Monday, November 23, 2020

How to Tell if You Should You Give Up On Your Novel and Write Something New

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

Not all novels need to be written. Is yours one of them?

Right after my third novel was published (2011), I hit a bad patch of writing. My muse went on vacation, every sentence I typed was a battle, and writing became a chore I dreaded. Although it felt like giving up, I shifted my writing focus to nonfiction until telling stories became fun again. Eventually it did, but it took years.

I wrote a lot of so-so novels during that time. Every single one was based on an idea I loved, but they needed a lot of revising and overhauling to make them work, and I wasn’t sure if revising them yet again was a good idea or not.

Idea #1 frustrated me for two and a half years of revisions. Idea #2 took another two years of my life that went nowhere. Idea #3 was a NaNo project that actually made writing fun again, but then languished when I wasn't sure what to do with it next. It was outside my regular genre and market, and trying to sell that one felt like I was starting over again as a writer.

I wanted to make those novels work. The stubborn side of me needed to make them work—it became a grudge match. But going back to them risked me falling back into that same bad patch of frustration that made me hate writing.

Is it wise to keep struggling with a novel that might never work, or is it better to work on something new?

This is a tough call for any writer. We put so much effort into a manuscript, and it’s hard to let that go. All that work. All that creative energy. Just gone. It’s easy to understand why we hold on tight and refuse to let go, even if deep down, we know we should. The manuscript is drowning, and it’s dragging us under with it.

If you're facing a similar choice, here are some things to consider:

1. How much work does the manuscript really need?

Sometimes the only way to make a novel work is to trash everything but the idea and start fresh. Which means, if it usually takes you two years to write a novel, it'll likely take you that long to to do a full re-write. Don't con yourself about this (it's SO easy to do)...if all the manuscript needed was a few months of tweaks, you probably would have done that already.

Take some time and look at what needs to happen to make the novel work. Really understand what you're getting yourself into by staying with it. Do you really want to put that much more work into this idea? There's no wrong answer here, This is about you.

For example, for my books, Idea #1 needed a different protagonist, a deleted POV character, and a plot revamp. Half the book would have to be rewritten, and the other half revised to make the new parts work. Idea #2 needed a total rewrite from the plot up. The plot direction was what didn't work. Idea #3 just needed the normal amount of revising. 

(Here’s more on 3 Ways to Tell if a Manuscript Is Worth Going Back to) 

2. What are the odds that working on this manuscript will trigger the same frustrations as before?

Be honest. If you're breaking out in a cold sweat just thinking about it, that's a pretty good indication you should move on to something new. But if there's a glimmer of excitement at finally getting this project to work, maybe it's worth giving it another shot.

How do you feel about the novel? What emotions does it trigger in you? Is it keeping you from writing?

For me, Idea #1 carried a very real risk of plunging me back into darkness. There was just so much baggage associated with it, and even though I loved the idea, and I thought I could rework it in six months, I'd thought that before. Idea #2 didn't have that same risk. I could start over there and be okay. It wasn't the book that made me dread writing, so it didn't have the same emotional triggers. Idea #3 was fun to write, and probably fun to revise.

(Here’s more on The Circle of Write (Or Why Some Books Kick Our Butts))

3. Is there a new project that's more exciting?

If a new idea is calling to you, and you spend more time thinking about it than the book that's giving you trouble, that could be your subconscious telling you it's time to set that project aside. If your creativity has dried up for one book, exploring another could be the way to rekindle the muse.

Of course, be wary if you repeatedly hit a wall with one idea and start over with a new one—that could indicate the problem is the writer, not the book.

For me, all three ideas sat behind a new idea (or two, maybe three) I was eager to write.

(Here’s more on Heads or Tails? Choosing What Story Idea to Work on Next) 

4. Why does it have to be this novel?

If an idea keeps drawing you back, there's a reason. What about this project makes you want to write it, even though it's frustrating you and feels like it's never going to work? Why do you love it? What do you need to do to write it?

For me, Idea #1 was the first idea I got excited about after I'd sold my trilogy (and my new editor loved the concept), so I felt like I owed it to myself to write it. I loved the setting, the themes, the characters. Idea #2 explored an idea and world I found fascinating, with characters I really wanted to get to know better. Idea #3 had an idea that tickled me to no end, and allowed me to try something new.

(Here's more on 5 Reasons to Give Up on Your Novel (And One Reason Not to))

Now ask yourself, "Do I really want to finish this novel?"

This is a hard question to ask, because often we've put so much work into a novel that setting it aside feels like we failed.

But not every story works and not every idea needs to be written. If an idea isn't ready, or never will be ready, that doesn't mean we're bad writers.

If the answer is yes: Finish that novel. Figure out what you need to do to make it work, and go after it. Don't be afraid to make deep cuts, change characters, re-do the plot, or even start fresh with nothing but the idea. The idea is what keeps drawing you back, so that's all that really matters. Everything else can be changed to best fit that idea (even if that idea is a character you can’t let go of).

