I’m sure we all have novels that we gave up on after 10, 20, 50 pages, because while we were excited at first it just didn’t end up working. When do you reach that point when you know a novel is going to work? When do you know when it’s an idea you want to stick with to the very end of the novel?
As reader Roberto Suarez Soto asks:
You may start your book strong and confident, or doubtful and hesitating. But there’s a point when you know that it’s going to work … or not. Maybe your initial strength diluted away, or maybe your initial doubts created a lot of conflict that ignited your plot. By that point your book should have momentum, should propel itself onwards; if it doesn’t, you should hit “delete” and start anew.
When do people reach that point? After the first chapter? After the first paragraph? After the first word?
Kate Lacy says
Since I began writing stories instead of making plans for doing it someday in the future, I have been reading farther than before. If I begin to get bored or confused by a story, I remember what the writer has gone through, and I skip 5-10 pages and begin again. I might do this 3-4 times until I've jumped to about half-way. If I still don't care what-who-why-when, I pitch it back into the library bag. But I want to recommend Edward Bloor's "London Calling" that began as a private school-miserable boy story, and after my first skip, became so wonderful as a generational mystery, I went back and read every single page, and then checked out the audiobook to 'hear' the voices again. Wonderful story, beautifully and slowly developed. I give it to you as a gift.
I suppose we'll never know whether the bow and arrow arrived fully formed in someone's brain, later to be crafted, or whether it evolved from a succession of interesting plungy/ploongy accidents.
What matters is that you can kill people with a bow and arrow, and that ought to have been evident fairly early on either way.
Otherwise — why the hell invent the thing?
Pen doesn't touch paper in earnest until I know it's going to work. I've never abandoned a project, save the usual "it's done".
I obviously have little clue if something will work as I love almost everything I've started and invested vast amounts of time in each project. The last novel I've worked with for over ten years (also have done music and illustrations) and enjoyed every moment of it. Really had a ball writing it, and I console myself that perhaps this is the main thing. But…
the last agent I sent it to replied accidentally several times and each time he gave major reasons for not liking the work. The last reason he gave was that he was disappointed by the narrative. If the narrative is hopeless, well, there's not much left. I still love the story, though, and think it has merit.
But to answer the question about whether a project is working or not, perhaps if one experiences a growing sense of disappointment or boredom with the way the elements are coming together, then this signals a new approach is needed or a fresh start with something new. However if a story is working, then you'll feel an excitement, an involvement with the characters that creates a momentum which will carry you through to the end.
The answer varies according to the tage of the writer's career. Before I had sold anythin, my answer was something like the ones you gave in the post–after the first chapter, after the outline, after the first draft whatever.
Later, my answer became "after I sold it to a publisher," and nowadays if you ask me I say, "After I receive the first royalty check comes in."
Adam Heine says
See, I plan, so that that never happens. Well, almost never.
Rebecca Land Soodak says
Ten years ago, i started to write a novel. I had three characters whose excellent voice came through and I knew the story would take place in NYC. The problem was, I couldn't find the plot. I started and stopped, but ultimately, decided I wasn't a fiction writer. Fast forward ten years. Some agents had read my narrative work and encouraged me to give fiction a try. When I sat down to do just that, my NYC characters were waiting for me. This time around, however, I had goals leading my way. (What do women artists need? What makes a long term marriage work? to name two.) But still, that doesn't make a plot. So while writing, I read many books ON writing. (As well as in my genre.) The two tips that helped were: Have the character start off in one place, end up in another … and have many obstacles along the way. The second was to write my story, scene by scene.
And finally, once I got about 50 pages down (after cutting at least 20– which instead of deleting, I put in a notes folder)I gave my manuscript to a respected reader. My main question was: Is there enough tension? Enough reason to turn the page?
I believed her and kept on going. Many agents requested fulls, I signed with someone wonderful; and sold it a few months back. Now… revisions.
Not sure, it always depends. Mostly I feel it after the first two chapters, especially if I'm not feeling thrilled about writing it. Thankfully I haven't experienced that in awhile!
Usually when I get an idea for a project, it's with a blurb-type summary and a few sketches of scenes. If it's not going to fly, I lose interest, and don't write anymore. If it's working, I keep getting more scene ideas and plot details and continue sketching. Anything that I've sketched six to eight scenes or dialogue sections for will usually work. It's just a matter of digging deep enough to hit the heart of the story.
if you get a royalty check for it, meaning that A) you were paid on advance by a publisher and then B) you earned out the advance to earn a roaylty check–that's when you KNOW it worked! Anything before that is premature.
