Friday, December 16, 2022

When to Give Up on a Book Project--and How to Tell

This isn't an easy subject to write about. It's simpler for writers working on short projects---essays, stories, articles, blog posts--to consider setting aside or trashing what they've done so far. Much more agonizing for writers working on books. All that effort, time, tears just wasted?

But there are books that are what I call "practice" projects, and they are important in the growth of the writer if not in the productivity. How do you tell if your current struggle is a sign to let the project go or a sign that you need more skills?

I'm also a visual artist (painter) and I subscribe to various art magazines. For some reason, painters are quite accepting of the idea of practice projects. Paintings, like books, can be long-term commitments. Working and reworking a painting for months, even years, is not uncommon. But there is an acknowledged point when the painting is not coming together and needs to be set aside.

One artist (Maria Battaglia in recent issue of The Pastel Journal) described her work as belonging in four buckets. There's the dud bucket, which is where these practice projects go. Then a bucket called "mediocre" which means the painting may have potential but skills or perspective or feedback is needed--the artist has taken it as far as possible right now. The next bucket is the "good" painting, the ones that are coming along well and just need more time or work. Then there's the bucket this artist calls "magical," home to those paintings that just come off the easel without effort, it seems, and the whole process of painting them feels magical.

I've had many paintings in all categories over the decades I've been an artist. It was hard, when I was a beginner, to recognize which bucket each painting belonged in. I asked for teacher and mentor help, used various tools to analyze the painting, and grew a thicker skin about my work, so not everything was either amazing or terrible. I began to see what kind of work, feedback, or skill upgrade a painting required in order to move from the mediocre to the good bucket. And I got more realistic about the paintings that never would, allowing them to be my teachers, grateful for what I've learned. I have a whole flat file of these. No regrets, looking back. I needed to make such messes in order to be where I am today.

So how does this apply to writing? The same buckets could apply to book projects I've worked on. I have one novel in the dud bucket, and many other writers talk about the manuscript that they learned on, the one still in the closet or drawer. I worked on this project via a correspondence course from Iowa Writer's Workshop many years ago, and the teacher was very helpful (although I had to look up many of the terms he used to describe the errors I made). The novel was epistolary, or written in letters from a sister who died to the brother still living. I thought it was a super idea, but I had no clue how to pull it off. No idea about the arc of a novel, the need to have vivid characters acting onstage rather than in their heads (or via letters). My instructor gave me a lot in those months of learning, but in the end, the book stayed in the file drawer.

Educating myself as to what was mediocre (needing skills, feedback, or more work) versus good in my subsequent projects took a lot of years and good readers and teachers. We don't know what we don't know. Especially if we've written in isolation or chosen only close friends or family to read and comment, we won't truly know the larger-world worth of our work--which bucket it belongs in. Also, if we don't read literature in our genre, for the audience we're intending, we will often be lost in looking in the mirror and not really see our work objectively.

In those twenty years since I took that correspondence course I've studied with as many teachers, some excellent, some not. I've worked my way through five or six writer's groups, two of which lasted and still help me a lot. I've read hundreds of books and dozens of craft books to improve my writerly eye, ear, and skills. I've worked since the 80s as an editor, learning the writing craft from the other side of the desk. All of this now allows me to see my own work more realistically and know which bucket it belongs in.

Recently I worked on a short fiction piece, trying an idea that ultimately didn't come together. I originally thought it would be a good narrative choice for a novella. But I learned enough, workshopping the story and getting honest reader feedback, that it wasn't structured well. I could move that to the dud bucket--at least for now. The concept was intriguing but beyond my skill level--and more work to learn than I wanted to put in right now.

Did it cause heartache to give up? Only a twinge.

Maybe this borrowed idea of the buckets will appeal to some of you, who are struggling to decide if your book project is worth the next steps. Maybe you can ask yourself what might help you decide. Do you need clear, honest feedback from impartial readers or teachers? Are you ready to receive that? Do you know what to do next but aren't sure exactly how to do it? (This might appear as repeating stuff you know how to do, but not being sure it's working--like a writer who is excellent in dialogue but needs to learn how to move the plot along.) Or are you just wimping out, tired of the project, and all you two need is a little time apart while you gather your strength for another round of hard work?

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