Monday 23 February 2015

When is it OK to give up? – Jess Vallance

When I first thought about having a go at writing a novel, I spent quite a lot of time reading lists of writing tips on blogs (like this one) and in writing books. If you’ve read even a handful of those kinds of lists you’ll probably have noticed that the one tip that comes up time and time again is:

Never give up.

Persistence, apparently, is everything.

Even before I’d started I knew this bit might be tricky for me because, basically, I’ve always been a massive quitter.

I’ve spent hundreds of pounds on musical instruments I can only play a few notes on. I have a bookshelf full of unread books on computer programming. I once bought a full Taekwondo suit only to walk out halfway through the first class on account of the fact I don’t really like rough games.  And true to form, since I decided to start writing, I’ve given up lots of times, on lots of things.

But something I’ve realised recently is that actually, all this quitting has helped me. Because giving up on stuff has freed me up to start other things, and being a massive starter is actually kind of useful.

I decided I wanted to write a publishable novel at the beginning of 2013 and I signed my deal in the middle of 2014, so it took me 18 months which isn’t too bad when you hear what some people have to go through. But in that time I wrote five different books (which you can read about here if you’re interested). I think if I hadn’t been such a quitter – and such a starter – it would’ve taken me much longer.

Giving up gets a bad press, and mostly with good reason – it represents abandoning your dreams, failing to reach your potential, a disappointing end to a difficult journey – so I do think there is undoubtedly a negative kind of quitting. But I also think there’s a good kind of giving up. Giving up that gives you back the time and energy to start something else. Something better.

So, this is when I think it’s OK to give up on a project:

1)      When you have something on submission.

Whether you’re waiting for a reply from agents or publishers, give up on that book for a while. Assume it’s never going to happen. Start a new project, something you’re really excited about. That way, if the rejections do start to roll in, you’ll be able to think ‘What, THAT old thing? I never liked that one anyway.’ (If you get positive responses you’ll have no trouble rekindling excitement for the project. Good feedback just has that effect.)

After all, even if that book does take off, you’ll need to do another one at some point so you might as well be getting on with it now.

2)      When you have a better idea.

Some people warn against starting something new when you’re in the middle of another story, but I think if a really good ideas hits you, it’s a makes sense run with it and see how far you get. It’s so much easier to be productive when you’re really excited about a project that it seems a shame to put it on hold and risk that spark going out. You can always come back to the first idea later.

3)      When you’re sick of it.

If you don’t even like it yourself any more then probably no one else is going to either. You can hope that someone’s going to spot something that you can’t even see yourself but it’s probably not going to happen. You might have changed a lot since you first started work on it. You’re probably capable of something better now.  Take anything you do like – any bits of plot or setting or character – recycle it, repurpose it, and write something new.  

4)      When you’ve exhausted all avenues.

We’ve all heard about how many times Harry Potter was rejected and how long it took Stephen King to find a publisher, but I suspect that for every story like that, there are a thousand others about people who kept plugging away at the same one novel for years and years and still never got anywhere.

It’s hard to look at something objectively when you’ve put so much of your time and energy into it, and people will think they’re being kind by telling you to stick with it, but sometimes it’s less painful and more productive to just move on. Still work on getting a novel published, just maybe not that one.

Twitter: @jessvallance1


Heather Dyer said...

Absolutely spot on! 'If at first you don't succeed, try, try and try again' can be the most damaging attitude. Sheer willpower is useful occasionally, but it's more important to be able to intuit the right direction to take. The Chinese have a proverb -something to the effect of 'Don't force things on too quickly; it's better to slow down because at least then you know you're going in the right direction'. I'm a massive overachiever - not a good thing - and the best things I ever did were things I started after finally giving up flogging dead horses.

Anonymous said...

Such common sense - of course we should give up something that is never going to work. Haven't we all got work that we can't quit being ourselves to delete but we know it will never be good enough to see the light of day. Surely that's all part of the learning.

Sue Purkiss said...

Very refreshing! Thanks for making me smile on a sleety Monday morning!

Jess Vallance said...

Thanks. feels like there are lots of motivational sayings about sticking with something - "you've just got to believe in yourself", "where there's a will there's a way" etc etc - but it might be useful if there were a few more along the lines of "Stop that now and do something else."

Joan Lennon said...

And, as Anonymous says, you absolutely do learn stuff with everything you write - good, bad or middling.

Penny Dolan said...

Interesting post, Jess. Thanks!

C.J.Busby said...

Very amusing and good points. But having read the blog you point us to, about your 5 books, I am just on the floor at the sheer number of words you can write in such a short time! It's a great skill - there's nothing like writing to hone your ability to write. If you can do 70,000 words in four weeks, you've got a hell of a head start on most people, even with the quitting! (and in fact, I'm not sure stopping at the END of a book counts as quitting!) Good luck with Birdy!

Sheena Wilkinson said...

What a wonderful, wise, witty and above all honest post. I have certainly had to give up on projects I have been keen on just because they weren't going to sell. And that is hard, but has to be accepted. I'm currently finishing one book which is uncontracted (and which I certainly hope not to give up on) at the same time as some other potential projects on which I am waiting for a verdict. And if the verdict is no -- let it go!

Jess Vallance said...

Sheena - yes, always good to have a few things on the go I think...prevents any hazardous emotional attachment to any one project.

CJ - yes, I do rattle them out a bit when I get going. Not sure why really. I think I'm just a bit obsessive when I'm in the middle of it and don't get dressed or leave my study for a few weeks. Although I have developed a few productivity tricks along the way.

Katherine Roberts said...

You might feel like giving up on some projects now... but hold on to them, because in 20 years you might feel differently! Distance from a manuscript can work wonders, and also you'll gain experience as you publish other books so might see how to fix something that previously didn't work.