It’s a question every writer has to face at some point or another: how do you determine when to keep on at something, and when to let it die?
These are a few of my conclusions on the matter, though they’re not by any means all-inclusive.
First of all, I need to explain something. Yes, this comes back to my favouritest circle of topics: meaning, themes – and your legacy.
Legacy? I hear you ask. What on earth is our legacy, and why should we be concerned with it?
Well, you might not be. That’s fine. But we all know that I’m striving for work that’s meaningful in some way – I want to write something that Matters. So I’m concerned with it, because I want to leave an impression – I want my writing to have a legacy. Even if you don’t have any particular desire to change the world, it’s still important to consider the work you’re writing as part of your eventual body of work. Not convinced? Think of this:
Any book you write, at any point in your career, for any reason, will be, at some point, the first book of yours that someone picks up.
Do you really want someone’s first impression of you to be based on a book you hate but wrote for the money, or something that’s nothing like any of the rest of your work, or, or, or…?
Don’t give the reader another reason to switch off to you; they have enough already.
So, why do you ditch a book? Either 1) because it’s not something you’re capable of writing at this point in time, due either to lack of ability, or lack of distance from the subject matter, or 2) because it’s not something you want as part of your legacy.
Reasons as to why you might not want something in your legacy include:
* It’s just not a genre you see yourself being happy to write in long term. I had this happen with my books that started out as high fantasy. I enjoy the genre, but it’s just not something I see myself writing and enjoying.
* The story itself is okay – but for whatever reason, you can’t stand to write about the main character any more. It’s okay to hate the main character – hate is a force of attraction, after all – but if you have no respect for your character, if nothing about them interests or engages you, it might be time to ditch the story. This happened to me with the project I worked on for most of 2008 – and it nearly happened to Jesscapades, but was saved by sheer determination and a stubborn refusal to let it happen :)
* There are so many problems with the plot it’s just not worth fixing – many first novels suffer from this, and remember, ‘plot problems’ can be all sorts of things: gaps of logic, plot bunnies, cliches, ‘devices’, etc. On their own, these things can be tackled; only you can decide where the boundary is between ‘wrecked, but salvageable’ and ‘utter garbage; too much work to fix’, and a lot of it will hinge on how much you love the story in other ways. The first novel I ever completed comes under this category, though to be honest I think I love it too much to let it die. Lots of my first half-novels fit here, though.
But what about those borderline cases? What do you do when you can’t quite decide if it’s worth it or not (a la me with the whole concept of short stories – I’m constantly changing my mind about them)? And what if you want to work on something completely different just for the fun of it?
Of course it’s okay to muck around with stuff that you don’t actually intend to be part of your ‘legacy’: writing different styles and genres pushes out the boundaries of our ability, and helps us to learn and grow. But bear in mind that there’s a fine line between playing around for fun to increase your ability, and wasting time on things you never intend to be serious about.
Personally, I think that if you don’t intend to get involved in the style you’re experiementing with (or genre, or voice, or whatever) in a big way, then you should at least be keeping an eye on what you’re learning from the experience. The question is, are you a) going to learn stuff that b) no other story could teach you and c) will be applicable to the stuff you actually intend to make a career out of?
If you’re not going to learn anything from it, or if what you learn could be learned by doing something more directly related to your career, or if what you’re learning isn’t going to be applicable to anything else…. Well, we’re all allowed to do things just for the hell of it. Just realise that if what you’re doing doesn’t fit any of those criteria (which are, let’s face it, pretty broad), you’re probably not doing something which can be classed as ‘work’, in terms of writing ;)
And that, dear readers, is my random thought of the day. But don’t forget to read my article on the importance of having ‘just for fun’ projects to balance yourself out ;)
For you to ponder: Have you ever thought about your ‘legacy’, and the fact that every book you write will be someone’s first glimpse at you as a writer? Does this matter? Does it or should it influence how you decide which projects to let die? Why have you let projects die?