Some years ago, I tried to write a novel about the abduction of a female college professor by one of her colleagues. I didn’t really like the story, and the characters—as I look back—were flat and static. I spent almost three years on that book, because I was convinced it was going to make me rich. Provide money for the things I really wanted to write. In other words, I wasted a good chunk of my writing life playing literary lotto.
Eventually, I got smart. I quit.
As an assistant professor in the writing department at a state university, I’m occasionally asked by students how they will know when it’s time to give up on a story or poem. The worst answer—one I’ve heard numerous times from members of the teaching profession—is that you must never give up. Art is struggle, they preach, and unless you’re struggling, you’re not an artist.
Bad advice. Sometimes a writer needs to throw in that proverbial towel, give up the ghost, fling her hands in the air and shout, “Enough!” This is not to say that any talented person should abandon creativity for, say, actuarial work. But often, or at least occasionally, we get off to a false start and the very best thing we can do is recognize it for what it is, and shake ourselves free.
Allow me to offer three quick tips on trying to decide whether or not to turn you back on a writing project. They go from the least to the most important, from “think it over,” to “dump it like a pair of tight-fitting tap shoes.”
1. If a writing group made up of respected peers tells you your piece isn’t working, they’re probably right. Don’t ask them how to fix it; they won’t know. But find out precisely what it is they react negatively to (vague language, an inconsistent protagonist, weak imagery,) and if you can’t revise (or at least justify) the problem satisfactorily, it may be time to move on.
2. Struggle does not always equal art, and writing need not resemble dentistry. If you find that you are not in some way emotionally resurrected by your labors—if you find yourself in a constant state of artistic apathy—don’t expect the reader to be any more involved than you are. Writing should be an escape from the personal miseries of life, even if that’s exactly what you’re writing about.
3. Every piece of writing needs to have “a spine.” It needs to say something important in a fresh and original way. If your main character is passive, if there’s nothing he wants, if she faces no obstacles and makes no choices, if today is just a day like all others, your story has no spine. Ditch it.
I’m not saying it’s desirable to leave a trail of half-written stories as your legacy. But unless you can instill your work with passion and drive, unless you can write the kind of piece you yourself love to read, you’re simple wasting time by making marks on paper.
Read Z.Z.'s short story "My Summer at Camp."
Z.Z. Boone is the author of Off Somewhere, a 2015 finalist for the INDIFAB Award for Short Stories. His fiction has appeared in Bird's Thumb, New Ohio Review, Berkeley Fiction Review, The MacGuffin, and other terrific places. Z.Z. lives in Connecticut where he teaches at Western Connecticut State University.