It’s Okay To Stop
Give Yourself Permission To Abandon That Great American Novel You’re Writing
I believe the number one trait for being a successful writer is persistence. Yes, it helps to be able to “write one true sentence“ as Ernest Hemingway said, and I agree with Toni Morrison who stated “If there’s a book that you want to read, but it hasn’t been written yet, then you must write it.” One of my greatest writing heroes, Stephen King, wrote in his classic On Writing that “Amateurs sit and wait for inspiration, the rest of us just get up and go to work.”
Writing is work. Constant, consistent, continuous work. If those three adjectives all sound the same, they are, and they resemble the craft of writing a book. It’s the same act over and over and over again. Yes, the words will be different, but the execution will be the same.
There’s nothing fancy about writing. Whether you’re typing on a laptop or penning on paper, the steps are always the same. You choose one word, then another, and then another, and eventually you form a sentence. This sentence is part of a paragraph, which is part of a chapter that is part of a book.
Writing is that easy. And that’s why so many fail to finish what they start.
My number one writing advice is to finish. Are you working on an article? Finish it. A self-help book? Finish. A novel? Work on it until you write that final sentence.
I was in third grade when I decided I wanted to be a writer when I grew up. I wasn’t interested in making money or becoming famous; I simply wanted to create stories like C.S. Lewis did in The Narnia Chronicles. In the summer after ninth grade, I ended up writing and finishing my first novel. Yes, it was terrible and unoriginal, and no, I never got it published. I still have it with the pencil fading a little more each year on those pages bound in their glory in an oversized three-ring binder.
My first novel was an absolute success, and here’s why. I finished it. Oh, sure — it was dreadful. But I wrote the story without anybody wanting it or asking for it. I knew I wasn’t going to be paid for my work and I realized the odds were against me getting it published, yet I wrote page after page because I had a story in mind and I wanted to see where it went. And as I always say, once I completed that first novel, I knew I could write and complete another one. So that’s what I did. Again and again.
I wrote seven novels before finally getting a work of fiction published. I was fortunate, however, because I worked in the publishing industry. This was the reason why I entered that field — I wanted to one day write for a living.
75-plus books later, I’m grateful that the dream I first held in third grade came to fruition. After having worked on so many different projects, I can easily say that my greatest talent is my dogged perseverance as a writer. Yes, contracts and advances and publishing deadlines all help motivate me, but every day I face the same hurdle that every writer faces: I have to start writing. Doesn’t matter if I’m sitting or standing or typing or dictating. I need to begin to fill an empty space with words. So I fulfill the words of the great Nike slogan and JUST DO IT.
Sometimes I wonder if my talent of persisting comes from some not-so-great qualities deep inside of me like stubbornness and impatience and even rebelliousness. I didn’t like reading those completely-justified criticisms of my first forays into writing fiction, nor did I listen when publishers said repeatedly that you have to stick to one genre of fiction, that you have to build a platform, that you have to do this or that to be a successful writer. I’ve made mistakes and had many failures. My writing career has been a unique journey, to say the least. But I’ve built a reputation of finishing books, regardless of what category they might fall under.
So having blabbered away on all of that, I want to give some of you writers out there permission to do the very thing I advise people never to do: to stop writing. To quit your novel in progress. To abandon the book and start working on something else. If you’ve been working on any book project for an extended period of time, then you definitely have other book ideas that you probably wish you were writing right now.
How can I dare encourage writers to stop working on a project especially when I know the value of finishing? I do so with some disclaimers. I’ve had to give myself this advice from time to time. Every now and then, you just have to STOP. The following are some reasons why:
Unless you’re J. R. R. Tolkien or George R.R. Martin, don’t spend 12 years working on your novel.
It doesn’t matter if you have the greatest idea in the history of printed books. If you’ve been working on a book project for years without completing it, then something has to change. Put the project aside and start something else. That doesn’t mean all the work you’ve put into it will be wasted. Maybe you’ll go back to it one day. But none of us are promised tomorrow, so you can’t afford to just be stuck in some endless story that never gets completed.
Some ideas just don’t work.
Even if you write a novel knowing the ending, you can get midway through a book and realize that the story isn’t working. My first advice on this would be to keep going, to avoid the perfectionistic voices in your head. I completely agree with the following statement Anne Lamott made in her classic book, Bird by Bird:
“Perfectionism is the voice of the oppressor, the enemy of the people. It will keep you cramped and insane your whole life, and it is the main obstacle between you and a shitty first draft.”
Yes, your first draft is going to be shitty, especially if it’s the first book you’ve ever written. But I’ve learned that some story ideas and outlines simply don’t work. They can be too complicated or too dull. Sometimes a brilliant premise turns out to be half-baked.
There is no such thing as writer’s block, but there is writer’s cement.
To me, writer’s block is the equivalent of calling your boss and telling him or her that you can’t come in to work today, that you’re just “not feeling it.” What do you think your boss would say? Writing is WORK.
There is such a thing as getting completely stuck on a project, however. If you’re working on a novel, you can write yourself into a corner or come to some sort of standstill that you feel you can’t get out of. Again, my first encouragement is to keep going. Write a later scene or maybe even the ending. Revise earlier chapters and change the plot. But every now and then, you might feel like your feet are stuck in cement and can’t move. If you exhaust the other options of moving forward, then maybe it’s time to put a pause on this story you’re working on.
The timing is terrible.
One of the traits of every bestselling book is that its publication is timely. And most of the time authors can’t predict or plan this. I worked at the publishing house that released the Left Behind series by Jerry Jenkins and Dr. Tim LaHaye. We expected it to do well, but did anybody think that the collective series would sell close to 80 million copies? Of course not. The first novel came out at the right time in publishing, when hardcover fiction was selling well and when people were starting to get nervous about things like Y2K. It was a great story that came out at the perfect moment.
There is the flipside of this. Maybe you’ve been working on a story idea that is suddenly impacted by current events like a war or an economic crisis. Perhaps that comedy you’re writing about a pandemic isn’t quite appropriate anymore.
You tried, you failed, and that’s okay.
Have you ever run a marathon? I haven’t, but I like to relate writing a novel to running a marathon. You don’t just wake up and decide, you know, I’m going to go run a marathon today. It takes a lot of practice. And writing a novel is the same thing. I had been working on different stories before I actually finished my first novel in ninth grade. I know — that kind of sounds ridiculous because I was so young. But I needed to write to find my voice and style and just to do it. I can’t count how many novels I’ve started that I haven’t finished. So every now and then you can reach a point when you tell yourself that you tried and you failed. And that’s okay. Writing is creating something out of nothing, and with any creation, you’re going to sometimes try something that simply doesn’t work.
Remember this. The work is never wasted. A half-finished story might turn into a fully-finished bestseller. Maybe you take the main character and write a completely different novel with them. Maybe there are story elements that morph into a new plot. Maybe the reason you wrote the book (dealing with grief, exploring your past, whatever) can be poured into an entirely new idea.
If you HAVE to stop a work in progress — and don’t unless you absolutely have to — the work has still been practice. You’ve been training for that marathon. So maybe that novel wasn’t the Boston Marathon but simply getting in shape for it. If you must, start over again. But keep writing. Don’t dare stop the act of writing for any reason. When the inspiration dissipates, you have continue on. Journal or blog or do any sort of writing. But never stop writing. Practice doesn’t make perfect, as the saying goes, but it sure does help to complete that long novel you want to finish.