Lovely guest post by writer Sarah Joy Adams!
Know when to Hold ‘em, Know when to Fold ‘em…
You know the rest of the song – “know when to walk away, and when to run.” Now don’t worry – this is not a post about giving up on the writing life. I’m not in the business of telling anyone to give up on their dreams. But this is a post about how to know when it’s time to walk away from a particular writing project.
First, let me tell you two stories about saying no. Like most writers, especially those trying to break into fiction, I have a day job. In my case the day job is being an English professor. Part of that job involves writing scholarly articles. Let me stress, this is all part of my job – it’s what I have to do to keep the paychecks coming in and the cat full of kibble. Publish or perish is the rule.
But just a few weeks ago, I bowed out of a planned book project on faith and scholarship. On the surface, it was an ideal project. The editor liked my article abstract, I know the other contributors and appreciate their work, and the subject is near and dear to my heart. Plus, publication credit! I’d have to be crazy to say no. Except I did. At first I was interested. I even submitted an abstract. But a few weeks ago, I withdrew.
Here’s the second story. A dear old college friend of mine wants to start a political protest group blog with me and a few other old friends. The blog would have – how shall I put this delicately – cast the contributors as super heroes who went around kicking various politicians in their personal bits. Hilarity would ensue. Now, I like blogs, I like political arguments, and I wish I could do more to be involved in solving our country’s many problems. But I turned down the blog the instant I read the email.
So far, this probably sounds like I’m acting against my own best interest. Why would I say No to not one, but two publication opportunities? Wouldn’t any serious author have taken on projects like these?
Nope. Not at all. Here’s why I said no, and you probably should too in similar circumstances:
1. The project is a time parasite: It’s easy to get distracted by new projects. If I’d accepted either of these, I would have had to steal time and energy from three in progress writing projects. Because I said no to the faith book, I was able to finish my novel, send it out to agents, and draft another article for which I already have done the research. If I had said yes to the book, I would be writing that piece right now and the novel and other article would be gathering dust. Having too many simultaneous projects is a recipe for never finishing anything. And not finishing is death to a writer’s career.
2. Other people are dooming the project to fail: I’m a fan of collaboration – a collaborative writing project got me back into novel writing. My favorite collaborator is also my best friend. But one of the things that makes her a great collaborator is that I can trust her to hold up her end of the work and see it through. A major reason I walked away from the book on scholarship and faith is that the project leader didn’t have a workable plan for getting the book published. Worse the other contributors were rapidly backing off because the project leader was setting un-meetable deadlines and not communicating well. The book may yet make it to print, but I’m not holding my breath. Be careful who you collaborate with. Pick people who are committed, passionate about the project, and willing to do it right.
3. The project is reputation/career suicide: I’m an English professor in my thirties. My friend wanted to start a blog with photoshopped pics of me kicking people. People with security personnel and Homeland Security watching their backs. At best, I would look juvenile. At worst, I’d look like a violent, crazy person. Is that the online persona that’s going to help me succeed? I don’t think so. And given where I work, it might (with good reason) get me fired. I believe that there are times when you have to take a stand and suffer the consequences because it’s the right thing to do. But this was not one of those times. Don’t lose your job over a few laughs on the internet.
4. The project violates your convictions: Don’t sell your soul, even a tiny piece of it, just to see your name in print. Just don’t. In the case of the blog, participating would have added more violent rhetoric to an already angry, hate filled political landscape. I believe we should love and pray for our enemies. I also believe all the violent talk in politics, even if it is just talk, is bad for our democracy. I know why my friend is mad, and on a lot of points, I agree with her, but I can’t be part of this blog. When it’s a choice between publication and conscience, let your conscience win. There will be other publications.
5. The project won’t serve your larger goals: Both the book and the blog addressed issues I care about. But, for different reasons, neither one was going to make a positive difference to these issues. Know what your real goals are and make plans to get there. Don’t get side tracked by shiny, but irrelevant projects.
Remember the story of the jar, the lumps of gold, and the sand? Imagine you have to fill a jar with gold nuggets and sand. Whatever you fit in the jar, you can take to the bank. Naturally, you’d put the gold in first and then pour in the sand. Do it the other way around and sand fills the jar, leaving no space for the gold.
In this case, the gold is your writing goals – the novel you keep meaning to finish, the list of agents you need to compile, the query letters you need to send out, the stories that need polishing for submission. The sand is all other the tiny, piddly stuff that is asking for a place in your life. Put the gold in first. If you can’t fit all the sand in the jar once the gold is in, that’s okay. After all, it’s only sand.