If the answer is no: Bid that project farewell and move on to a new idea. Don't feel guilty about all the work you put into it, or think you have to finish every manuscript you start. It was a good learning experience, and no writing is ever wasted. What you did with that manuscript will make the next one that much easier to write, and you'll be a whole lot happier.

(Here’s more on Getting Your Novel to the Finish Line: Resisting the Shiny New Idea (Part Three)) 

What I decided from this exercise:

Idea #1 was a hesitant no with a side of maybe. I thought I could fix it one day, maybe in a year or two, after I'd had a good run of writing and I was no longer worried about losing my muse again. If I went back to it, I'd likely spend the next year struggling with it and feeling miserable.

I did go back to this manuscript and start over a few years ago. I gave it six months, wrote a very rough draft—and it still didn’t work. -sigh- Some books are just like that. And one day, I’m going to try again. This is an idea I just can not give up on no matter how many times it’s knocked me to the mat.

Idea #2 was a solid yes, but after I wrote the projects I was more excited about. I thought it would be a good book to return to later, maybe a NaNo novel—knock out the first draft for fun and see what happened. If it worked, I'd revise, but if not, I'd move on.

Idea #3 was the strongest and had the most promise, and more importantly—it was fun to work on. I finished this novel and indie published it since it was outside my normal market. It's the first book in my Grace Harper urban fantasy series, Blood Ties.

The sheer time, energy, and dedication it takes to write a novel means it's hard to walk away from it when we need to.

Like a bad relationship, it's easier to stay one more day with what's known than to quit and venture into the unknown. But if a fresh start is the right thing to do, we need to be able to look at our writing objectively and judge the best course for our career and our sanity.

If your novel isn't working, it's okay to say goodbye and move on to something new. Just as it's okay to stay with a novel you love if you honestly think you can make it work.

Trust your instincts, consider all your options, and do what's best for you as a writer.

EXERCISE FOR YOU: Take a few days and analyze your manuscript. Answer the above questions and decide if this is a manuscript you want to stick with, or let go. Be honest with what you need as a writer at this time.

Are you wondering if you should give up on a novel? What's stopping you?

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Revising Your Novel: First Draft to Finished Draft Omnibus starts every workshop with an analysis and offers multiple revision options in each area. You choose the options that best fit your writing process. This easy-to-follow guide will help you revise your manuscript and craft a strong finished draft that will keep readers hooked. 

Available in paperback and ebook formats.

Janice Hardy is the award-winning author of the teen fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, including The ShifterBlue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. The Shifter, was chosen for the 2014 list of "Ten Books All Young Georgians Should Read" from the Georgia Center for the Book. 

She also writes the Grace Harper urban fantasy series for adults under the name, J.T. Hardy.

When she's not writing novels, she's teaching other writers how to improve their craft. She's the founder of Fiction University and has written multiple books on writing.
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  1. Superb analysis. And it's good to see you worked your way around to *Blood Ties*.

    A big part of this is always the Fallacy of Sunk Costs. We hate to abandon all the work we've put into something, and no work is more personal than writing. Something I like to ask myself (and now I know I'll be asking it after looking at your questions) is:

    "Knowing how much I'd hate to waste the last few months' work... how likely is it that pushing on would just give me *more* months I'm trying to justify?"

    1. Thanks, Ken!

      What's that old saying? Throwing good money after bad? I think that's the writing equivalent, hehe.

  2. Very timely post. I usually don't have more than 2 or 3 active projects because I'm worried that I will jump around and never finish anything. However, I seem to be having trouble even working on any of my current projects. Maybe this is part of the problem.

    1. Two or three seems like a lot to me, but each writer is different. Unless they were totally different projects (such as a nonfic, a YA fantasy, and a women's fiction) keeping that all straight in my head would be challenging. But if you're struggling right now, that might be a reason, especially with the added pressures of the pandemic.

      Maybe pick your favorite and just focus on that for a while. See how goes. Hopefully you'll have better luck and be more productive.

  3. Excellent post, Janice. I've written a few short stories when my muse went on vacation and they turned out not good. Letting go of a project is hard. I've felt like a failure by letting the story go, but I feel the feelings and move on. As you said it's an experience. You just keep writing.

    1. Thanks! My editor once told me one of her authors wrote a throwaway book after each "real" novel. She never did anything with them, they were literary palate cleansers. It's possible your short stories are that for you. They're there to jumpstart your muse and aren't supposed to be any good :)

  4. I have one o there novels. I've got the beginning and the end written, but the middle just won't come. I love my MC. He has massive problems and is grouchy. Perhaps this isn't his story after all.

    Thanks for this post. It's a great help.

    1. Most welcome. You might think about the various steps that are needed to get from the beginning to the end. If that doesn't work, try going backward. Start at the end, and think about the step needed to get there, then what had to happen to do that, then go back one more step.