Recently, a writer emailed me to say she was stuck.
She was writing her first draft, and she was just about ready to give up. She didn’t like her story idea, she didn’t think her story had any meaning, and she just really didn’t want to work on it anymore.
Plus, she had tons of other ideas in her imagination, some of which were way more inspiring than the one she was working on right now.
So she asked me: should she quit this book? Should she put it down and start over with a different idea?
A Not-So-Surprising Question: Should She Quit Her Book?
Now, on one level, this question surprised me.
See, I’d worked with her a few months before on the outline for this book. I knew the story she’d developed, I’d helped her work out the kinks, and I knew it was solid and was going to become a great novel if she could get all the words down on paper.
Plus, we’d spent a good while teasing out that deeper meaning of her story. And I think it’s a great concept! It’s something I’ve been thinking about ever since, and I’m really excited to read the book and see what she does with that message.
But on another level, I wasn’t surprised at all.
See, this writer was around the halfway point, or maybe just a bit past it. Which means she was smack in the middle of her book. And that is when things get hard.
Every writer I know has struggled to make it through the middle of their novel. Every writer I know has been tempted to quit the book they’re currently working on and start over with a better story idea.
So really, I wasn’t surprised at all that this writer was stuck.
And I bet you’ve been there, too. I bet you’ve thought about quitting your book. I bet you’ve wondered whether it’s worth writing at all.
Maybe this was actually a bad idea, you realize now that you’re midway through, and you should go find a better idea, the kind of idea that won’t leave you floundering in the middle of your book, and go write that book instead.
6 Things to Do When You Want to Quit Your Book
So I want to tell you what I told that writer. I want to share my best advice for what to do when you’re stuck in the middle of a draft.
Ready? Here we go.
1. Recognize that this is normal.
First: recognize that this is normal.
Getting stuck in the middle is a normal part of the writing process. Like I said, I don’t think I know a writer who hasn’t wanted to quit at some point. And I definitely know writers who have quit halfway through.
In fact, this isn’t even unique to writers who are writing books. (I’m sorry, I know we all love to be unique, but in this case, take comfort in the fact that you aren’t.)
This messy middle is a standard part of all major projects that we embark on. Think back on a major project in your life that’s not your book, the kind of project that took you weeks or months to complete. Maybe it’s a work project or a large school paper.
Or maybe you were never excited about those, and you wanted to quit from the very beginning. In that case, think of a project that you were excited about, but that took a long time to complete, so your excitement waned. Maybe it was planning a wedding, or setting out to accomplish a new fitness goal, or saving up for a vacation.
I bet at the start of that project, you felt really excited and motivated. And soon, it felt like work, sure, but you were still really energized about the work.
But at some point, it stopped being energizing and it turned into just work.
Just a grind of getting up to do this same thing, day after day, for ages and ages, and it wasn’t easy to do, and you were really far away from the end result, and it felt like you would never get there.
And if you were really honest with yourself, maybe you kind of wanted to throw in the towel and quit.
That’s this depths of despair point. And it happens with most, if not all, major, long-term projects. And sometimes, it takes a while to get out of it.
Which brings me to the second thing I want you to do:
2. Recognize that you won’t be here forever.
Recognize that you won’t be in the depths of despair forever.
The depths of despair is just one part of the book writing process.
At the beginning of the process, there’s a lot of fresh energy and enthusiasm. There’s all the glow and excitement of this new project: you’re going to write a book! And right now, it’s absolutely perfect.
Of course, it’s perfect because it only exists in your imagination, but the story in your head is amazing.
And then you hit the depths of despair, and it feels like all that excitement from the beginning was a complete lie.
This book isn’t worth it at all. It’s not perfect; it’s a dumpster fire. There’s no way you can get the idea out of your head and onto the paper in a coherent manner. And also, the idea in your head is terrible.
But there’s something after the depths of despair. When you push through, when you persevere through the messy middle, eventually you read the final act of your story, the ending payoff, the climax and resolution of the whole book. The point where you can see the end, and where all those story ideas are coming together.
