For the last year and a half, I’ve written nearly a dozen drafts of a novel. I wrote (or rewrote) 1,000 words every day, cancelled plans to work on my novel, and dreamed of publication.
Recently, I decided to put my novel in the drawer and move on. It was gut-wrenching, but I know it was the right thing to do.
In this post, I’ll talk about why I came to that decision, how to mourn an unfixable novel, and how to move on.
Knowing when it’s time to let go
About six months into the writing process, I knew my novel wasn’t going to work.
My plot was boring. I would re-read the story and find myself tuning out after the first third of the book. If reading it was boring, you can imagine how boring it was to write; I had to bribe myself with cookies to finish chapters.
A boring plot is not necessarily the final death knell of a novel-in-progress. So I re-plotted individual chapters and added more spice, ultimately writing five more drafts and about 100,000 more words.
Unfortunately, my characters were grieving (there’s a lot of death in the book), so a more energetic plot didn’t match their motivations. I was adding surface-level excitement to a fundamentally uninteresting story arc. The book was just a series of emotionally intense but pointless scenes.
It wasn’t until I took a step back and evaluated the story itself — not how I told the story, but what the story was — that I realized that I didn’t have the energy to fix the novel.
This is the key question you need to ask yourself if you’re deciding whether or not to put a novel aside: Have you lost the drive to keep pushing forward? Have you already wrestled with it for multiple drafts, to no avail? Are you in the throes of revision fatigue or are you more genuinely burned out with this novel?
If you’ve lost the will to fix what needs fixing it might be time to put that manuscript in the drawer.
Warning signs of a problem novel
In the early phases of writing this novel, there were some indicators that my approach to this novel wasn’t going to work out. I wish I had paid attention to them earlier.
- I fell out of love with my characters. When this happened, I could no longer understand their motivations or intuit what my characters would do/say in different situations. I even lost my mental image of them. If this ever happens mid-draft on a book in the future, I’ll take a step back, reassess, and fix immediately rather than trudging on.
- I was “in my head” about everything. I thought my doubts about the novel were just my brain trying to trick me into avoiding writing. So I ended up being such a taskmaster that I didn’t listen to my natural instincts. Too much thinking about thinking.
- Writing was boring. I mentioned this above, but it’s worth repeating. If you’re bored writing something, pause and really consider whether a scene is worth showing. Maybe it’s as simple as skipping to the next scene and giving readers a recap rather than a blow-by-blow; maybe it’s a sign that your plot itself isn’t dynamic enough. But either way, it’s worth paying attention to that feeling.
- Later drafts were worse than early drafts. Always a bummer. If you’re feeling like your revisions are worse than early drafts, it’s definitely an indicator that it’s time to take a break and zoom out.
- The voice, plot, and tone changed every chapter and I promised myself to “get back to it” to make it consistent. I would edit one chapter, realize it conflicted with an earlier chapter, and knew I’d have to re-edit the whole thing. Rather than stopping to figure out what I wanted the voice/plot/tone to really be, I kept trying to work it out in my book. It was torture.
These warning signs do not necessarily mean a novel is doomed; rather, they’re early indicators that you should stop, take a step back, and fix the problem now before you carry on. They can save you from writing 10+ drafts of a novel without fixing its underlying issues.
Putting a novel away after negative feedback
Another reason you might consider putting a novel away is that you’re getting feedback from potential agents, editors, or writer friends that a novel doesn’t have potential.
If you still believe in the novel, then you don’t have to listen to them. Keep editing and submitting. How you’re feeling about the novel — and the submission process in general — is more important than what people are saying about it.
Remember, there’s no such thing as a time limit for publication. Your novel won’t go “out of style.” You can even take a break from submitting and get back at it in a few months, or you could go the self-publishing route.
When you receive feedback that you know is accurate, and just don’t have the will or inspiration to fix your novel, then trust your gut. Chances are, your enthusiasm is pulling you towards your next great idea, rather than towards fixing your last one. (Nathan has a great post about this exact situation.) It’s OK to let gravity pull you towards your next project. One day, that same force may pull you back.
Mourning your book
When I decided to stop writing my novel, I went through a long period of anger.
First, I was angry at myself for “giving up,” even though I knew in my gut that I’d made the right decision. Then it was anger at the book and my moody, self-pitying characters. That turned into regret for not giving up and moving on sooner.
I didn’t write for a while. I just couldn’t muster up the energy to feel passionate about writing.
Looking back, I know that this mourning period was perfectly natural. Sure, it would have been better if I could bounce right back and jump into another novel immediately. That might have even helped me feel better faster.
But it was what it was. Anger didn’t kill me. I just needed time to let it go.
Just don’t set your book on fire. One day, you may have a eureka moment and one scene could become the foundation of something completely different. Save all copies of your book.
Your next book will be better
One of the key things that helped me move on was remembering that although I didn’t get a book deal or polished novel out of the process, I did get a lot of other things.
- Most importantly, I learned that I could write a novel. Even if it wasn’t perfect, I’d written a book from beginning to end multiple times. I could do it again.
- I met Scrivener. Fell in love.
- I understood what not to do when plotting a novel. When I started to write my next novel, I constructed a much more dynamic and interesting plot with more motivated characters. I’m not trying to “manufacture” drama on top of a weak plot anymore. The plot itself just moves. It’s a relief.
- I learned to never again write a book with main characters who are fundamentally unmotivated in life. Writers more skilled than I am could probably make it work, but in the future my characters will be passionate about something that drives a core element of the plot. I think I thought “literature” must be moody and unspecific? Yeah, nope.
This sounds corny, but I encourage you to write down what you learned from your novel-in-mourning. It really helped me.
Putting aside a manuscript is a huge decision. But if you’ve fallen out of love with your book and it has major plot and character issues, it may be time to start writing something else.
Just remember: if you also need to hit something or blow stuff up, I fully support you. But your next book will be awesome. Trust me.
Have you ever stopped writing a book that you’d worked on for years? Any advice for mourning a book and moving on?
Art: Michael Conrad Hirt – A vanitas still life with a candle, an inkwell, a quill pen, a skull and books