Breaking it Off: When to Give Up on Your WIP

I’m going to venture into unpopular territory today.

Today is not about pep talks and positivity-at-all-costs. Rather, I’ve been searching for something greater than blind optimism, that something greater being sober wisdom.

You see, over these last few weeks I’ve come to an uncomfortable realization. And on this grey-tinged fall day, I’m coming out to say it: I’m calling it quits on my work-in-progress. Yes, that work-in-progress. The one that I’m 70,000 words and five years into. The one I’ve spent countless hours and imagination on. The one that’s adventurous and grand and just isn’t working.

There’s a lot of writer advice out there that errs on the side of keeping it up at all costs. “You can work through anything!” “Never quit!” “Think of how good it will feel when you actually finish this manuscript!”

Well, I’m here to say that not all manuscripts are meant to be finished. And some of them should be quit, including mine.

I read through all of the optimistic advice while trying to hold onto the last strands of this book. I think that a good amount of the “never quit” advice is well intentioned, but it is coming from the perspective of writers who are just going through a rough patch, whether that be writer’s block or plot holes or time management issues. I wasn’t going through a rough patch (and I’ll be talking about when not to quit next week). And so today, I want to focus on those times when it isn’t just a difficult time, and how to recognize when your WIP is fundamentally not working.

1. You want to work on everything except your book

If opening the file to your WIP makes you nauseous, you may want to consider dropping the project.

Over the past several months, I’ve spent a lot more time on my writing and have put in lots of hard and happy work to improving my craft. Almost none of it, however, was on I am the North. In fact, every time I picked up where I’d left off, my inspiration and drive and work ethic just sort of dried up. Sure, there were times when I was working on my first-ever novel draft that it didn’t feel particularly easy or fun. But it always felt doable and it certainly never filled me with dread!

If your writing is stagnating because of a certain project when it could be flourishing on another work, it may be time to start another project.

2. You have no passion

Similarly, a huge red flag is having no passion for your book.

I’m not talking about a “it feels hard today” lack of passion. Rather, I’m talking about when you’re so worn down on your WIP that you feel absolutely nothing. Zilch. Like, you can’t even remember why you wanted to start this project in the first place.

I’ve been reading The Emotional Craft of Fictionand I believe that what makes a reader consider a story “good” is directly tied to the emotions that story stirs in a reader. If you, as a writer, feel absolutely nothing for your work, well…it’s going to show. You don’t want to put a dead, passionless project out there. Passion isn’t everything in writing, but it is an important part, and when missing it can undo whatever else is left.

3. You’re writing in the wrong genre

Sometimes, issues with a lack of passion for your work are due to the fact that you’re doing the wrong work. As a writer, this can mean writing in the wrong style or the wrong genre. I am the North is (or was) a fantasy novel. It was really a step in a different direction for me, though in a bad way.

When I realized that the book just wasn’t working, I took a step back and looked at what I read: and I don’t really read fantasy. Heck, I don’t even really like fantasy! This book just wasn’t my type, so to speak, and that’s okay.

The books that I do read are often historical fiction and very character-driven. My new WIP is within this style, and I couldn’t feel more at home with it. Individual stories and connections to the World That Was is just how my brain works, and it’s been helpful to understand this about myself and understand why the other project felt so forced.

Long-term, I want to write more historical and literary fiction, and it makes sense to make the switch and consider my long-term career rather than dying on the hill of a present project that doesn’t mesh with a long-term plan.

4. Your manuscript contains fatal flaws

When writing I am the North, I felt like I was drowning.

There was just so much premise and so many characters and so little plot that entering the story felt like falling face-first into a hot, soupy mess. It was such a quagmire and after 70,000 words it still felt like it was going nowhere.

Many, if not most, manuscript flaws are fixable. But some are so severe that they venture into fatal territory. Is I am the North salvageable? Maybe. Do I want to rewrite it for the umpteenth time to make it that way? No. (At least, not yet.) A fatally flawed manuscript, combined with no passion to fix the problems, is a grim place to be. And sometimes, it’s not worth your precious time and energy to keep reworking something that’s deeply broken.

5. Your “rough patch” has lasted years

The realization that finally gave me permission to move on was the fact that these issues had been going on for ages. Years, even.

Now, many of you writers are a whole lot less stubborn than me and may never get to a point that you’re in years too deep to a failing manuscript. But even if it’s not so dramatically long as that, there does come a point where you know, deep down, that this isn’t just a rough patch. What you’re going through is not your typical tough day at the keyboard. It’s a long slog that’s become too wearying and too much.

What people don’t tell you about giving up on a bad manuscript is that it can be at once deeply sorrowful and hugely freeing. 

Saying goodbye to the characters that you have known and loved for so long can be a hard thing. But there is such a freedom in moving on to better and healthier things that it’s worth it.

And so I’m putting away I am the North. Maybe not forever; I may get to a point where I can work on it again and want to fix the problems. I may read more fantasy and become more learned in what makes good speculative fiction. But that day isn’t today, and so it’s goodbye for now.

Goodbye, and hello to new endeavors.

10 thoughts on “Breaking it Off: When to Give Up on Your WIP

  1. I find this isn’t the typical advice and I applaud you. Sometimes we do just have to let go. And you’re right about that being freeing. But I hope you don’t destroy it altogether. Put it away and start work on a new idea. (One day you might want to go back. Even if it’s just for a laugh to see how far you’ve come.)

  2. Cheers to you for bravery in posting this article! As the other commentor said, this isn’t the typical advice. Sometimes, though, it’s what is needed, and you gave good guidance on how to decide whether to keep on or call it quits. Time is limited, especially writing time, so a writer has to make a call on a project.

    1. Thank you! Yes, writing time (or any time, for that matter) is so precious, and it’s not something I want to spend on a spend on a project that’s not working!

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