Should I Give Up on Writing a Book?

My friend X has been trying to write a book for about 8 years now.

Not because she WANTS to, but because she knows it will increase the visibility and credibility of her business–she trains people to get comfortable with public speaking in all environments, from business presentations to TED talks. For X, the book is a form of content marketing. Here’s an article from Forbes on 10 benefits of writing this kind of book.

The problem is not a lack of ‘content’ for the book. X has approached the topic from a number of ways. She’s had lots of ideas for the ‘slant’ and organization of the book. She’s had decades of experience in communications and training, and she really, really, really knows her stuff.About six years ago she conducted a bunch of interviews for the book.

Yet the last time we talked, she said, “I still have to write that wretched book.”


Photo by Artūras Kokorevas

Red Flags for Book Writers

The following questions will alert you to red flags in the book-writing process.

  1. What adjectives do you use when you think about your book?
  2. How long have you been working on it?
  3. Are you actually moving forward, or are you circling around the same problems?
Red-flag adjectives

For my friend X, the first red flag is the adjective “wretched.” I can see why she feels that way. She’s got a big topic to write about (communicating). She’s taken advice from quite a few people. She’s been thinking about who her reader might be, and having trouble settling on a specific-enough group.

That’s the problem with a nonfiction topic like communications or public speaking. Readers could be ‘everyone.’ Public speaking comes up all over the place: wedding speeches, MFA programs, conferences, funerals, special events… Everyone would love to be comfortable doing it.

But everyone can’t be served by the same book. An 18-year-old valedictorian is going to have different reasons and objectives for speaking in public than an 80 year old whose best friend just died.

[Case in point: I met X through a particular situation, which was that as part of getting an MFA I had to give a 30-minute craft talk on writing, or on my writing experience. I’m pretty comfortable speaking in public, but at the time I was very uncomfortable reading my own work aloud. Fiction, fer gawd’s sake! I took a workshop taught by X. I was the only writer in the room–the rest were CPAs, required as part of their professional development to take a public speaking course.]

Where was I?

The way you think about your book influences how you feel about it, and vice versa. A negative adjective like “wretched,” “stupid,” “damn,” etc. is a signal to change something. Two clear avenues for change present themselves:

  • your attitude
  • the project

Changing your attitude might be difficult if you’ve held it for a while and truly feel the book is a dumb idea, but it’s got to be done. Mindset, mindset, mindset. I don’t really like that word, though it’s a category on this blog and something I write about a fair amount. But for anyone preparing to do something complex, like climb a mountain or write a book, mindset is pretty damn important.

Changing the project might be easier, and in fact it can be a great way to change your mindset. Your book might be better as an online course or webinar, or a series of articles or blog posts, or a weekend workshop. Here’s a step-by-step process for going from the general idea to a specific project.

Red-flag Timeframes

So X has been circling around her book’s slant, or angle. Not for 8 days, weeks, or 8 months, but for 8 years. She’s sick of it.

I get it: Eight years is a long time.

Dare I suggest that X could have written 4 books in this same timeframe, each book with a particular slant or target reader in mind?

I do dare suggest that. Easy for me; I’m a writer. I write at least a book a year. OK, it’s a novella, and I write it in 3 days, but still. I know it’s not easy to write a book. Sometimes people make it look easy, but behind the scenes they could be working with a book coach, a mentor, two writing groups, a developmental editor…etc.

The thing about writing a book is that it requires making decisions, lots and lots of them.

So if you’ve been thinking about and “working” on the same book for years, circling around the topic or the story, ask yourself why that might be. Are you unwilling to make the decisions you need to make, and live with the consequences?

Because there will be consequences! The most important one is that you’ll have a particular book about something specific, not a general book about everything.

Decisions are part of any art. You can’t make a sculpture about “everything.” You have to choose.

Red-flag Stagnation

This is related to the previous red flag, timeframe.

It’s one thing to have an idea and not act on it until you have enough time and energy to do so.

It’s another thing to act on it so ineffectually that although you’re spending time and energy on the idea, you’re not getting anywhere.

I’m a fan of the first. Not of the second. I’ve done the second enough to know it’s a great way for your book to circle the drain and eventually end up in the sewer system.

If you are stuck in the early stages of a book for more than a year, and you’re not getting anywhere, my sincere advice is to put the idea away. Do something else, or nothing at all. But don’t turn the book into a toxic burden that’ll start attracting negative adjectives.

As someone said, “If you love something, set it free. If it comes back, it’s yours. If not, it was never meant to be.” (Here’s an interesting short article by Quote Investigator on the origins of this quote.)

Do the Reader Justice

This is something I learned by doing, the way I learn just about everything. I wrote a nonfiction book in 2018 and self-published it in 2019. Called Fiction Editing: A Writer’s Roadmap, it’s for writers who are trying to figure out whether to work with a freelance editor, either before they look for a literary agent / publisher or before they self-publish. Niche topic, niche reader.

Looks easy, sounds easy. I was writing about my job for people I knew would be interested. But it took a lot of drafts and decisions to get to the end result.

The first version was a free 20-page download for my editing website–a response to the questions I got asked most frequently by writers who were trying to decide what to do with their books.

The second version was a 13,000-word e-book–I wrote it pretty quickly during what has so far been the worst year of my life, a real emotional nadir, and thought I could put it up on Amazon. But then I read that second version all the way through and thought I could do better. I had to decide–did I want it to be okay, or did I want to write a real book?

The third version was the real book. I added a section on publishing pathways, delved into what the various types of fiction editors do, and tightened everything up. It’s not perfect, but it’s useful for its intended group of readers, as niche as they might be.

Review Your Red Flags and Decide

Here are the flags again:

  • Adjectives
  • Timeframe
  • Stagnation

If your adjectives are negative, either change your attitude or change the project to something you can get excited about again.

If your timeframe is attenuated, take that as a signal that something is not right. Either you’re not motivated enough, or you need to make more decisions and live with the ones you make. Write one version of the book. Just one version, as niche as it needs to be. My first version was for visitors to my website. Whose might yours be for?

If your progress is stagnating, take that as a signal that decisions have not been made despite ample time to make them. You’ve been thinking or acting ineffectually. Consider accepting that it’s not the right time for this book. Put the idea away,

If you don’t want to put the idea away, then recommit and write a version of your book. Once you have that first version done, think about your reader again. Does that version do them justice? Asking that question will let you see what you need to do next.

If you decide to give up on your book, do not despair. The person who had the idea to write a book (you) is not a failure. Once you shelve that project, another one will come along, something you’re excited about. As someone else said, “Que sera, sera…whatever will be, will be.

What will be is whatever you think is important. It’ll be informed by your experience of not writing a book. And that type of experience is never a waste of time.