I used to finish every book I started reading, no matter how little I enjoyed it. (Except for Moby Dick, which I was constitutionally unable to get past page 57 until absolutely required to do so for American Lit second semester of my senior year of college. I still dislike Melville.)
After many years, however, I began to wonder if I was wasting my precious reading time. After all, I always have at least 200 books on my to-read list, and more appear with every book review and recommendation from a friend. How was I ever going to whittle that down if I spent so much time finishing books I didn’t enjoy?
Around the same time, I began working as a children’s librarian. In an effort to convince kids to take out different books than the one they usually took or multiple books, I would tell them, “You know there’s no test, right?” and “You don’t have to finish books you don’t like.” I’d follow up by asking the kids to tell me if they didn’t like a book and to please tell me why so I knew what to recommend to other kids.
One day a little girl asked me how I knew when to stop reading. We discussed this for a bit, and then I told her it would depend on the length of the book. After all, you do have to give it a fair shot. For me, that’s 50 pages. After 50, if I’m still not engrossed, that book is back to the library. (Sometimes I give it 100. I’m usually sorry.)
But how can we apply that to our writing? When do we know when it’s time to give up on a story or novel or even poem?
I had the wonderful experience of working with Eric Rohmann on a picture book at the Highlights Foundation Children’s Writers Workshop at Chautauqua. It was wonderful, and I learned so much, including a whole new way of working.
But it wasn’t until some months later that I gave up on that book and picture books in general. (Perhaps you can tell from my blog that I’m a little verbose for picture books?) Once I did, it was as if the floodgates had opened. I was able to work longer and harder and I began to really enjoy my writing.
Now I’m not saying writing should be easy. It rarely is. But it got a lot easier once I realized I was working in the wrong genre. So often we persist in unrewarding behavior, because persistence is highly valued. When is giving up a good thing – for our writing or ourselves?
Habits can be highly effective. But they can also be unproductive or even harmful when we persist in them, despite their being of little help. Sometimes we need to liberate ourselves from a story, whether we’re reading it or writing it. Now, I’m still good with my current story, and indeed, I’m giving it a last polish before a round of submissions.
But it’s getting to be time to start something new…
On a lighter note, here’s something that popped into my email that gave me a good laugh – and gladdened my grammarian’s heart: