Knowing When To Quit

So. You’ve written that first draft and decided that there’s something to it. How long do you have to keep at it before you can decide that it’s either a) finished, or b) unfinishable?

On first starting out as a writer, the temptation is to decide that a text is final and irrevocable the moment you set it out on a page. Your writing is precious, sacred even, dictation taken direct from the mouth of God; bad writers may compromise, make edits, but you? You hit it out of the park first time, every time.

A good stage to leave behind, but the incessant tinkering you then take up isn’t much better. Every text is a free-for-all, with everything up for grabs. Like Joyce, you can spend all morning switching around two words, then all evening switching them back again. Time spent editing is never a waste, not really; but if you could have written two or three new stories in the time it’s taken to bring a substandard one up to scratch, it’s not really an efficient use of your time. Most of us have a limited amount of time to write, and we can’t really afford to squander it in this way; yet we do. Why do we do it? Well, here are my own personal faulty rationales for sticking with something long after you should have stopped.

You’re on a roll. You’ve written two, maybe three good stories in a row, and you definitely feel like you’ve turned a corner. Therefore, you are clearly incapable of writing bad prose ever again. Whatever the vital spark is that’s going to bring this story to Pulitzer-winning life, YOU ARE GOING TO FIND IT.

Darling-harvesting. Killing your darlings doesn’t just mean getting rid of a good metaphor, or binning a nice turn of phrase. It can sometimes mean jettisoning an entire story altogether. If the ship is sinking, the passengers are going down with it. You can’t save an entire story for the sake of a couple of lines.

But I need it for… There’s a specific reason you need this story to work. Maybe there’s a competition on the theme of “returns” or something, and it’s the only one you’ve got that fits. In that case, you’ve already lost. Forget the competition. Move on.

It won’t be GREAT, but… Of course, one of the most exciting things about writing is that you never know if what you’re working on is going to be great. Pre-emptively deciding that whatever you’re working on is going to be brilliant or significant is one of best reasons in the world for putting it aside. But if you’re labouring over something that has clearly gone badly wrong just in order to make it borderline readable, you’re wasting your time. (Kind of – it’s a good exercise, and it might stop you from making the same mistakes again in the future. But it’s also depressing, and winds up making you feel like a bad writer or, at the very least, the long suffering Jekyll to the madcap Hyde who wrote this crap.)

The truth is, the easiest way of judging whether you’re spending too much time on something is thinking back over your best stories, and how long it took you to write them. Relatively to the length, odds are it probably wasn’t that much time. The myth of instant inspiration is pernicious, but overwriting can be just as damaging and certainly more time-consuming. The other day I started editing a story which has already been published. Why? Know when to quit.