How do you know when to give up on a project?

by | Jun 16, 2014 | The Writing Life | 34 comments

We’ve all been there.

Whether it’s a heady ten page burst that we realize is terrible the next day or an agonizing decision to put a novel in the draw after years of work, every writer has to give up on some projects. The reasons vary, the amount of pain differs, but we all have to decide that enough is enough.

But how do you know when you’ve reached that point?

Or, as longtime reader Collin Myers puts it:

I just wonder, at what point do you have to kind of sit back and say, “This isn’t going to work. It’s not going to turn out the way you envisioned it.”

Have you reached this point with a project? How did you know? Did you ever end up regretting turning back?

Art: Jeune homme à la fenêtre by Gustave Caillebotte


  1. CourtLeighLove

    My moment came when I gave the MS to two different beta readers, and neither of them gave me any feedback. After a couple months of asking about it now and again, I quietly put that one away.

  2. Curtis Edmonds

    I had a great idea (came to me in a dream, actually) about a protagonist who was trying to chase down an antagonist who had figured out how to use time travel to make stock picks, and then I realized that all the antagonist had to do was to travel back in time and shoot the protagonist before he discovered the plot. Slightly embarrassing.

  3. eleventy12

    I optimistically hope that it's just time to set it aside for another day.

    Maybe the world just isn't ready for that project right now

  4. L. Shanna

    I give up when I stop believing in it. There's a difference between being blocked and being uninspired. I've been writing long enough to know the difference.

  5. Chase March

    I gave up on a novel once, but I never gave up on the story.

    It wasn't working as a novel but it did come together as a screenplay.

    Sometimes we want something so much but we just aren't working in the right medium.

    Food for thought, any way.

  6. Ellie Garratt

    I have ideas I've shelved, either at the idea stage or even a few thousand words in. My gut told me they weren't right…yet. I like to think of them as projects for when I'm established and financially able to pick and choose.

  7. Sarah

    Great question!

    I set a novel aside (after working on it for 5 years!) when I knew it needed to be better, but I didn't know how to fix it. For years, I'd known what needed to be done. But I hit a point where revisions didn't seem to make a difference.

    I was surprised how easy it was to set aside when the time came. I sold the next novel I wrote, and I think of that novel sitting on the shoulders of the first story. I couldn't have sold VALIANT if I hadn't learned so much on the first.

  8. KatrinSchumann

    I wrote a post on this topic for Grub Daily where I teach writing:
    These are the questions you should ask yourself before quitting:

    -Have I been willing to learn from feedback?
    -Have I really been hearing what my readers are saying?
    -Do I trust myself? Is my vision for the work intact? -Have I been overly influenced by someone whose opinion matters to me?
    -Conversely: Have I hacked away at it with an open mind or am I sticking stubbornly to an early idea that just isn’t working?
    -What can positive feedback teach me about where my strengths lie? How can I build on those strengths?
    -What can negative feedback teach me about what I need to learn in terms of executing on my idea?
    -Will I benefit from a break? Working on something different for a while?
    -Am I paying enough attention to other creative needs/ interests that are only tangentially involved with this project but may be necessary for me to bring the right kind of energy to the table?

  9. Greg Pattridge

    It took me two years to realize the great characters I had created were masked in a dreadful plot. I gave up on the project, but put the same characters in a better story.

  10. Jennavier Gilbert

    Hmmm…. I don't know. Usually for me it's when I've barely written for months because I'm avoiding the project. Although that normally happens not because of the book itself but because of an external factor that makes me associate that book with something difficult.

  11. Jennifer R. Hubbard

    I give up on a manuscript when I have no idea how to fix it, and/or I no longer care enough about it to keep trying.

  12. cbwentworth

    My moment came when I realized, "I can do better." Something in my gut told me I had to go in another direction and I'm so glad I listened. I shelved my first novel and jumped right into second armed with knowing what not to do!

