When to Stay the Course and When to Move On

Megan Norris Jones

We’ve all been there. That moment when a new story takes shape, and your mind is alive with all the possibilities of creation. It’s brilliant, so shiny and bright, and you just have to start writing it now. Because, honestly, that story you’ve been slogging through for a couple of years now is looking pretty tired. It’s probably not The One, so it’ll be best all around if you dig into the new story right away.

Maybe yes, maybe no. I’ve made both choices: abandon a manuscript that just doesn’t have what it takes or stay the course till it’s finished. An idea that hasn’t been written down yet will almost always look better in your imagination than the reality of clumsy words on the page that never quite tell the amazing story that lives in your head. Sometimes it’s best to cut your losses and move on to something more promising, but if you don’t learn to finish what you’ve started, you’ll never actually write a book. 

So how do you decide which to do? Here are some points of consideration that have helped me.

1. Is the underlying idea of your story strong enough to carry an entire book?

Sometimes I have an idea that seems really great, but when I sit down to write it, that great idea isn’t really strong enough to undergird an entire novel. The first manuscript I wrote was like that. I wrote a draft, polished it up a bit, and took it to my first writers’ conference. Once there, it was a terrible shock to discover that my little novel was terribly thin. The idea simply wasn’t interesting enough to keep anyone reading. If I were to ever have any hope of publishing it, the spit shine I’d given my first draft wouldn’t do. It required a complete overhaul, down to its premise. I could have kept the characters and story world I’d created, but that was about it. I discovered that I wasn’t so attached to those characters to make the work worthwhile. I let it go.

2. Is it possible to sketch an outline or a few key scenes of the new idea without losing momentum on your current work in progress?

Whether you finish a manuscript or abandon it, eventually it will be time to write another book, and you’ll need an idea. So don’t ignore new ideas. Save them up by sketching out what you know to come back to later. This can be a quick blurb in a file, a couple of vivid scenes, or it can be a fully fleshed out outline. Last spring I sent a draft of a work in progress to my fellow WriteOwls for critique. Instead of twiddling my thumbs while I waited for them to finish it, I started outlining a new project I had in mind. I got through a solid outline and then wrote Act I. I was really on a roll, but then my critique partners returned with feedback for my old manuscript. I was torn. Should I push on with this new manuscript or return to the one I’d labored on through so many drafts?

3. Do you still have something left to learn from writing this book?

My current work in progress has been like a graduate course in novel writing. I’ve been working on it for longer than I’d care to admit, and in order to write the book like I think it needs to be written, I’ve read countless books on craft, attended multiple conferences, analyzed books that worked and books that didn’t. I’ve discussed the ins and outs of the process and the manuscript with my fellow writers. I’ve written about the process here on this blog. And through it all I’ve written, rewritten, revised, deleted, and written some more. 

And, y’all, I’m getting tired. I’m ready to be finished. I know what I’ll write next—I’m already a quarter of the way through the manuscript. But I asked myself question one, and yes, the underlying idea of my story is definitely strong enough. And I acted on question two, outlining and starting on my shiny new story while this one was out for critique. Then I thought about all I’d learned while writing this story, how I’d honed my craft and expanded my understanding of what makes a good book. 

I’ve been working on this book for a long time now, and I still love it, though in many ways that’s beside the point because I still have a lot to learn from it. I still need to learn how to finish revising, how to send it out to agents, how to see it rejected, and maybe, just maybe, how to see it published. 

So I’ve made out a plan for this final revision, and when I’ve worked my way through it, I’m going to send it off with a cheer and maybe a little dancing. And while I’m waiting to hear what the world makes of my little book, I’ll be at my desk, happily plowing through the next one.

Have you ever had to decide to let a book go or to push through to The End? How did you make the choice? Any regrets?

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