If the story has no soul then I know it isn't going to work. If I find myself writing a book that I did not plan on writing, one that I find myself hating, I start fresh. If the characters walk around doing nothing that MATTERS I scrap it and start again.
But sometimes I mistake writing something I shouldn't be for just having a bit of writer's block. It's hard to tell the difference sometimes.
Dawn Maria says
I started what I thought would be my next book in a class last fall. 2/3 into the semester I knew it wasn't the next book, and probably not a book at all. I might use some of the characters, but that's all. I just knew. I didn't feel like a failure or that I'd wasted my time either.
Whenever I reach the 75% completion point and realize that the momentum stayed constant. IOW, no sagging middle.
So this has happened to me before. However, I usually know whether a story is going to work or not from the get go. Sometimes I'll think of a story and just so I don't forget the idea I'll write some excerpts or the first few pages, etc. That's when I take the time to actually think about the story: Does it have a typical cheesy ending? Are the characters memorable? Is it something everyone has read before? If I picked up this book and read it would I laugh?- These are usually things I ask myself and then I know if it will work or not. This mostly happens because I lose motivation for it right away. This even happens sometimes in the middle of the novel and I know that specific chapter needs to be changed. However, I don't think its a good idea to delete a story. Maybe it just needs some work. Put the idea aside and later on when you think of other ideas you might possibly be able to incorporate them into that old story and actually make it work. Or if you know it needs some work, write down what ideas you think would actually work about it and think of new ideas. By the end of the process you'll probably have a different story than intended, but in the end you'll have a story that actually works.
Cab Sav says
Five chapters. If I can make it past five chapters I know I've got a stayer.
Claire Farrell says
I don't think I ever really know for sure. I wrote a novel a couple of years ago, left it aside. I read it again and saw where I was going wrong but felt the characters were so strong that it deserved another go. I re-wrote it recently and am having another crisis of faith with it. It's gone wrong somewhere, I'm just not sure where. I can't see myself giving up because I feel like there is something there. I might be wasting my time on it, of course.
I've never put that much effort into a manuscript before so I've invested more time into this one which makes me want to find a way to fix it. Usually, if I start something, I'll finish it. If I get stuck, I'll plot again. If the idea interested me enough to start writing then I think I'll find a way to make it work. I hate the idea of giving up.
This is a great question. I don't have any easy answer. I had a short story that grew into a long novella, but that's how long the story needed to be. Yes, I had slog through it but my crit partner said it was the best thing I've written so far.
Sometimes, I'll pull a story I've started back up and with the distance I've immediately discovered the problem: wrong character's point of view, started in the wrong place etc.,
Never throw anything away, you might be able to use it later on or at least pull sections of it out and use those.
for me, as i'm sure it is for a lot of people, i have to be completely head-over-heels in love with an idea to see it through to its end. if i'm still passionate about an idea/manuscript/whatever after i hit that inevitable (for me) phase of "this sucks, why am i torturing myself?" then i know i've got something worth investing my time in.
in a way, writing is like a relationship. sometimes you're sick of looking at each other, but you know that there's something great between you that you don't want to miss out on.
…i really should have slept today.
Hmmm. Like alot of other commentors, this is a hard one for me.
I don't think I ever give up on an idea. But I have alot of false starts. The way I write is really irritating, and alittle scary for me, because sometimes I'll write something almost fully formed the moment I put it to paper – with some editing, but it's basically there.
But most of the time, I start – and it doesn't work. Then again, and again. I'll begin the same section dozens of times, over and over, and it's just not right! That's when it's hard to trust the process.
But it does work. Eventually it gels, and I suddenly find IT. It works. It's right. The tuning fork hums. But it takes alot of trust to keep going.
I have one story that took me literally years to write. It just took me that long to find the 'click'. But I go long periods without writing – if I were writing regularly, it might have happened faster. Although maybe not. Maybe I needed to grow into the story, and not the reverse.
But I don't ever want to give up on anything – it's there for a reason, and it sort of haunts me until I….find it.
Elliot Grace says
…I can usually sense it while outlining the plot. If it feels right, if it clicks, I move forward. If I stumble, I set it aside and allow the kettle to cool for a while. The project will never be scrapped…but may collect a little dust while I attempt to regain focus:)
For me, I know something is going to work when I can't wait to get to the computer to write it. My system involves family and friends reading a few chapters at a time, to give me advice and suggestions. It fuels my creativity to continue when I hear their responses. If I didn't have that excitement, than I would know it wouldn't be worth writing.
