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How Can a Loser Ever Win?

Image result for index cards





Whenever a writer asks me if he or she should quit working on a manuscript that has stalled out, I feel like I’m being set up. It’s like asking someone if you’re pretty. Of course, I’m sympathetic with anyone who is getting royally fucked by the writing process. But I want to say: Yes! Quit!  Do not pass Go. Trash the whole fucking thing! Liberate yourself. Move on! Move on! But of course I don’t say that. I suggest putting it aside for a while, or making an outline, or using index cards. Trust me friends, index cards are a euphemism for dead on arrival. Sometimes it’s a mercy to put a manuscript down. That’s what desk drawers are for! But the reality is you can’t tell anyone when to quit. Nor should you. Writing, at best, is folly. So what difference, really, does is make? If you’re miserable you could be on to something really amazing.

When do you put a piece of writing out of its misery?

23 Responses

  1. Generally, I put us both out of our misery when my fix-it edits seem spent and my passion for the project is gone. Thankfully, that usually happens early enough in the process that I’m not too frustrated about moving on.

    That said, I do have a couple manuscripts in a drawer that I still gaze at, longingly. They’re probably award winners. Shall I send them right off to you?

  2. GREAT blog post! In other words, process, process, process. No wonder I avoid doing my writing. How DO you mend a broken heart?

  3. When do I withhold food? When do I withhold water? Do I remove oxygen? Do I pull the plug and wait?
    Some are resting, Some I have scattered to the winds of forever forgotten.
    No matter the process, it is always sad and a relief that the suffering to continue is over.

  4. “When do you put a piece of writing out of its misery?”

    When the maggots are writhing and the stench is unbearable.

    When it looks up at me with those sad eyes that tell me all is over, all is lost.

    When its pliability becomes that of a block of wood.

    When its tendons and ligaments have been cut and re-sutured so many times even its skin will no longer hold it together.

    When it has been reduced to ash and will no longer burn.

    When I know — just know — that it’s time to leave it be, there’s no further point.

    But even when I know the piece is no longer worth the time of day, or night, I don’t throw it away. It sits in my files. And one day (or night) I may hear it faintly rustling there, and I may pull it out and work on it again. The stench has abated, the maggots have all become flies and flown away, its eyes are closed in sleep (though one briefly winks open and a teasing smile plays fleetingly across its face), a suppleness and structural strength are evident beneath its skin, and I can see the parts that did not burn to ash and can be reworked.

    I’ve had more than one piece that I had given up on and buried in my archives show new signs of life, and I have reworked those pieces, and they have been published, years and even decades after their first drafts. But as you can imagine, the published versions were notably different from their first drafts. Time goes by, we change; if we’re diligent and lucky, we get better at what we’re doing.

    The things that are most important to you, the stories that you must tell, they will never leave you. You may set them aside when they present you with what look to be insurmountable difficulties, but you will never escape those stories, they will never let you go, they cannot be permanently put down; you can put a bullet through their frontal cortex and their ghost will haunt you until you resurrect their corpse and restore them to life. Their life is your life, till death do you part.

  5. When do you put a piece of writing out of its misery?

    What I have found to be true is there have been times when my worst writing ends up as my best – so this is always, always a hard question.

    As I hinted at above, I think Tetman gave everyone the perfect answer – at least from my viewpoint.

    It’s always possible something that seems like a crap pile one day might become your masterpiece, be it the next week, month, year or decade. I’ve got to desk drawer babies. They whistle, sigh, or holler at me now and then, but I don’t have time to resurrect them. I sort of like knowing they’re there – so I have something to fall back on should the well run dry.

  6. When I put my manuscript out of misery, I put myself into it. Because, as Tetman says, it haunts. Maybe I learned from it. Maybe I grew from it. Maybe the process was challenging and worthwhile for just that. Maybe it will Pheonix itself back to life. Or maybe not.

  7. Sometimes before I even start writing it.

  8. When I Tough My Way Through An Issue Of “Poets & Writers,” & Can Only Conclude: Maybe Incest IS Best & There Is No Jury Of My Peers. **** Sean X.

  9. When it’s me lost, stuck inside and trying to analyze myself through writing. A good story gets told outside of the writer created by something inside that is near impossible to define but exposed for all to see.

  10. This post must have been written just for me!

    Last night, I attended an open house for the publisher who had courted my manuscript and, despite a few issues, had assured me that all was on its way for release. Imagine my shame to stand in their assembly space and hear their Marketing Director laud all their Fall releases, while realizing my book was not included within that list. I felt like a fraud, sporting a name tag which included the word “author”. Afterwards, a brief discussion with the new Special Projects Editor convinced me that my manuscript Just.Wasn’t.Good.Enough. And her reaction when I suggested we cancel my contract was a cringe-worthy blend of relief and joy.

    In accepting this latest failure, I’ve decided to also embrace an Ever After, rather than hope for a H.E.A. Less chance for disappointment.

  11. Don’t set this one aside for too long, Karen — you got pretty damn far with your manuscript and that means a lot. I didn’t like reading of how you were treated at the open house, but it could also reignite a fire in your soul.

  12. Year of the Monkey just arrived!
    Can’t wait!

  13. […] Loved this post by author and agent Betsy Lerner on when it’s time to give up on a book project. […]

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