How to Know When to Stop Writing This Book and Start a Different Story

There comes a time all writers’ lives when they will eventually have to learn how to know when to stop writing a book and start a different story instead. This is never an easy or simple decision. But consider the following riddle…

Once upon a time, there were two writers. Both had been writing for ten years. One spent those ten years writing and polishing a single manuscript. The other wrote four manuscripts.

Which was the first to be published?

The answer to this question is subjective. Our little story doesn’t factor in any number of important elements, including the two authors’ respective skill levels and their stories’ respective genres and lengths. But generally speaking, the answer to the above question is the second author.

4 Reasons You Might Want to Stop Writing This Book and Start a Different Story

Why is this? Doesn’t it make more sense for an author to invest time in perfecting a single story, rather than spreading time and attention over multiple stories? At first glance, yes—but consider the following.

1. Few Authors Reach Publication With Their First Novel

I wrote four books before publishing my first novel (and in hindsight, even that might have been a little early). Fantasy titan Brandon Sanderson wrote twelve. In her post “Will Your First Book Be Published?”, literary agent Rachelle Gardner points out:

It takes most people a few tries to write a viable and saleable [sic] novel. Like it or not, this is true for the overwhelming majority of writers.

2. Few First Books Are the Author’s Best Work

With time and dedication, most authors refine their mastery of the craft with each story they write. My own experience has taught me I can’t truly see the faults of one book until I’ve written the next one. I routinely put finished manuscripts back on the shelf to await further revision until after I’ve written another book.

3. Agents and Editors Want Authors Who Have Proven They’re in for the Long Haul

A stack of completed novels—even if they’re not up to publication quality—prove an author’s dedication and determination. In “Revising Your Path to Publication” (Writer’s Digest, July/August 2011), Jane Friedman offers an important insight:

A writer who has been working on the same manuscript for years and years—and has written nothing else—might have a motivation problem. There isn’t usually much valuable learning going on when someone tinkers with the same pages over a decade.

4. No Story Can Be Perfected

Although authors should always be willing to spend the necessary time and energy to make a story the best it can be, they need to realize perfection is an impossible goal. At some point, we just have to cut our losses and move on.

***

The time each author needs to spend on any particular story is an individual decision. Novels are always lengthy commitments. In general, I spend a year outlining and researching, a year writing the first draft, and three years intermittently editing. But during those five years, I’m also actively working on other projects. Life is too short and too full of stories for us to spend all our time slaving away on just one book. You’ll do yourself and the quality of your writing a favor if you occasionally take the time to work on a different story.

Wordplayers, tell me your opinions! Have you ever decided to stop and write a different story? Tell me in the comments!

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About K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland

K.M. Weiland is the award-winning and internationally-published author of the acclaimed writing guides Outlining Your Novel, Structuring Your Novel, and Creating Character Arcs. A native of western Nebraska, she writes historical and fantasy novels and mentors authors on her award-winning website Helping Writers Become Authors.

Comments

  1. Makes complete sense to me. My question should be more like: “How many books have you finished?” Everything I’ve done has a gap that needs filled and that’s a very bad habit of mine that I must remedy soon. Very soon.

    Lee
    Tossing It Out

  2. They say there are no finished stories – only abandoned ones. But I know exactly what you’re talking about. Sometimes that glitter of a new story idea is so tempting we can’t help but follow it prematurely.

  3. I have one published nonfiction book. My debut novel, Wish You Were Here, comes out in May 2012. It’s my one and only novel (at this point.) I don’t have other manuscripts stashed in my desk drawer.
    I’ve been told I’m an anomaly–and I embrace the compliment which was amended to: But you are a hardworking anomaly.
    And that–hard word–made the difference.
    While I don’t have piles of unpublished manuscripts, I do have published credits. I’ve written for magazines for years. I edit a magazine. All of these experiences helped me achieve the goal of having my book published.

    Great post,as always.

  4. The exceptions to this particular “rule” are usually mind-boggingly good. There’s a reason they get their first novels snapped up while the rest of us put in our time writing half a dozen manuscripts. Now I’m looking forward to reading your book even more!

  5. I always enjoyed writing, but I mostly set it aside after college as I moved on to other stages of life. I typically have lots of story ideas running in my head, but I don’t often have/make the time to write them down. However, a number of years ago (I won’t say how many) I felt compelled to tell one particular story I’d been carrying around since college. For some reason, this story refuses to be left untold. I’ve tried and given up on it many times, but it always calls me back. Aside from a few short stories I have actually taken time to write, this one from my college days is the only novel-length story I’ve felt compelled to tell. I can’t see myself writing three or four others books before coming back to this one since it’s the only one I care about. So, I’ve opted to keep applying what I learn to it in hopes that one day I can write ‘The End’ on my final revision and know I’ve finally told this story, my story, the way it ought to be told.

  6. Not all authors have the same goals. Some of us only have one story to tell (and, indeed, I have this theory that we *all* have just one story to tell and we keep telling it over and over in different ways). What I’ve discussed in this post applies to *most* authors, but certainly not all. If you only want to tell one story, by all means, tell that story and don’t feel as if you’ll never be able to live up potential in telling it.

  7. My first novel, written for NaNoWriMo, will never see the light of day. I’m in the editing stages of my second, with the intention of getting it published. And while working on that one, I’m writing my third, which beta readers seem to think is pretty polished already. I’m tempted to put the second on hold to finish the third, but I’ve already invested two years in it and am afraid it’ll get lost if I put it aside. I can definitely see an improvement in my writing, so I can see why some authors have better luck with later novels.

