One of my friends said this to me in a train station. It may sound familiar to a lot of writers. I've said it when I hit the 18,000 word mark in every book I've ever written.
"I know I'm 40,000 words in, but there are so many problems that I think I should scrap the whole thing and start again."
I've always been wrong.
Here is why quitting is a bad idea:
1. The act of finishing a book is psychologically powerful and it's something you need to experience (also: it's fun!).
I still wonder every day if I have what it takes to be a professional novelist, but nothing has given me more confidence and more joy than finishing a whole book, even when I knew it was a terrible first draft and needed tons of work. Bringing a story from beginning to (flawed) end, looking at the entire thing, realising you created something you can hold in your hand, that you brought some fictional folk on a complete journey - it's a damned good feeling.
When I had a crisis of confidence about the novel I'm currently querying, one of the things that gave me comfort was the knowledge that I had taken Claire and Max, my main characters, on a journey and together we'd reached the end. Don't ask me to explain how the fact I'd done right by some people I made up had such an impact on my mental state - it just did. Finish your novel and we'll compare experiences over a chai latte.
2. Some problems only come to light when the book is complete and you can assess the entire plot arc.
I recently beta-read a friend's new novel. One character served no narrative purpose at all. We'll call him Billy-Bob Superfluous. I liked Billy-Bob, but he didn't do anything.
I'm willing to bet my friend didn't put the character in with the intention of having him do nothing. When he started, I'm sure there was something planned for Billy-Bob, even tentatively. If the book had been truncated halfway through, Billy-Bob would likely have made it into the second draft and been far more difficult to extract when his essential uselessness came to light. Now that my friend can see Billy-Bob's role against the completed plot arc, he can make a better decision on whether to get rid of him or to give him something to do.
3. Your ending may change the whole book.
I'm getting close to the end of my work-in-progress, The Ripple Effect. My ending is about to change, and as a result I will have to look back over the book and make changes - some minor, some major. I may even wind up getting rid of a few Billy-Bobs myself. But I won't know until the ending is done.
4. Endings aren't like the rest of the book.
The old showbiz mantra of 'always leave 'em wanting more' applies to novels too - especially if you intend to write a sequel. The skill of creating a good ending, which leaves your reader satisfied yet wanting more, is distinct from the skill of creating a compelling beginning or a strong middle. You need to learn how to do endings well.
Even if you come over all experimental on me and end your novel in mid-sentence, or with ten Becketty blank pages, it needs to be a good mid-sentence, and they need to be powerful and well-used blank pages. Endings are vital, and not finishing your novel is like learning how to drive a car but not knowing how to park (ask me how I know what that feels like). It may be fun and you may have learned many awesome things, but you can't undertake a full journey until you have that missing piece.
5. Published novels have many things in common - one of these things is an ending.
There are many things that elevate published writers from those of us who are still working and dreaming. One of the most fundamental is finishing the novel. If you wrote a list of the things published authors always have, the first item on the list would be A Finished Novel. You cannot publish something incomplete, and unless you fancy writing your book in super-quick time like Marian Keyes did the first time out, you can't query something incomplete either.
Oh, and my friend who was 40,000 words in and contemplating quitting? That was Paul Anthony Shortt and the book in question was his upcoming steampunk fantasy YA, Lady Raven, which is due for release in 2014 (click to sign up for Facebook updates). I think it's the best thing he's ever written.
Good luck with your endings, guys, and don't curse my name til you're done :p