By Kate Watson
Perseverance is often touted as the most important key to becoming a successful writer. It takes stick-to-itiveness to write a book, polish it, solicit feedback, revise, query, rinse, repeat. As a result, the stories that most often inspire us are those of people who’ve been stuck in the trenches for years, rejections mounting, and who finally catch their break in spectacular fashion.
We glorify determination and dedication, as we rightly should. But in doing so, we may compound a problem that many writers experience: not knowing when to quit. This could mean anything from spending too long polishing an already excellent manuscript to stubbornly querying a novel that no one but you loves.
It happened to me when I started writing seriously about eight years ago. I had an idea for a portal fantasy trilogy that was just so cool! I wrote during all of my spare time for months on end until I finished 110,000 words of (what I thought was) pure awesome. I read books on self-editing and researched everything from tropes to pacing to character development, incorporating it all into this WIP.
After three years, I finally started querying.
I had a number of requests for partials that never progressed beyond that. After querying forty agents without a request for a full, I suspected there was something wrong with the manuscript itself. I couldn’t imagine what, considering my beta readers all loved it. So I joined a first five pages workshop.
Turns out three of the five of us had written a portal fantasy. And the ingenious name I had given my fantasy world? Yeah, one of the other writers had given her fantasy world the exact same name (different spelling, but still. Still.).
I loved this book, but it was painfully obvious that its time had come and gone.
So what did I do? I started rewriting it, trying to make it more unique, trying to subvert tropes, until one day, I realized that it wasn’t just the manuscript that was the problem: I was the problem.
I didn’t know when to quit.
I had spent four years on a manuscript that no one wanted and that I could no longer see objectively. It was time to shelve it.
The time will come for most of us (maybe more than once) when we have to move on from a project we love. If you’re wondering if this applies to you, here are a few questions to ask yourself:
1. Is my idea really as unique as I think? – If you don’t know how to answer that question, get to know a slush pile reader and ask her what she thinks about the idea. If you don’t have access to one, see if you can volunteer to read for a contest in your genre. You may find that your idea is a lot less unique than you thought.
2. Is my idea cool/engaging/intriguing? – You may have a completely unique, unheard of idea, but if you can tell ten people who read widely in your genre about it and they aren’t stoked, it’s probably not as exciting as you think it is.
3. Does the story deliver? – It doesn’t matter how cool and unique your concept is if the story doesn’t pack a punch. We’ve all DNF’d a book that sounded incredible but, well, wasn’t. If your beta readers are the kind to squeal and clap, but all you’re getting is nods and vague or meaningless compliments (“I really like the analogy on page 63!”), they’re underwhelmed (and you may need new critique partners who’ll shoot straight with you). And if they’re underwhelmed, chances are agents will be, too.
4. How objective can I be about my manuscript? – Most of us go through the same cycle of emotions when we get constructive (read: negative) feedback: outrage, denial, despair, more despair, and acceptance. If you’re really enlightened, you may even include empowerment in there somewhere. Think of how you’ve been responding to feedback on your WIP. Are you stuck in one of these emotions? Any of them—even the empowerment that comes from starting fresh!—can be a negative if you can’t let yourself progress past it. Every stage of the writing and revision process has to end eventually.
5. If publishing weren’t a consideration, would I gladly work on this idea forever? – This is a tricky one. Many artists have pet projects that they go back to for decades. Leonardo Da Vinci famously said, “Art is never finished only abandoned.” If you’re unwilling to fully abandon a project, that’s fine! But keep it to yourself. Pull it out from time to time and return to the world you love so much. And then put it back on the shelf and write something new.
If you want to be a writer, you have to know when to quit.
Just don’t give up along the way.
Kate Watson is a young adult writer, wife, mother of two, and the tenth of thirteen children. Originally from Canada, she attended college in the States and holds a BA in Philosophy from Brigham Young University. A lover of travel, speaking in accents, and experiencing new cultures, she has studied in Israel and lived in Brazil, the American South, and now calls Arizona home.
She wrote her first book at the age of six and sold it to her parents for 25¢, which she promptly turned around and spent on penny candies from a local convenience store. From that moment, she discovered two truths: she loved candy, and she wanted to be a writer. Both are still true.
For several years, Kate worked as a senior director for a private university and was one of the faces of a national ad campaign for the university. Shortly following the birth of her first child, she chose to stay home full time and focus on her family and her writing.
Her first novel, SEEKING MANSFIELD, debuts in Spring 2017, with the companion novel to follow in 2018. She is also a contributor to Eric Smith’s WELCOME HOME adoption anthology (JFP 2017).