not because you feel personally involved in the story being told. Some authors succeed in writing for the masses passionlessly, but it’s generally not a safe bet, because what draws the masses (in most cases) is a recognition on the author’s part–the author looks into the text and recognizes that there’s something magical going on there, some part of the self which has found its own kind of agency.
Oh, and authors who write for a market and not out of vision tend to neglect their craft. Why does the sentence-level work matter if the grander arc of the story doesn’t? Authors sense this discrepancy and it can kill enthusiasm stone dead.
The third sign that it’s time to quit is when you start finding reasons to not write. Like, if you’re reading this blog post because you Googled “How to know when to quit?” then … that’s what I’m talking about. Or when you find excuses to be too busy during your dedicated writing hour each morning (or evening, you night owls!). Or when “the fire just isn’t there anymore,” as one author lamented to me recently. Often, when we try to push through this particular sign, it’s because we’re more intent on being authors than we are on writing. We wish to belong to a category of people who live lives we think desirable. We want fame. But the burnout inevitably happens a quarter or midway through the manuscript, and it never really comes back.
Usually at this point in a post about quitting, bloggers start quoting authors like David Eddings and Samuel Beckett and Neil Gaiman. And don’t get me wrong, I love Neil Gaiman the same as you do … but isn’t that half of the problem? We lean on the voices of others when we find ourselves at sea to pin down an idea. And leaning is 100% encouragement-worthy behavior, in my opinion, if you’re feeling on the edge of some great Quitting. But: forget all of those authors who faced setback after setback before finding an agent or getting published (Stephanie Meyer and Kathryn Stockett, I’m looking at you!). Forget the inspirational quotes.
Yes, some success is the result of stick-to-my-guns-itude. Some. But for every Kathryn Stockett out there, there are ten authors who persevered with the same degree of determination that she did, and never got past the bottleneck. And for every Stephanie Meyer out there, there are ten authors who realized their work wasn’t going anywhere and figured out somewhere better it could go.
Stick to your guns … until you know the sticking is sheer stubbornness. If you quit, it’s not the end of the world. There’s another book out there for you, waiting to be written. Maybe quitting is actually an important skill to develop–tasteful quitting, graceful quitting, quitting when the object being quitted is holding you back from digging in to a new, better object just waiting for your attention.
Quit, darlings. Quit and start afresh. It’s okay.
You are not alone. ♣︎