And at that point, there’s this new motivation—you’re this close to the finish line! You can make it!
And there’s also the satisfaction of being able to accomplish your goal. This is attainable. You’re going to do it.
All of that is waiting for you—but in order to reach it, you have to push through. You have to persevere through the messy middle, through the depths of despair.
Which brings me to the third truth:
3. Don’t use the depths of despair as a sign that you should quit.
Do not assume that the depths of despair are a sign that you should quit.
Often, when things get challenging, when we hit resistance, we believe that that’s an indicator that this isn’t possible. That we shouldn’t do it. That this isn’t going to work. That this was a bad idea and we should quit and cut our losses.
That’s not what the depths of despair are!
This is NOT a sign that you should quit. Remember, this is normal, something every writer goes through. And it’s temporary. If you persevere, you will reach the joy and satisfaction of success on the other side.
Are there occasions when the right choice is to step away from a book project and put it down? I think sometimes, yes, that happens.
But this isn’t it. The emotional experience of feeling like the middle of your book is a struggle, even a major struggle, is not a reason to quit.
It’s a reason to dig in and find the strategies that work for you so you can persevere all the way to the end.
Which brings me to the fourth thing I want you to do—and this isn’t simply a mindset shift like the first three things; this is an active task that I want you to go out and do.
Here it is:
4. Go back to your plan.
I want you to go back to the plan you made when you first started writing this book.
Maybe you made an outline. I want you to go back to that outline and read it.
Maybe you wrote a synopsis. I want you to go back to that synopsis and read it.
That writer I mentioned earlier, the one who sent me the email asking whether she should quit? Before she started writing her book, I took a look at her outline.
And then we got on a call together to talk it through, and we came up with so many inspiring ideas there on the call, and both of us were really energized and enthusiastic, the way that only happens when you get two people who really love nerding out about story together for a deep conversation.
And the best part is? That call is recorded, and she has the recording. So she can actually go back and listen to that call and hear all our energy and excitement over again, and recapture some of that early enthusiasm to pour into her writing now.
Maybe you don’t have an outline or a synopsis or a recording of you gushing about your book idea.
Maybe you have a picture that inspires you. Or there’s a person in your mind that you’re writing this book for, and you can’t wait for them to read it, and you know it’s going to change their life. Or there’s another book you love that makes you want to tell your story.
Whatever your original source of inspiration was, go back to that. Look back on what your idea was when you began. Recapture that energy.
And use that to refuel you for your writing and remind you of all the great ideas you had for this story at the beginning.
And when you’ve gotten that fuel, here’s what I want you to do next. And beware, this might be the hardest step, but it can also be the most powerful:
5. Ditch perfectionism.
Don’t quit your book. Quit perfectionism.
So often, at this point, it’s easy to get discouraged because the book on the page does not measure up to the book in your head. And you want to get it right!
If your book were working perfectly, if every word flowing onto the page were absolute inspired genius, you wouldn’t be in the depths of despair. You wouldn’t be hating your book and wanting to quit.
But that’s not how writing works. Writing isn’t about getting it right on the first try, or the second try, or even the third.
Writing is about creating something messy and then returning to make it better, and then make it better again, and then make it better again.
There’s a famous quote that’s sometimes attributed to Michael Crighton that goes, “Books aren’t written; they’re rewritten.”
And I vividly remember one of my English professors in college repeating over and over, “Writing is recursive.”
You’re not going to write a perfect first draft. There’s no such thing as a perfect first draft.
You’re just trying to write a finished first draft.
So ditch perfectionism.
Allow your words to be messy and imperfect. Make peace with the fact that they are not going to live up to the brilliant, beautiful idea in your imagination—not yet, anyway. That’s going to happen in the revision process.
But you’ll never get to the revision process unless you quit perfectionism, persevere through the depths of despair, and finish your book.
Which brings me to my final charge for you:
6. Recognize that a new book idea won’t save you from this part.
Recognize this hard truth:
A new book idea will not rescue you from the messy middle.
The problem isn’t your book idea. You’re not in the depths of despair in the middle of your book because your book idea is bad.
