How do you know when it’s time to call it quits, when remaining on the same page, in the same situation, turns into staying too long? When your current project has run its course and overstayed its welcome? You’ve been re-writing the same lines over and over, you’ve invested oodles of precious time and sunk heavy costs into your present draft, and suddenly you hit a wall. You wonder if you wasted your time spinning wheels to go nowhere, except perhaps, to get stuck in a rut? You’ve been running in place for so long that you forgot where you were headed, or that you were even heading anywhere at all. Yet, you don’t want your hard work, precious time, sunken costs, or your investment to have been in vain, so you allow yourself to remain stuck in that dead end place- where you no longer belong.
As writers, we go through this type of thinking every time we arrive at an impasse. Suddenly, there are no alternate routes, no roads forward, no way out, only a solid barrier blocking the path ahead, and the choice between staying put in a deadlock, or giving up altogether. This is the message Andromeda Romano-Lax shares in her January/February Writers Digest article; Dig in or Cut yourself free. Referring to this dilemma as “Fruit or Failure”, she suggests asking yourself how you know when to redraft or when to give up on the current story altogether, or if the work still gives you joy. Are you learning (or growing) from this process or are you watering something that is undeniably dead?
Sometimes, changing the time period, the point of view, or voice is all you need to breathe life back into your story, while other times there is nothing you could do to save your work from its inevitable demise. Yet, taking away the pieces that did work ; the lessons learned, the good parts- that could fit in a brand new narrative- makes the time, investment, and effort work toward your next project. As John Green said in Paper Towns; It is so hard to leave- until you leave. And then it is the easiest …thing in the world.
Similarly, in Eddie Pinero’s ; Your World Within , he points to this idea in life with his story of a lunch date with a friend, in which he mentions feeling full, while continuing to eat. His lunch date asks him “Why, then would you continue to eat if you are no longer hungry?” To which he explains that he wants to get his money’s worth- since he already paid for it. In response, his lunch date reminds him; “Sometimes we must accept the sunken costs for what they are. We don’t need to keep paying, just because we already paid.”
After all, we do not enjoy the meal any less just because we did not finish everything on our plates!
His story’s message is that often we, as individuals, continue to consume that which does not help us, long after we should have stopped. The wake behind the boat we drive, (the past that WAS), does not determine where we go next; the driver behind the wheel does. If we take control of our story, unshackle ourselves from the current draft that is no longer working, or cut ties from what no longer serves us, accepting that something which took our time doesn’t mean it should continue to steal our time, we might discover the right time to call it quits -and move on. Eli Landed notes in one of his Writing blogs: never cling to a mistake just because you spent a lot of time making it. Similarly, this is pointed to in the Best Selling Author, Keynote Speaker, Thought Leader and Entrepreneur, Bryant McGill’s message; Life moves forward. The old leaves wither, die and fall away, and the new growth extends forward into the light.
In life, sometimes individuals remain in jobs they do not like, that provide little or no joy or reward, because it pays the bills, or its the skill they know. Likewise, people remain in situations, or relationships that should have ended long ago, because they’re familiar, predictable, and secure, and better than being alone. But, as Mr. Pinero points out, a jail cell is also secure, and becomes familiar and predictable after a while.
So, what will it take to file that overwritten, going- nowhere manuscript into a drawer, to allow yourself to begin a new story, to start over? Just because the current narrative isn’t working, should not mean there won’t be a better story waiting on the horizon, or within you, to create. No effort or time you put in is ever wasted. These things are what makes our next project better, and makes us who we are, who we can become. The time we spend working on our current narrative allows us to learn what did not work, what won’t work in our next story, as we learn what will. As the Irish writer known as The Maestro of Failure, Samuel Beckett, said; Ever tried? Ever failed? No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.
Instead of viewing the disappointment of a story that isn’t working, as a brick wall, or stalemate, see it instead as the staircase that could lead you upward, toward the right story, the right job you will love and feel rewarded doing, the right relationship that will give you joy, the one in which you are meant to be, and the right life you are meant to live. And of course, the right story you were intended to create.
One of my all time favorite quotes was written by Dr.Seus; Don’t cry when it’s over, smile that it happened. Of course, while this applies to other important lessons in life, it also reminds us that whatever stage we are at in our writing, or in our lives, the effort and time we’ve invested, the piece of ourselves we gave, and the mistakes we made, are never lost to us, or wasted. They become a part of a better story, whether it is the novel we write as writers, or the life narrative we build as individuals, everything we go through or that happens to us is a crucial piece of our life puzzle, an important paragraph of our chapter, a part of who we are and who we become, never wasted or in vain.
Another way to recognize when it may be time to cut your losses to move on, comes from the author K.M. Weiland, when she suggests three signs to look for; 1. When you are losing focus 2. You lack passion for the project 3. Your gut tells you to stop. She says ; Sometimes we need to force ourselves to do hard things- like edit that stupid draft for the zillionth time. But sometimes we just have to stop. Sometimes chasing our tails is the worst thing we can do. There will always be more stories to write. Sometimes we need to just go write them—and let our old ideas die gracefully. It takes courage to admit, even to ourselves, that a story just isn’t working.
If you feel you’re writing a dead-end story, take a moment to evaluate your future with it. More likely than not, you’re going to keep on writing, edit your way to a fabulous book, and end your relationship with this story on a victorious note. But if it doesn’t quite work out that way—if you realize you need to move on—don’t count it as a failure. Close the file on your computer, take stock of what you’ve learned, and move on to write your next masterpiece.
This is further elaborated by Maggie Doonan, author of fiction, non -fiction and Writers Edit blog,;
As a writer, you need excitement and enthusiasm. You need a relentless curiosity about the characters you’re creating – an unquenchable desire to spend hours at a laptop in isolation just to see where this story is going to take you.
However, if you’re sitting at your laptop for hours on end, each word as painful as a broken finger playing piano, then you might have a problem. You’re either approaching the narrative from the wrong direction or you shouldn’t be approaching it at all.
Besides, your next project could be the big one. A doozy. A real literary gem. But you won’t know until you let go of the project that’s holding you back.
And so, to further answer how to know when its time to call it quits, when staying on the same page, or in the same situation, becomes too long, when you’ve overstayed your welcome, and need to let go, I say recognize the value of the current narrative you’ve been writing, then let it go the way the winter trees let go when its the right time. Only then, will the path forward become clearer, the climb upward will feel less painful, and the new growth taking root inside you will extend forward into the light.