  13. wendy

    I did give up on a project – the first novel I ever worked on – after ten years or so. Way back then I didn't have the life experience or the writing skills to pull it off. I feel I have both now, so I'll return to it when I've put out the one I'm currently working on which I believe is finally finished. However this one has been reworked – on and off – for fifteen years, so it might seem I never give up. However a childrne's novel I actually finished but never did anything with – even though I loved it – was because it seemed very witchy and I've since become a born again Christian so I'm not sure about promoting things like this to children as innocent and fun when I now know better.

  14. Anne R. Allen

    Uh-oh, I hope this isn't inspired by the guest blogpost you're working on for me for Sunday!

    I've got three novels that will never see the light of a Kindle. I tried to write in genres I don't read much. Serious mistake.

  15. Sweet Venom

    Excellent comment KatrinSchumann. I agree with your list.

    I don't think a project should be shelved unless passion is lost. If you're stuck, try approaching it differently.

  16. Naomi Bellina

    Like some of the other comments, when I dread sitting down to work on a project and make every excuse not to, it's time to hang it up and move on.

  17. Bruce Bonafede

    I find that when I can give up on a project it's because I thought it was a good story, instead of knowing in my bones it was a good story. That I thought the main characters were good, rather than knowing the main characters were good. For me when writing is an intellectual exercise I can lose interest quickly. But when what I want to do comes out of my gut I will stay with it for however long it takes for me to get my act together and do it right.

  18. Ernie J. Zelinski

    Several years ago, I started writing a book called “The Lazy Person’s Guide to Success.” Two or three months later, I did the title proud by quitting when the book was half completed.

    I gave up on the book entirely, thinking that no publisher would be interested. When a Spanish publisher requested the complete manuscript of another book, on a whim I decided to send half of the completed manuscript of “The Lazy Person’s Guide to Success” to her as well, even though she hadn’t asked for it. My devious, “reasonable” mind told me it was a waste of time and money to send the half manuscript, but my creative, “unreasonable” mind told me to send it anyway. Surprisingly — to my reasonable mind, anyway — two or three months later this publisher made me an offer to publish the book in Spanish (I found out later that she thought that the half-manuscript was the complete book).

    After I finished the book, I sold American and other foreign rights to a total of thirteen different publishers. “The Lazy Person’s Guide to Success” has now sold over 110,000 copies worldwide and made me almost $97,000 in pretax income.

  19. G. B. Miller

    I've have two in particular that I basically said "sayonara" to. It was mostly due to the fact that no matter how many times I dusted them off to work on them, I simply couldn't come up with a way to get it from where I left off at to where I wanted to arrive at for the ending that I had in mind.

    Shame really, because they were very good expansions of a mediocre short stories that I had originally wrote back in the day when I was first starting out.

    Father Nature's Corner

  20. Louisa Mack

    I put a novel aside earlier this year because I'd spent far too much time trying to make that story work. But a few months later I realised how to fix it. I think putting things aside, letting go of them, can sometimes give your brain the freedom to see a solution.

  21. Melanie Schulz

    I give up when it starts to feel like work, which to me means I'm bored with the story. If I, the writer, am bored with it, how can I expect it to engage the reader?

  22. Alana Roberts

    I put away my first novel after writing it in full. I still think there are some beautiful passages in the book, but I would never want to show it to anyone. The real problem is that it's actually finished. The eggs have set and the cheese has browned. The idea has found full and satisfactory incarnation, and there's nothing more to do with it. And it's not good enough.

    Now I have about 7 works in progress, and whenever I get stuck on one, I go work on another. I don't want to finish a story again until I can figure out how to do it satisfactorily. So, I go through cycles of breakthroughs. I never give up on these stories, because I believe in all the ideas, and they are still viable. If I'm not up to the task right now, maybe I will be 6 months from now.

    Maybe I should be willing to sacrifice another idea or two to the learning process, and just finish something. It's hard teaching oneself how to write.

  23. Anonymous

    Interesting to see how it's so different for everyone.