Joe G says
It may be because I'm the world's most efficient procrastinator but I come up with ideas and shelve them all the time. This is probably a good thing because sometimes the ideas merge or evolve and become better ideas.
So I guess what I'm saying is that I only really start into something when it's clear in my head. Then I won't be distracted from it. If I can be distracted from it by another project, I probably wasn't that passionate about the idea in the first place (or I was blinded by initial enthusiasm and once I saw the evident flaws, I switched gears).
It's not much of a problem for me to walk away from something that just isn't working. The real tragedy is when something you desperately want to work just isn't clicking into place. That's when it's hard to walk away, because you never know which new draft is going to be the one that finally does click, or if it ever will.
Drew Turney says
It's not if the book's working you should be asking. It's whether the idea still works for you. if it does, you shouldn't give up hammering the book into shape to service it. If the idea's worth it, you should never consider the book's not working.
Kate Evangelista says
To be honest, I haven't reached that point yet. I usually have the ending in mind when I start writing. I think that's what makes the process on going for me. Knowing how a story ends helps fill in the gaps.
I think has more to do with the kind of person one is than any tip or truth about developing a story. We're all motivated differently and some more self-motivated or patient than others. We might feel finished with an idea before it has the chance to blossom into an obsession. Who's to know where this border lies for each of us and is it really beneficial to know? There's always that magical something that makes a story work I think, and often it's just stumbled upon.
Finally, an easy question. I know when a book is going to work when it keeps creating new plot more or less on its own and my job is to force the story and characters to focus.
This can occur before you've written a word and are sitting in the bathtub. When the premise is perfect (for the partiuclar writer) and the characters grow along with the plot, the book is working.
It takes off without you. Some writers worry and pace the floor over what happens NEXT in a novel.
I've even seen some workshop teachers of the published word define PLOT as "what happens next."
I disagree. Plot is what happens NOW. When a book is working you have to take a softball bat and beat back the plot twists. Oh, and you know it when you get blisters from swinging that bat.
I have finished one novel and am just now starting the second. The first took me nearly three years to complete because I took 18 months off after the first 12 chapters. Why… the inspiration left me. I had been inspired to write because I was in a bad place in life – that's what motivated me to write. It wasn't until my life was in order and at least back on the tracks, and actually happy that I could continue with the story.
So, for me, the only way I could start the novel was to be depressed and the only way for me to be able to complete it was to find happiness and peace. 🙂
Wanda B. Ontheshelves says
For better or worse, I never have this problem. I'm always thinking about it and writing about it in my journal, before I even start a project; so if I discard a project, it's still while it's a (somewhat) stray thought in my journal, or on a walk, etc. Plus there's the whole intangible "vibe" factor. Just follow the vibe.
Not saying it's a good way to be – just the way I am.
I live a world of delusions where I think ANY idea that was good enough to have in the first place could work, if enough time and energy is given to it. So of the many many ideas I have or have had, I consider none of them out of the question until I am dead. Ideas may shift and take a lot of patience and perspiration, but for me, any idea can always work.
Pregnancy and Beyond says
Ink, love what you said! Lately, I've been working on a story, in my head, mostly. I have never done that with a book before and I find myself daydreaming about my characters while I'm driving, and even putting on background music. I figure either I'm nuts or I have a story. I find myself putting off work to write the story because my fingertips are eager. I am in love with my story; I guess that's when a person should finish. Thanks for your insight!
So far this has mostly happened to me with short stories. Usually it's at the point when I sit back and say, okay, what's this about, really? And I don't have a good answer, and can't think of one. Pretty prose, no real story. Or I really don't like the answer, it's not what I intended but it's inextricably tied to the piece. Toss.
I learned to plot a novel by writing my first novel. Despite many revisions, it never quite came together – there just isn't enough conflict, the relationships aren't that interesting, the reader ends up rooting for the wrong person and disappointed by the ending… So, it's in a file, along with a three-inch pile of notes and thoughts and pages. It's gradually changing in my mind, and I may end up chopping it up and rewriting it sometime. But right now I'm working on a novel with a much more zappy plot, and it's working.
If its a project that's going to work for me, its because I can't get the darned people out of my head until I write "the end".
If the characters go quiet, then I let the work go. I only have one manuscript in progress with more than 1 page written that stuck in a time warp, and occasionally the protagonists still whisper something, so it might not be stuck forever.
Whether the project is one that will sell, well, still working on that aspect.
Rebecca T. Little says
A project will work, for me (with a few caveats), when the outline is finished and makes sense plotwise. Those aforementioned caveats are, of course, time, discipline and patience.
