Elizabeth: The Sunk Cost Fallacy

A “first draft” version of a quilt

No, we didn’t turn into an economics blog when your back was turned.  Today’s post is definitely about writing – honest!

But first . . .

One summer when I was about twelve, I made my first attempt at piecing a quilt.  I’m from a long line of crafty people, there were plenty of fabric scraps around the house, and I needed something to do during those loooooong hours when the library had the audacity to close.

Pink and green was a popular color combination at that time (don’t ask me why), so those are the colors I chose, making bigger blocks out of smaller blocks of a variety of colors.  Since I was using scraps, I ran out of some patterns before others.  Eventually the top was finished, some batting purchased for the inside, and a piece of fabric unearthed for the back.  I wasn’t exactly sure what I was doing, but I’d seen it done before and just sort of winged it.

The seams weren’t as straight as they could be.  I frequently forgot to check my stitch-width, so that varied quite a bit.  My squares could only be called “square” by the truly charitable.  Had my mother been making the quilt, she’d have taken apart the problems areas and made sure everything was perfect before moving on.  I am my father’s daughter, however, and his philosophy (besides “duct tape can fix anything”) was “if you step back and squint a little and it looks fine, then it’s fine.”  So I stepped back, squinted, and carried on.

The result was far from perfect, but it was a first try and it was good enough.  I learned a lot from that first attempt and later attempts improved.  The funny thing is that, all these years later, I still have that old quilt.  It’s served as a picnic blanket, been cuddled under at the drive-in movies, been a tent and a fort, been peed on (by puppies) and drooled on (by babies) and been useful in any number of ways.  And the fact that it was crooked and a little lumpy made no difference at all.  What mattered was that it was actually finished.

My skills improved over time

Fast forward now and, instead of my first attempt at piecing a quilt, I’m in the midst of my first attempt(s) at finishing a book.  I have revised (multiple times) drafts of three books:  a Regency, a Contemporary, and a Mystery.  I’ve been bouncing between the three of them for several years now.  Like my early quilt attempt, there are basic flaws – inconsistencies, saggy-middles, plot holes, and who knows what else.  Unlike that early quilt attempt, however, instead of stepping back, squinting, calling it “close enough” and moving on, I’ve been channeling my mother – picking apart the problem areas and trying to make them perfect.

Which brings me to the sunk cost fallacy.

A few weeks ago, my son and I went out for dinner at a local pub.  It was crowded, but there were a few empty tables so we waited by the “please wait to be seated” sign feeling optimistic.  The waitress caught our eyes and gave the “be with you in a minute” look as she passed by.  We waited.  She passed by a few times.  There were still empty tables.   We waited a bit more.  She avoided making eye contact as she passed by a few more times.  A couple of other customers arrived.  Still, we waited.  I looked at the time on my phone to see how long we’d been waiting (it felt like forever).  “Deciding whether or not to stay” my son asked.  When I said yes he said, “don’t get tricked by the sunk cost fallacy.”

Closer to perfection

Totally not what I was expecting to hear, but a valid point nonetheless.  It would be normal, when deciding whether to continue waiting or not, to take into account the time we’d already spent waiting, but that’s the fallacy.  The time that was already spent was gone.  Whether we kept waiting or went somewhere else, that time would still be gone.  How long we might have to wait at a different restaurant had nothing to do with how long we had already waited.  The only real question was, “would the waitress ever actually make eye-contact with us again?”

That didn’t seem likely, so we left, went to a deli just down the road, picked up dinner to go, went back home, and ate while playing along with Jeopardy and Wheel of Fortune (we were virtual-winners on both!).  Had we been tricked by the sunk cost fallacy, we’d probably still be waiting to be seated.

So . . . What exactly does that have to do with writing, you may be asking?

The time I’ve spent on my three not-yet-perfected draft manuscripts is a lot like the time we spent waiting at the restaurant (just much, much longer).  It’s easy to get stuck in the “well, I’ve spent so much time working on these and all that time will be wasted if I stop now” mindset.  But whether I keep working on them or move on to the next project, that time is gone.  So I have two choices:  (1) keep chasing perfection or (2) call it a wrap, take what I’ve learned, and move on to the next story idea.  I’m thinking option 2 is the way to go.  After all, if I’d gotten stuck chasing perfection on that first quilt, there’d probably never have been a second.

Naturally, just when I’d decided it was time to move on, I saw an article in the New York Times about writer Anne Lamott, whose book, Bird by Bird, is required reading in many writing programs.  According to the article Lamott, at the age of 65, recently got married for the first time.  There was a quote at the end of the article that really stuck with me.  It was talking about finding a “lifelong partner”, but it felt like it could apply just as well to writing:

A natural cheerleader, especially for underdogs, she also posted this on her Facebook page: “Never give up, no matter how things look or how long they take. Don’t quit before the miracle.”

That really feels like a vote for option 1.  Or does that mean finishing the book will take a miracle?  More coigitating is definitely necessary.

