Giving Up or Moving On: When to Abandon Your Book
Today, with the flood of books being published, everyone seems to think he can write a book, but that doesn’t mean everyone can write a good or a great book. And there’s never been a lack of mockery for those who think they are great writers, the kind who whip out a first draft and publish it, seeking acclaim for a mediocre product they think should garner undying praise.
In the early 1700s, the English poet Alexander Pope in his poem “An Essay on Criticism” advised that the true author “Glows while he reads, but trembles as he writes,” thus reflecting the seriousness of writing and the need to create a good piece of literature. In another work, “An Epistle to Doctor Arbuthnot” (an aspiring writer), Pope expresses how difficult he finds it to help authors who think their writing is wonderful, saying:
I sit with sad civility, I read
With honest anguish, and an aching head;
And drop at last, but in unwilling ears,
This saving counsel, “Keep your piece nine years.”
Most authors won’t follow Pope’s advice to let a piece of writing sit for nine years, but it’s very good advice, suggesting that in nine years time if you still think it worth publishing, then it is worthwhile, but most likely by then, you’ll see its faults and want to rewrite it.
There is something to be said for letting a piece of writing sit. I’ve known plenty of authors who have struggled with their writing, who really truly are craftsman who try to find the right word, to make each sentence flow naturally, to create realistic dialogue, and carve out poetic language even when they are writing prose. I’ve had authors complain to me that try as they might, they just can’t get their books to be exactly what they want them to be. These are the real authors, the authors who are passionate about writing, and sometimes, the authors who are much too hard on themselves.
Let me say upfront that writing the perfect book is impossible, and the proverbial Great American Novel will probably never be written. In fact, striving for perfection is overrated-it’s always better to strive for excellence over perfection. If you know your book is really good but not completely perfect, it is still okay to quit working on it.
Sometimes whatever we feel is blocking us from taking a good piece of writing to a great piece of writing will be resolved when we let go of the book, when we abandon it, at least for a time, and turn our attention to something else. Most authors rush to get their books published, but I also know authors who write a rough draft of a book, then let it sit for months or years while they write another rough draft or two, and then they go back to rewrite and revise. After all, revision means re-seeing. These authors come back to their works to see them with a new perspective, having grown and changed and hopefully become wiser in the months or years since first approaching the piece.
The need to write a perfect or even a great book can stagnate creativity. Neither Margaret Mitchell, author of “Gone with the Wind” nor Harper Lee, author of “To Kill a Mockingbird” wrote a second book. Both felt she could never top her first book. Yet their readers have always wished they had written more.
The feeling that we have to write a perfect book is a false one. In “The Tenant of Wildfell Hall,” Anne Bronte wrote a preface for the book’s second edition, apologizing to anyone who did not like her book, stating, “I will endeavour to do better another time, for I love to give innocent pleasure. Yet, be it understood, I shall not limit my ambition to this-or even to producing ‘a perfect work of art’: time and talents so spent, I should consider wasted and misapplied. Such humble talents as God has given me I will endeavour to put to their greatest use.”
Take Anne Bronte’s advice and don’t waste your time on perfect writing. It’s okay to put the first book aside or even publish it (provided you have it edited and proofread by someone, who just might also help you bring it up closer to the excellence notch). Then go on to writing a second book.
It’s been said that every author only has one story in him and all an author’s books are a continued attempt to get that story right. I think that’s true as evidenced by many authors, including Jane Austen, James Joyce, William Faulkner, and Anne Tyler. They continually return to the same themes, situations, and character types in successive novels. That’s not to say they aren’t excellent writers. They simply are not afraid to start over and try to get it right yet again, even if they already got it right. Many of their books are masterpieces and the world is better for them. If they had felt they had to write the perfect book and didn’t publish until achieving that, think how many fewer great books we would have.
You authors who tremble as you write, I give you permission to abandon your book, to set it aside, to work on something else, or to publish it, realizing it’s not perfect, but it’s the best you can do right now. You can always write another one and aim yet again, not for perfection, but for excellence.