What do you do when feedback on your creative work indicates that you haven’t managed what you were trying to achieve and a total re-think is required, a rethink that will require new enthusiasm and an incredible amount of work? I give up.
‘Ahh!’ you might exclaim, horrified by the thought. ‘Doesn’t that mean you’ve failed?’
No. Giving up isn’t failing; it’s part of the creative process.
Giving up isn’t the same as failing
Even if you discard a project completely and never return to it, you will have learned from your writing and struggling with it, and the best ideas from that story will emerge in a new story, a better story. Perhaps you did fail to bring a book to publication, but that doesn’t make you a failure; it makes you a writer, and a sensible one.
Some stories are really not worth the work to fix them up because they’ll never be that great a book, and if you can admit that, then you’re freeing yourself up to write something else, something that could be a great book. If you can admit that your book will never be that great, then you’re showing the discernment necessary to progress as an author, and you’re showing that you’re beginning to understand what does make a great story and the kind of work that’s needed to write one. That’s not failure. That’s an indication of learning – and learning is success.
And giving up on one story isn’t the same as giving up writing, but even if you give up on writing, that’s not failure either; it’s simply a realignment of your aims. For now. Giving up on writing is easily undone. Just start writing again. Giving up on a story is the same.
I have three books in my archive folder, ones I gave up on because the work needed to fix them was too much for my waning inspiration. Giving up on them was such a relief. But I’ve since published three other books, and I’ve also given up on most of my published books at some time. In those instances, the giving up wasn’t permanent. It was a necessary part of the creative process.
Giving up as part of the creative process
My husband knows what happens after I give up on a book in frustration. A few weeks or even just a few days later, I throw myself back into my project with renewed enthusiasm.
‘But I thought you gave it up?’ he says.
That’s the trick. When you give up completely, you let everything go. That means that you get a clean slate. Mentally you relax. You have nothing more to lose, because you’ve already let it go. That enables you look at your work afresh. And if things are stuck or just not working, then looking at it afresh is what you need.
Giving up is the best treatment for a creative block. Simply stop trying and go do something else. That allows something new to arise.
How to give up properly
For giving up to move you forward with a project rather than stopping you dead in your tracks, you have to let it go so completely that it’s a relief. You need to see the days ahead as blissfully free of demands on your time, so you get a real sense of freedom to do just what you feel like doing at any particular time. No need to finish that draft or get it to a beta reader by the end of the week. No need to do anything.
Only then can fresh inspiration come. But don’t wait for it to come. You’ve given up completely, remember. If there is any holding on left at all, your mind won’t be free to allow fresh insight to arrive.
I usually give up at the end of the day when I’m tired. It’s a good time to give up because then you can sleep without worrying about your project. A good night sleep works wonders. If you’re fresh in the morning, things won’t look quite so daunting.
But you’ve given up, remember? So you’re not to do anything on your project unless you have fresh insight and get really inspired.
You’re not giving up in order to finish the project; you’re giving up because that’s what you need to do at this point in time.
Sometimes I give up and the new inspiration comes after I’ve taken a walk and had a cup of tea. It’s not the time length, it’s the completeness of the giving up that is important. You must totally surrender all agendas.
What not to do just after you’ve given up:
- Don’t go telling the world you’ve given up (husbands and immediate family are okay);
- Don’t cancel your beta readers;
- Don’t delete your website;
- Don’t delete your document.
If after a week or so, you’ve decided that you really are going to abandon the project, then fine, go ahead and tell those who need to know, but still don’t delete anything, because you may come back to it in a couple of years. It may take that long or more before you get motivated to look at it again. Or maybe you never get back to it. And that’s okay. Giving up has it own wisdom.
The too-hard basket is not a permanent receptacle
I wrote Dispossessed in 2012 while my agent was trying to get a publisher for Lethal Inheritance. I knew then that I didn’t have the skills to make it work as it should, so I put it in the too-hard basket. It took me 5 years before I decided it was time to take it out of that basket, but I’d always figured that I would.
I wrote another draft of it – and even designed a cover for it – but I discarded the book again after I got the feedback from my beta readers. My writing skills had developed sufficiently, but the book’s themes were really tricky and unless I handled them a lot better than I had, the book would be completely misunderstood. I didn’t want to risk that, so I abandoned it – again. Will I return to it again? I don’t intend to, and I’ve moved on, both personally and as an author. But you never know.
The other two books in my archive folder I know I will never return to, not because I don’t know how to fix them, but because the stories no longer inspire me. Inspiration has its own wisdom. I go where it leads and don’t go where it shows no spark of interest, and it’s never led me wrong. Books written without inspiration are dull. If the author is not enthusiastic for the story, the readers won’t be either.
My award winning Diamond Peak Series almost never saw publication for many reasons, but one was because I gave up on book one, Lethal Inheritance, twice. Both times I decided not to continue struggling with it. The first time was because I became overwhelmed trying to work out how to combine the backstory, the information required to understand the world, where to begin the story and even what was necessary to include – it stayed in my archive folder for three months until in a flash of inspiration it all fell into place.
The second time was because I wasn’t happy with my prose and I didn’t know how to fix it. That was when I learned to be an editor. I didn’t look at the book for six months, then after a great deal of intense study on the craft of writing, in particular on how to write good prose, I edited it into something that was finally of a professional standard. I did the same to the three sequels, after which I realised I could do the same for others – and so my editing career began.
So when you give up, sometimes you never return to the book – ut that’s not a bad thing because it allows new directions to open for you – and sometimes you get reinspired and return to the book refreshed and energised to bring it to completion.
Inspiration and an empty mind
One thing is for sure: true inspiration of the depth you need for a radical new approach can only appear in an empty mind. And giving up fully and completely with no reservations or agenda for ‘getting back to it’ empties your mind of all the concerns and feelings that overwhelm you and block your creativity.
Have you ever given up a creative project then gone back to it later? What happened then?
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