In the meantime, what about you?  Are you a “work on it until it’s perfect” kind of person or a “I’ve spent long enough on this, time to

9 thoughts on “Elizabeth: The Sunk Cost Fallacy

  1. I feel like Lamott is saying it’s OK to give up on individual projects, but don’t give up on the big picture. I’m sure she went through a whole lotta partners before she met her spouse! And writing could be the same thing — we’ll go through a whole lot of books/stories before the ends of our careers. Some will be abandoned, some will be finished (but people will have to squint at them to make them look right), and some will be just fine.

    I’ve heard stories that producing a very good book at the beginning of your career can be paralyzing. You worry about coming up with something as good. But if you can manage to come up with a good-enough book . . . well, your second book just has to be good-enough-plus-one in order to be an improvement.

    And . . . let’s look at your first quilt. It’s been a very good quilt! You’ve used it for stuff you’d probably never use the “super-quilt” for. It’s been loved, and it’s also be useful and functional for decades. Good job!

    This really hits home for me. I’ve spent four and a half days dithering about writing something. I’ve got so many choices, and also at least three older projects that could be “good enough” if I just sit down with them for a few months. I haven’t done anything because I simply can’t decide.

    I think I’m going to use the hat method if I haven’t figured it out by tomorrow. One slip for each project, and three “do something new” slips to balance things out. Pick a slip, and then spend at least ONE DAY trying to do something with it.

    I’m not too picky about lengths, but I do want to go for something at least 5,000 to 10,000 words. Longer would be great, but I’m not going to ask for the moon. Muses, I’m happy to receive the moon if that’s what’s in the cards!

  2. As part of my Golden Heart contest blitz last year I tried to update and polish the Scottish contemporary I worked on in class at McDaniel. I also wrote a new story (Christal’s Choice, now called The Seeds of Power). Writing the new story was a breeze compared with wrestling with the old one. It took me much longer to unpick and re-engineer the contemporary, and I didn’t really like it when I’d finished.

    None of the time I spent on The Scottish Book was wasted. I learned a lot from writing it (lumpy seams and all), and even more from trying to update it. I ended up with a kind of jarring mismatch between my original choices and current craft abilities (not perfect, but much better than they were five years ago). I still like the concept, and I think it could work, but if and when I go back to it, I plan to start again with a blank document and a page of notes.

    I think every novel is a snapshot of a point in the author’s writing life. Often I like a writer’s earlier books. Many times there seems to be a trade-off between inspiration/imagination and craft–the wild ideas come at the beginning, before the author has an identity and a career and reader expectations to fulfil. Later books become more polished, but more predictable, less experimental. And in the middle there’s a sweet spot where imagination and craft peak together.

    For myself I think I’m an Option 2 writer: finish the book, make it as good as you can, and move on. If I save it for later, I’ll probably have to go back to the drawing board. Like everything writing-related, I suspect that every writer’s process is different. As Jenny used to say in class, Your Mileage May Vary 🙂

    • Thanks.

      Funny-ish story on that last one with the rings and hearts. I was making it for a wedding gift for a friend, but it took me so much longer than I expected that they were divorced before I was done!

  3. Love (and envy) your quilts.I have several, but they were all made by aunts or lovely strangers in Appalachia. To paraphrase Sigourney Weaver in Galaxy Quest, “I have ONE talent on this lousy ship.” The upside is, I don’t get pulled away from writing to make beautiful quilts or gorgeous scrapbooks or amazing meals.All I can really do is write, so that’s what I do.

    I’m wondering if, instead of Anne Lamott (whom I also love), you should be looking at Marie Kondo for guidance. Do any of your three manuscripts still spark joy for you? If so, by all means finish it (or them). If not, maybe it’s time to move on to something else.

    To Jilly’s point, the time you’ve put into them isn’t really sunk cost so much as down payment. Writing fiction is an incredibly complex skill set. I used to build software systems for a living and I maintain that writing an novel is every bit as complex as creating an entire software system–and they have teams of people to do those. Writing a book is just you. The time you’ve spent on your first three books isn’t time lost, it’s time invested in building the skills you’ll need to write the next one, and the one after that, and the one after that.

    Wildfire Woman–1979-1980
    The Fires of Autumn–1983-1985
    Jephthah’s Daughter–1998-2005
    Widow’s Peak–2005-2011
    August Lilies–2009-2013
    The Demon Always Wins–2012-2018
    The Demon’s in the Details–2015-2018
    Girl’s Best Friend–2016-??
    The Demon Wore Stilettos–2018-??

    The only part of that list that I regret are the years when I wasn’t writing. That was lost time.

    • I love the thought of “Marie Kondo-ing” my writing. Sadly, I don’t know that any of the things I have in progress would pass the test. It’s possible that the problem is me, not them.

  4. They say that writers never finish a book, they just quit writing on it. I know that’s what I do. I stop working on something when I know that it’s the best I can make it in that moment. Then it’s done. But every time I reread something a year or two later, I always find things I’d revise. I wonder what Stephen King would do?

    Love your quilts, including the first one! That is such a talent, where math and artistry come together.

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