  8. There’s a lot to be said for that investiture of time. Once we’ve put a couple years into a story, it can be hard to move on. I speak from personal experience! Sometimes that tenacity is exactly what’s needed to see a story to publication, and sometimes it’s just throwing effort after foolishness. Only the wisest of authors can tell the difference.

  9. I probably shouldn’t admit this here but I thought it better to say something and not just turn and run: Although I do have one idea for novel, I still write mostly short stories. Lately, I’ve been writing micro stories with severe word limits to sharpen my crafting and editing skills. I do it a lot, so I’m writing a lot. I think it’s giving me a good stretch. I guess I’m still preparing for that much larger project.

  10. Writing is writing – whether it’s novels or short stories. Although they’re different forms with different challenges, they both encourage growth in us as writers. Someone who’s written multiple short stories already has a good deal of experience under his belt by the time he decides to write a novel – and vice versa.

  11. This makes me feel much better. Before reading this, I’ve wondered whether there’s something wrong with me, as I can’t seem to focus on just one manuscript. Even though I’m committed to each one and would want them all to be published, I feel like I need to be editing each one even while I start writing the next. There’s a finish line somewhere, of course, when one of those MSs need to be published.

    I’ve written three complete manuscripts and polishing the third. I haven’t completely abandoned the second and would like to start polishing that soon. I’m keeping the first in the drawer, but cannibalizing it for shorts and flash fiction at the moment.

    Ultimately, it’s ‘diversification’ as well for me (my three MSs are in three different genres). Hoping one of them will be The One.

    But yes, I’m a person with multiple interests and a sort of attention deficit disorder, in that I’m most comfortable when working on more than one project. And I haven’t even mentioned my full-time day job yet!

  12. There’s always a happy balance, of course. If we “diversify” to too great an extent, none of our stories will ever be polished to a publishable state. But you sound like you have a great system. I always have at least one story kicked into the closet, cooling off, while I turn my attention to other, newer, more pressing stories.

  13. I have about six finished novels, but the issue (avoided so far in this discussion) then is, what to do with them? The discussion has focussed on “getting your work into a publishable state” but what is that? The novels I have completed are what I call futuristic “science in fiction” thrillers, and to get such works published, you need an agent. The probability of getting an agent from a single query is apparently one in ten thousand at present, but that is also biased in favour of those who get to meet agents personally. So, if you are in a not particularly favoured genre, and you are not well-located, the odds are much worse than that. So, what then? Personally, I believe just leaving them in a drawer is not particularly ambitious, so I have tried self-publishing one (Puppeteer) as an ebook on Amazon and Smashwords for epub. I make no claim that this novel is perfect; it isn’t, but I also do not believe there is much point in continually rewriting the same work because while it may gain something in polish, it will always lose spontaneity, and rightly or wrongly, I think that is important too.

  14. I agree. The book industry has reached a point in its evolution where authors are able to reach out and find audiences for their work in more ways than ever. So long as our focus is on excellence – as it should be whether we publish traditionally or independently – we have no reason to leave our work sitting in a drawer once it’s reached the “publishable state.”

  15. Another post I needed to read! I’ve been debating perfecting my first manuscript or focusing more attention on my second book for now. It my haste to want to get published, the prevailing wisdom would say – continue editing and finish the first work – but I’m learning a lot these days, and that knowledge is helping me write my second book better.

  16. As of right now, I’m editing two already-written stories (in varying stages of polish). As soon as I finish one of those edits, the book will go back on the shelf for a while and I’ll focus my attention on outlining a new story. When I finish that new story, I’ll go back and edit the other one again. It’s a juggling act. New, old, new, old. It allows me to keep busy, while still giving me the ability to set old stories aside and let them “brew” for necessary amounts of time.

  17. Hmm, well…I have yet to finish a book. I’ve written several short stories, and quite a few…scenes? Not exactly that. Their like short stories shortened down to several paragraphs…they tell a story or capture a moment. I love doing scenes like that; moments that spring into my mind and beg to be captured. Usually they don’t go further than that. They’re just moments that can have a message, but very well might not. Its like a snap shot of a story…like a painting that catches a moment and gives hints as to the larger tale, but leaves the details to the viewer/reader’s imagination.
    I also have several book-length stories in my head, some of which have been there for at least three years now. I’ve written notes, started scenes, and edited the storyline several hundred times in my head, but have yet to fully write the story. They shall be written someday, I suppose. 🙂

  18. Nothing wrong with letting stories percolate in your head. I always like to let stories mentally brew for at least a couple of years. That’s the most fertile imaginative period. Once that’s over, the hard, cold demands of story structure, reader expectations, etc., begin to thrust themselves upon us.

  19. I have been thinking a new story in my head for the past few months while I agonize over the second/third/fourth ect. draft of my first story! This has been an inspiration. Thank you for this other avenue of thought.

  20. Life is short enough anyway. I figure it’ll take me the rest of a very long life to write all the story ideas I have now. I wouldn’t want to get so hung up on one idea that I miss out on all the ones yet to come.

  21. Great advice, KM. I know several writers who have never left that “favorite” aside from perhaps a short story or an article etc. They are fixated on this.one.work.
    I tend to focus on one primary WIP at a time, but often have several in process at the same time which allows me to step away from one and yet never stop writing.
    Might not work for everyone, but it allows me to look at what I am writing a bit more objectively and to go in and rip out something that, with distance, I can see is not going to work.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      I only ever *write* one book at a time, but I usually have at least one other that is in some stage of editing.

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