You’re in the depths of despair because that’s what it takes to write a book.
This is a totally normal part of the writing process. It sucks, it’s no fun at all, but it’s the way the writing process works.
And you will almost certainly encounter this messy middle again when you’re writing your next book, and your next. This isn’t something you can escape with a better book idea.
I do have some good news here. The more you write your way through the messy middle, the more you practice writing books, the more familiar you’ll become with what it looks like to experience this mid-book slump—and the more comfortable you’ll become finding your way out of it.
You’ll discover the tricks and strategies that work to help you persevere all the way to the end.
That’s the secret, right there: it just takes practice to find your way through it.
And here’s why you should not quit your book right now, why experiencing the messy middle isn’t a sign to give up and find a better book to write. If you quit now, all you’re doing is practicing quitting.
And then, when you do start over with a new book idea, and you reach the messy middle again, when you find yourself stuck in the doldrums, in the depths of despair . . .
. . . you will not have an arsenal of strategies that you’ve practiced to help you make it to the end.
Instead, you’ll have just one strategy: quitting.
Writers can get stuck in this cycle forever. They can write thousands, even tens of thousands of words of their novels. And then quit midway through and start a new one. And a new one. And a new one. And never finish one book.
If you want to become an author, if you want to publish this book, if you want to publish a whole career’s worth of books, you have to practice a different skill.
You have to practice finishing.
And starting a new book right now won’t help you do that. It might feel like it’s rescuing you from the messy middle right now. But that’s going to be very short-lived.
So don’t quit now and start over with a shiny, attractive new book idea.
Your 6-Step Plan for When You’re Stuck
Instead, I want you to do the six things I just listed out. Here they are again:
1. Recognize that this struggle through the middle of your draft is a completely normal part of the writing process, something all the writers around you also experience.
2. Remind yourself that you will not be stuck in the middle of your book forever. Great things are coming when you reach the end.
3. Remember that the struggle in the middle of your book is NOT a sign that you should quit.
4. Return to your plan, to anything that inspired you or guided you when you first started writing, and use your notes, recordings, and original inspiration to recapture some of that early motivating energy and enthusiasm.
5. Reject perfectionism. That’s not your goal right now. Invite yourself to write a shockingly messy first draft. That’s totally fine.
6. Resolve to practice the skill of finishing. Starting a new book won’t save you from the messy middle or the depths of despair. This is the kind of challenge where the only way out is through. And once you find your way through once, you’ll know how to make it through again and again.
That’s it. Six things to do when you’re stuck in the middle of a draft.
If you are feeling stuck, if you’re in the middle of your draft and wondering whether you should keep going or just throw in the towel on this whole book, I hope these six things encourage you and help you keep going.
Bonus Encouragement for When You’re Stuck
And before I wrap up, I actually have one more bonus thing for you to do:
I want you to go back to episodes 4, 5, 6, and 7 of Your Next Draft. They’re my series on tips and strategies to finish your draft faster. Episodes four and five are about writing first drafts and episodes six and seven are about editing later drafts.
- Ep. 4: 10 Productivity Tips to Finish Writing Your First Draft Faster
- Ep. 5: 11 Creativity Tips to Finish Writing Your First Draft Faster
- Ep. 6: 3 Speedy Strategies to Edit Your Novel Faster
- Ep. 7: 7 More Speedy Strategies to Edit Your Novel Faster
These episodes give you strategies to help you persevere, to make it a little easier to keep going—or at the very least, a little more difficult to give up.
And if you have time for just one of those episodes, the one I most recommend, no matter what draft you’re working on, is 11 Creativity Tips to Finish Writing Your First Draft Faster. A lot of the tips in that episode are about pointing you back to your original inspiration so you can recapture that early book writing energy.
Because you don’t need that early book writing energy in order to finish your book. But it’s definitely nice to have!
I hope all this helps you stick it out through another day of writing. Remember, this won’t be forever. Soon, this draft will be done.
And I can’t wait to celebrate with you when you finish it and move forward in the next step in your writing, editing, and publishing journey.
I’ll be here cheering you on every step of the way!