Sunday, October 12, 2008

Quitting Time

There comes a point in every challenge when you realize you’re not getting ahead. That all the time, effort, and enthusiasm you mustered for a project just isn’t enough. Why isn’t important, the fact is... it just isn’t.

At which point, you need to make a choice. Do you keep storming the castle? Continue throwing yourself into the breach? Forge on despite all odds with the strength of your convictions?

Or do you give up?

Honestly? If it was up to me...

I think you should quit.

No, keep reading. There’s an important part to this.

If you’ve spent the past decade trying to get any publisher in the world to just look at one of your book manuscripts, and they’re not interested—take a hint. If you’ve spent hundreds and hundreds of dollars on screenwriting classes and contests over the past ten or twelve years, but still don’t even have one toenail in the door—save your money.

You should stop. Cut your losses. Quit. Stop beating your head against the wall, demanding to be recognized, and move on.

In a way, this ties back to something I wrote about a while back. You need to be able to look at your own work honestly and objectively. Knowing when to give up on a project is part of that. After querying 500 or so reps and not getting a single nibble, you need to consider the fact the problem may not lay with them. Your writing may be perfect, it may be gold, it may be what everyone in America is dying for. At the moment, though, for one reason or another, it’s not what those specific people are looking for. And, right or wrong, they are the ones who decide if everyone else gets to see it. As a wise man once said, they are the gatekeepers. They are guarding all the doors and holding all the keys.

Now... here’s that important part.

I’m not saying stop writing altogether. It’s just time to sit back and look at what you’ve done and how you’re doing things. Maybe the problem is characters. Maybe it’s dialogue. Could just be your cover letter. Perhaps even something as basic as an overwhelming number of typos. At the end of the day, you’re doing something that needs to stop happening, because one way or another it’s holding you back.

I’ve met people who wrote one novel way back in college and have spent the past twenty or thirty years sending it to agent after agent, publisher after publisher. They haven’t changed one word since they first set it down on paper. They haven’t done anything else since. They’ve just got that one story going out again and again and again...

Same thing in Hollywood. People write a screenplay over a long weekend, never polish or revise it, but try to use it as a calling card for years. I know of one guy on the contest circuits who’s been pushing the same script for almost a decade. He hasn’t done anything else in the meantime.

Knowing when to quit and move on isn’t a weakness or a flaw. It’s a strength. It’s the only way you can grow and learn new things, because you won’t get any better if you keep poking at the same manuscript again and again for decades. Sometimes you just have to give up on something. If you want to be all new-age about it... you need to learn to let go.

It took me almost eleven years to finish my first solid novel, The Suffering Map. Not an idea, not a work in progress, not something I’ve been poking at. A complete, polished book manuscript, cover-to-cover. Beginning, middle, and end. Yeah, that’s a long time, but close to a decade of that was the film industry convincing me to go work on screenplays instead. If I wanted to make myself feel better, I could probably say it only took about two years of actual work.

Of course, these ongoing rants aren’t about making any of us feel better. Even me...

So, eleven years of work, and then the querying began. Letter after letter, rejection after rejection. Go through it again, create a new draft, and then start the letters again. Some people asked to see it. Some very nice, high-end, holy-crap-I- can’t-believe-he/she-asked-for-this people. Many letters and emails were traded back and forth.

In the end, though, after almost a dozen very major revisions, all of them passed on it. And then I realized, this was done. At that point I’d spent over a dozen years on said novel. Almost my entire life since graduating from college.

Time to work on something else.

I’m not saying I’ll never go back to it. Many writers will tell you if your screenplay or novel gets rejected, put it in the drawer and wait a few years. I’m also not saying it will sell in a heartbeat if I decide to try again in five years. For now, though, I’ve given up on it. I’ve admitted defeat and moved onto (and finished) another novel. And several short stories (many of which have sold). Even a screenplay which did passably well on the contest circuits. Not to mention a paying-the-rent career as an entertainment journalist.

If I’d stayed focused on that novel no one wanted to see, though, I wouldn’t’ve done any of it. I’d still be back there at square one. And my list of published credits wouldn’t be the size it is now.

So the next time the thought of quitting crosses your mind because you’re frustrated with your screenplay or novel or the ongoing search for an agent... actually stop and think about it. Perhaps it’s time, as the networks like to say, to put that bit of work on indefinite hold. Maybe even a few bits of work.

Then look in a new direction, start writing again, and do something different.


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