I don’t think any writer ever thinks about moving on from a project when they start it. Instead, I think we focus on the positive, whether it’s the possibility of getting an agent, getting published or just selling more books. The ugly necessity of moving on never really sets in, but moving on is just that – a necessity.
Imagine you have a sculpture. You’ve been working on it for a long time – maybe even several years. It’s pretty much finished, but you’ve been tinkering with it to ensure it’s perfection. Inevitably, there comes a point where you can’t really change the sculpture – at least without completely starting over. That point happens to writers – and it comes as we need to move on and start fresh. You could feasibly start out over, but even then, the mold has been set and you are limited to just how much you can change the narrative. You could write “the sequel”, but I don’t think this is a great option either, since you are still informed by the characters and events of the previous narrative (and besides, you can’t sell “the sequel” until you’ve sold the first book.) Moving on isn’t about failure – it’s about refusing artistic stagnation and growing as a writer.
Moving on from a project isn’t abandoning it either. I am just reaching this point with my first novel (after probably two years of work) and I’m not giving up – I’m still submitting it to publishers. But it can take some publishers four to six months (if not longer) to respond to unsolicited submissions. Based on this timeline as well as the response I’ve gotten from agents so far, I think my resources are better spent elsewhere. And ultimately, that’s what it comes down to: resources. As a writer, your time is a precious, nonrenewable resource.
Craft is also a consideration when moving on. The advantage of moving on is you can start one hundred percent fresh and experiment with techniques and elements you couldn’t attempt in your other project. My first novel was written in the first person; my new novel is written in third person with three point-of-view characters. I can’t say I’ve mastered the technique of multiple POV’s, but moving on gives me the freedom to start over and try new things I otherwise couldn’t in my other project.
What moving on shouldn’t be is an excuse to quit prematurely. Make no mistake: you still need to finish projects. You still need to make revisions. And you still need to send your work out to agents and publishers. Moving on shouldn’t be seen as a means of switching from project to project so many times you never actually finish a work.
Finally, moving in isn’t about burying or killing a project either. You can always come back to a project later. And like I said, I’m still sending my first novel out to publishers and agents, albeit at a much slower rate. The only thing I’ve burying this novel under is the other projects I’m working on in an effort to start fresh. For the time being however, I’m not putting my novel in the junk drawer – I’m just putting it on the back burner.
(For much better advice on this topic, be sure to check out the Writing Excuse episode on the issue of Moving On, which features not only sage advice from its hosts on the subject, but also many words of wisdom from the awesome Ellen Kushner.)