I told myself the fourth draft of this novel would be the last draft. I had started it over four years ago and it was never fantastic. Plus,  I’ve learned so much since I started it the first drafts of scenes I’ve inserted in the last few months are better than the older scenes I had already revised several times.  I have better ideas for novels, a better grasp of character motivations, a better grasp of plot, a better line by line writing skills. I feel like anything new I start will be better than this one could ever be so I’ll just fix the remaining major problems and start querying.

That’s what I told myself. 

When I finished the draft, I printed it out and started reading intending only to find and fix the big problems.  The pen in my hand had other ideas and soon the first few pages were covered in notes and corrections written in sparkly purple ink. The small things, sentences, words, style were still a mess, and this was not something I would ever be comfortable sending to an agent. And I can’t give up on it, I’ve already put so much work into it.  

Whoa whoa, self, Imma stop you right there.  Let’s talk about one of the worst reasons to continue working on a project. 

“I’ve already put so much work into it.” 

In psychology they call this an Escalation of Commitment. We don’t want to feel like we’ve wasted our time (or money, sometimes) on a project that may never be worth anything. We’ve committed to a course of action, invested time and energy and it can’t all be for nothing, can it? If we just do this one thing, put a bandage here, we can fix it, but then the bandage causes a sticky mess so we just do some sanding. Now it’s a little too smooth but we’ve come this far and we can’t quit now so glue on some rhinestone… and on and on down the black hole.

Sometimes a project will not work no matter what we do and we have to learn to be okay with that. We have to learn to cut our losses and move on.

How do we figure out when it’s time to quit a project? We should not consider the time and effort we have already put into it, but only the work it will take going forward. The time we’ve already spent is a sunk cost, we can’t get it back by continuing with the current project and we can’t get it back by working on something else. It’s in the past and we cant change the past.

What we should consider is the time it will take to complete it, versus the time it would take to complete something different. If it will take us eight months to finish another draft but have a different novel completed from start to finish, including all revisions, faster, it’s better to start the next one. 

This is not an easy thing to figure out with creative projects. It’s possible all that we’ve learned by working on a project will make the next project go faster. It’s also possible we are overestimating what we’ve learned or being unrealistic about time frames. Experience is the best teacher here. 

The important question to ask is, am I only continuing because I already put so much work into it? If the answer is yes then it might be time to consider moving on. 

We have to be careful here because we can fool ourselves into thinking the next one will be better and go faster because of shiny new idea syndrome. Writing a book is a long and arduous process. We get bored. We think the next idea is so much better and Ooooooo this new idea is so good and I can see the whole perfect, beautiful picture in my head. It will be an amazing and the novel that everyone will love and everyone will want to read.  I thought the one I‘m working on was shiny once, but I was wrong about it and now it’s a big ugly mess and will never live up to what I thought it would be and I’m booorrrrred.  Unless you are a freak of nature (In which case, I love you) you will get bored and frustrated with the novel you are writing. The novels we write will not match the perfect vision we thought they would be because perfection only exists in our imagination. Nothing real is perfect. 

There are some things we can only learn by finishing things, at least through several drafts. My recommendations is that if this is your first novel finish that first draft, go through it and find out what you did well and not so well. Then you can take what you learned and try to fix this novel or you can apply it to trying to write a better second novel, whichever you feel is a better use of your time. The second novel, however, should go through several drafts. Writing is hands on, the best way to learn it is to do it.

Don’t think about time to completion of this verses another until the second novel has been through several drafts. At this point you should have a feel for your process, how fast you work and what it will take to finish something and you will have a better idea of the balance between what you’re learning from a current project versus what you would learn from a new one. You will also have a better feel for the time commitment for either option.

I should mention at this point that every project is different and you could go into the next one feeling like it will be a breeze only to find you’ve made another giant mess. (Cheery, I know. But in general, it will get easier)All the above is assuming that we want to take the path gets us to writing better novels faster, but this is creation and efficiency is not necessarily the motivation. Sometimes we believe deep down in our souls that the project we are working on is amazing and worthwhile. Right now it’s a mess, and yes sometimes we get bored and frustrated and want to throw our computers against the wall but there’s a spark, a certain something that keeps us coming back. It doesn’t matter if it takes six months or ten years to finish the novel; we believe in this book and will continue to work on it until our fingers fall off and our butts are permanently numb.

In last three drafts of my current work in progress I havent wanted to work on it. I wanted to work on anything else at all and so I was very surprised when thinking about a fifth draft I was excited. Something happened when digging through the fourth draft I didn’t expect. As I mentioned above, when I start a story it feels wonderful and I get the sense I can see the whole big picture and it is amazing.  Then when I work it’s not even close to the bright, shiny thing in my head, but after going through the story multiple times I’m seeing how all the pieces fit together. I understand my characters better and while it will never match my vision, there are some good things in it and that’s exciting. That’s something I never would have figured out if I hadn’t pushed through those hard places when I wanted to quit. 

It’s difficult to know when we will learn more from quitting than we will from persevering, but with practice and patience I believe we can all better learn to recognize when a novel is a lost cause and when it’s better to push through. Remember, none of the work we do is actually wasted because it’s all a learning experience.  

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