Friday, September 30, 2011

Know When to Hold 'em, Know When to Fold 'em

How long should you keep pursuing a project?

When does tenacity cease to be a virtue?

How do you know when to set one project aside and invest your energy in something fresh?

During the 2011 WriteOnCon, agents on one panel mentioned projects they'd shopped for years (as in four or five) before finally making a sale.

That surprised me. My impression from comments by writers and agents is that they generally shop a project for a year or so and then, in the interest of maximizing return on effort (or because they've exhausted their list of potential editors), move on to something else. But even with a labor of love, the author needs to move on to other projects to give the agent new material to submit while continuing to shop the the first project.

Then again, I've heard a number of people characterize publishing as basically a game of persistence: if you keep showing up, you'll eventually get a turn. But no one ever specifies the kind of persistence that pays off. Do you refine and polish your master work--there are a fair number of classics that were decades in the making--or do you persist in producing new projects until you find that one that resonates?

The common answer is that it depends on you and your situation. That's neither comforting nor helpful.

If you were a rational economic actor, you would watch for the point at which the opportunity costs of not doing something else approach the sunk costs already invested in the project. Or, in colloquial terms, you'd stop when you realize you're throwing good money (or effort) after bad.

I once read about a couple who had adopted a rule of three for major expenditures. If one or both of them thought they should buy something they'd postpone the decision to see if they still thought it was a good idea. They would do this at least twice on the theory that if the idea came up at least three times then it probably was something they should buy.

My advice, if you're wondering whether to hold or fold a project, is similar (and not unlike the advice to let a draft cool before undertaking revisions): set the project aside for a season. If it's easy to forget, then it's time to be done. If it won't let you go, then you shouldn't let it go either.

Image: Photography by BJWOK /