    I usually know within a day or two if the project is going to work. (I wish it were that simple with men I date 🙂

  24. Her Grace, the Duchess of Kneale

    I've trunked a good handful of novels. I realised the premises were weak, my writing wasn't up to scratch or the subject/genre wasn't what I really, truly wanted to write in for the rest of my life.

    I'm okay with that. Every writer should learn to be okay with letting go of words, whether editing three words out of a sentence, or putting away three whole books, never to see the light of day again.

    We should be okay with this, becuase every word we write teaches us something, even if that something is, that wasn't the best word to write.

    Those trunked novels have taught me enough to make me a better writer.

    Granted, some of the novels I trunked do have some valid ideas, and I might rewrite them.

    I've been posting about all my unpublished novels on my blog, if anyone's interested.

  25. Carolyn

    I just went through this decision process, and decided to carry on with a wallowing novel. The problem turned out to be too much feedback, too many contradictory opinions, which spun me in circles and caused me to lose my way. I had to spend a lot of navel-contemplating time to assess what I was trying to achieve and why; once that got sorted out, I shut out the noise and went back to work, refreshed and inspired.

  26. Anonymous

    That's funny: Are you my Heathcliff or Hannibal?

  27. Alana Roberts

    Carolyn, I find that advice is almost always pernicious! I look for someone who is not speaking in absolute terms, and who speaks from experience more than from theory.

  28. Kentish Janner

    When I realise that not only do I not know how the story's going to end, but that I can't think of any way it COULD end that would actually work. I've had that feeling forty pages in, ten pages in and even ten SENTENCES in before now (and still have the little book-corpses interred in Hard Drive Purgatory.) Not dead, exactly – just waiting for the right compatible body parts of other incomplete novels that I could stitch into them, Frankenstein-style, to give them new LIFE, HA HA HAAA…. *cackles manically.*

    Sorry. So yeah – that.

  29. Elissa M

    I don't think I ever "give up" but I often "move on". All writing, even completed, published work, is practice for the next piece.

  30. Linda C Jaeger

    This is actually what I struggle with the most. I tend to get new ideas, become extremely enthusiastic about them, write in a frenzy, and stop at the first stumbling block. Then I get new ideas and want to write them instead. Several times now I've started splitting the current WIP into different PsOV at this point, only to realize later on that it doesn't work.

    I've quit writing one novel for being too derivative, one for not being able to work out the plot, one for disliking the premise, and one because my heart wasn't really in it. I've decided to stick with my current WIP no matter what; if I have to change the plot/characters back and forth a million times before I finish, so be it.

    I try to tell myself that none of it is wasted.

  31. Gabriella

    I had to shelve a novel when I wrote myself into a corner by writing it from the victim's point of view. I didn't know it at the time, but it just couldn't work because the victim couldn't know what she didn't know. I tried to rewrite it from another point of view but after several months of overhauling and rewriting, I was too exhausted. So I took it as a (hard) lesson learned, and moved on.

  32. Missy Welsh

    I've never truly abandoned a project. The last one I put away was because the main character depressed me so to write his journey through his issues. I dreaded opening that file to write on it. So despite it being the second book in a series, I concluded that it isn't the right time for me to work on that story. I've moved on to what would've been book three instead. Maybe when I'm in a better place, I can go back to complete that other book.

  33. Matthew Eaton

    Every single one of them. I've stopped trying to write fiction, and after my life story stint I may just walk away from it all and go live life.

  34. furrykef

    I've had one of these moments. In my case it wasn't hard to know when; it came naturally. I just knew. Of course it was hard on me to actually go through with it — no cowboy likes shooting his horse. But the cowboy knows it's gotta be done, and sure enough, I did it.

    The novel was at around 15,000 words and it was by far the furthest I'd ever gotten, but I realized that my novel was very fundamentally flawed. The structure simply did not work, and fixing it would mean starting over from scratch. I think perhaps this particular story would work better as a novella or short story. Maybe one day I'll get it all figured out.


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