Julieanne Reeves says
Honestly, when I start with an idea, I let the characters lead the story. Of course I have an end in mind, but just as with real life, it takes some bends in the road to get there.
If somethings not working, or a plot goes dead, I do back and interview my characters. I get to know them and find out what makes them tick.
If I know that "Amy" has been abused, and neglected by a father, after her mother died giving birth to her younger sister when Amy was twelve. I know she's more than likely not going to have had much of a social life. I know that she's probably going to be afraid or cautious around men. I know she's going to be very motherly, even though she herself is only seventeen. I know she's going to be protective of that sister, fearing that her father will start doing those things to her.
While most of this did not go into my manuscript, because Amy was not a main character, I still ended up with over a hundred pages figuring out Amy. (She actually ended up with her own story from this)
But, by knowing who she is, or who >Insert name of character here<'s deep dark secrets, I know how they would act or react in any given situation.
You have to build a relationship with your characters. Just like were someone to say, "Hey, I saw your best friend and she/he was doing >fill in the blank< you could laugh and say, Yep, that's so and so for you. Or you could look at that person and say. Not if it were the last >whatever< on earth.
YOu have to know them, you have to love them, and then they will love you. That doesn't mean it's always easy, and that doesn't mean you can control them, just like yuo can't control your real life friends. What it means is that you can respect each other(I know that sounds crazy)and work together to make a story happen.
In regards to fiction, I'd say after 10 years you should know. If a book or series is still stuck in your craw and you've revised inside out, even adding different POV's, and the book surprises you with a power of its own, keep going. I've had a project for over 10 years, and have learned enough from reading hundreds of books, that I know my characters almost as well as they know me. At that point, it becomes a whole new project because I update characters, places and plots. If the project is non-fiction, you have to have a cut-off point sometime, and I think that's what queries are for. From what I've heard, agents can tell whether or not a non-fiction project will work before you put another 10 years into it.
I agree with what Carpy said….ten years.
One of my current WIP's began as a short story and after 150 pages I realized it was going to be at least three novels long. Upon finishing the second in the series, it will end now with a fourth.
When I feel a project is being force fed, I let it sleep. Some of them I may never revive at all, but most continue to play in my mind like movies.
This was a very interesting question with great answers.
Jaleh D says
I can't answer yet with any definity, but I do have one story that I am gradually considering as being doubtful. Yet the one that I have working at for far longer, I still believe in, despite having to go back to the beginning to fix some major flaws in characters and plot. I care too much to let those characters fall into oblivion.
The Red Angel says
Honestly, I get slightly bored with all of my projects at some point, especially when I get really deep near the middle of them. But even then, I can tell if the project is working or not simply based off of how rich my plot and characters are. Those two elements must be fully developed in order for the project to work in the end.
The less I've written for a project with undeveloped whatever, the more likely I'll be able to go back and change. But if I've already started on a project and it's already halfway done but I just happened to get stuck in a place in which I can't keep on going, I'll have to start all over again.
I know an idea is working when I am enjoying the process. If it makes me laugh, I generally get a good response. If I get good feedback from friends, I am encouraged and produce more material. Nothing should be forced or painstaking. It should be fun.
It's in the blog, marjorie-pentimentos… which is an ongoing project.
AM Riley says
When my editor says "this isn't working…"
Isn't every project different?
Isn't doubt like a slowly lifting fog, always there but growing less and less.
Are there people who would say something like, "I always stop on page 87 of my first draft and decide right then and there if I should abandon the project or keep going to the end."
I think if you're sure it's going to work, you're not pushing yourself enough creatively.
And I think even if I were number one on the bestseller list, I'd still be wondering if I should have moved this scene over to here, and made so-and-so more likeable, or so-and-so less arrogant. Nothing is ever perfect, nothing ever done.
Writers trade passion for pages. If you run out of passion before you have enough pages, you have to put it aside and work on something else.
Daniel L Carter says
I know a book is going to be something I want to finish by the first few pages. I'll be honest I have a limited attention span and if you don't catch it within the first few pages then I don't finish the book. However to judge my own writings I imagine myself seeing a movie. Each scene needs to build character, plot and keep me asking questions or wanting to know what happens next. If I read a chapter that doesn't do any of these things then it isn't worth putting in my books.
A.M Hudson says
If you feel a connection to your story, but something doesn't feel right, then you just keep going until it does. I think you know from the very first second that the idea, or character that inspires, pops into your head.
It just takes hard work and perseverance from that point. Never delete. You may have had a diamond in the rough all along.
For me, I follow my heart when it comes to writing, and so far, all of my stories are very engaging. My sense of modesty needs work!!