Letter From The Editor - Issue 68 - April 2019

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  Writing Advice by Mette Ivie Harrison
November 2018

Is It Time to Give Up?

Do you feel like a book isn't working anymore? Do you want to give it up? Writers sometimes feel this way even if a book is actually quite good. Sometimes it happens when you have a book on deadline and you're exhausted and you can't just give it up. So you're going to have to do some things to help you get through to the end. This might be bribing yourself with prizes each time you finish revising/reworking a chapter, thinking about a big prize when you're finished, or getting away to a hotel so you have complete boredom helping you along. I've been in this situation before, believe me, and it's not fun. The best thing to do is to remind yourself that you can get through this.

If, however, you're not on deadline and you don't have a contract obligating you to keep working on this book and you're still asking this question, I recommend that you think about putting the book aside for a time and re-evaluating it later.

Some writers have the idea that if they give up on a book (any book) it means they're not real writers. This isn't true. Giving up on a book is often part of the process. I've given up on lots of books. I wrote twenty novels before I wrote one good enough to be published and I've never gone back to any of them. I've written more than twenty novels since then that I've given up on. Books are not people. You can abandon them without guilt.

You've likely learned the lessons that you needed to learn from that book. I can often look back on books I've given up on and see (some years later) what it was that the book taught me. It might be telling a story from a male point of view. Or figuring out how to write a romance. Or how to do a contemporary novel plot. How to start a book in the right place, before the character goes through all the interesting development. How to have a small enough focus to be able to write the story in less than a million words.

Learning something from a book isn't a bad thing. Kids do this all the time and we don't think anything is wrong with it. They draw a picture and then throw it away. There's no obligation that they keep working on that drawing a thousand times until they get it precisely right.

It's also acceptable to decide that you didn't really care about a book enough to keep working on it. This can be hard to pin down in the early stages of writing. For years, it was hard for me to tell the difference between a book idea I cared enough to work on every day for a couples of years and one I didn't care enough about. Now it's a little easier, but it's still not a foolproof system. (I wait until ideas demand I write them and even then only given them starter status while I'm working on something else in the foreground.)

And then there's the reality that sometimes you become a different person than the one who started writing the book and it's impossible to make the book into something the new person you are cares about or believes in.

I can't tell you how many times I've told writers that this might not be the book that gets them published. A lot of writers hang onto immature ideas, plots, world building, and while they can see the problems, there are simply too many to fix. Yes, I have occasionally seen writers who eventually fix the book, but what they do is basically rewrite the same book about ten times before getting published. You can do that, but you can also write ten separate books and learn the same things.

Even if you're not ready to abandon a project, you may need to work on something else for a while before you go back to it and see it more clearly. I remember when I wrote my first sff novel and I asked for a critique from Lois McMaster Bujold. I don't really know why she agreed to read the first few chapters, but what she told me was spot on: This isn't the book you should be working on. Move on.

So I'm passing that advice along. If you're ready to move on, move on.

If, however, what you're really asking is whether it's time to give up on your dreams, then no, it's never time for that.

You don't have to be a writer to be a worthwhile human being. I've known writers who have decided not to be writers anymore and that's fine. There's no moral judgment on choosing to do something else with your life.

But some people who ask this question are actually asking: Can I have permission to even have this idea that I'm going to be a real author someday?

I've heard people try to explain to me that they never learned grammar and spelling well enough to be writers. Or that they're essayists but can't do fiction. Or that people have told them they're not smart enough. Or that they've failed too many times to do what they want to do. Or that they have some fatal flaw within themselves. Or that they just don't have what it takes to be a writer.

To this I say, I will never give you permission to give up on yourself. Never.

Take a break if you need to.

Choose a different direction, if you've changed who you are since you began.

Change your goals so that they aren't focused on things you can't control (publication, money, etc.).

But don't give up on yourself. Don't tell yourself you're not good enough. Don't give into the fear that plagues all of us.

Writing is less about the product than it is about the process. You can choose not to write fiction anymore, or not to write for publication, without telling yourself you're not good enough. Write for yourself and see what happens. Are you happier? Do you feel more satisfied with your work and more fulfilled? Then do more of that. Try new things. Stop putting pressure on something you don't control.

But please don't give up on what matters. Giving up will have consequences beyond writing.

It's not time to give up.

Not after twenty books that weren't good enough. Not after twenty years of publication. Not after twenty revisions of the same book. Not after two hundred rejections.

I'm not saying that you're going to get everything you ever imagined with the next book or the next revision. I'm saying that you're the part of this that matters, and you never give up on you.

Read more by Mette Ivie Harrison


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