Paper Boats: Bail water or bail out? Knowing When to Abandon Your Wip by Josh Lanyon

A book itself threatens to kill its author repeatedly during its composition.
Michael Chabon, Fountain City (an unfinished novel)

I’ve been trying to catch up on some of my reading lately, and a few nights ago I came across an essay from the New York Times Book Review the SO had ripped out for me some months back. The essay by Dan Kois was titled “Burn Before Reading,” and it was about the reasons that lead an author to abandon a novel.

As you would expect, different writers dump projects for different reasons. Kois was primarily talking about literary writers like Harper Lee who, having succeeded straight out of the gate in writing an American classic, concluded the only direction to go was down, and opted instead to become a semi-reclusive legend. He also mentions Stephanie Meyer who temporarily gave up on the spinoff Midnight Sun after the initial chapters were leaked and appeared on the internet.

Kois writes, “What leads a writer to abandon a novel? Despair, frustration, ambition, inexperience and even success.” Lee and Meyer aside, in most of the listed examples, the dead novels were mercy killings.

Occasionally it’s the novel which winds up killing the author, and thus we have F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Last Tycoon and Dickens’ The Mystery of Edwin Drood. It’s obvious however, given the frequently awful results of our brave new publishing world, that authors killing off weak and ailing offspring is not nearly as much a hazard as authors nursing those misshapen changelings all the way through to publication.

Now and then, however, an author makes a mistake and leaves her wailing infant on a frosty mountainside (or in the recycle bin) never realizing that she’s slaying a potential champion. That’s the case with Ginn Hale’s monumental serialized novel The Rifter.

I can’t remember if Hale had completed the entire thing when it got the old heave ho, or if there were still a couple of chapters to go, but either way, as her adoring fans will testify, it was seriously stinkin’ thinkin’. (You hear me, Hale?)

So how does an author know whether to keep paddling or whether to abandon ship? You’re probably not going to find the answer on the internet. There are plenty of accounts of readers advising when to abandon a book, but remarkably few from the viewpoint of authors. We don’t give up easily. That’s pretty much part of the writer job description. In most of Kois’ examples, authors slaved for years on a novel before admitting defeat.

I don’t think that’s a real danger in this particular genre when all too many novels leave the oven half-baked, but I also don’t suggest you spend years laboring over any single work. In fact, I suspect Kois’ authors knew quite quickly there was a problem; they just didn’t want to face it. And no wonder, given that facing the problem often means scrapping the project.

I was blogging about the writing process over at Good Reads and a reader asked if I’d ever “killed” a project because I attempted to write it before it was fully formed in my imagination. It’s a good question. I think it more likely works the other way. For some storytellers, even talking about a story fulfills that need to share the tale, so there’s no need to write the book. Writing fiction is an organic process, the story evolves as you write — even when you outline, it changes and evolves — which is why you have to go through the slog of a first draft. It gives you a foundation from which to work and develop.

Plus…I’ve never killed a project. Not from the day I began to write professionally.

I’ve put projects aside and left them for years, but I don’t think of them as dead. I think of them as “on hold.” And I do occasionally go back and finish such works. For example, The Ghost Wore Yellow Socks, Somebody Killed His Editor, I Spy Something Bloody and Cards on the Table were all half-started projects I shelved until I felt ready to complete them.

Now it’s likely I won’t ever get back to every single project I’ve started because there are hundreds and hundreds of half starts and even half novels out there, but thinking of these works as “on hold” versus “abandoned” makes enough of a difference in my mindset to save me agonizing over them. I can put them aside and move on.

That would be my first piece of advice to any writer wondering what to do if the work just isn’t…working. If you’re unhappy with the way a particular work is going, put it aside and begin something new. Sometimes all it takes is time and distance to see what needs to be fixed.

If thinking of working on something fills you with dread, you obviously need a little space.

If that doesn’t take care of the problem, the next obvious move is having someone you trust take a look at the work.

Now I do a lot of manuscript evaluations and so far I haven’t seen a project that couldn’t be saved. What I will admit, however, is sometimes, given the effort that would have to go into saving a particular story, it might be to the writer’s interest to simply scrap it and start over. Sometimes the writer doesn’t yet have the skills to save a particular work, but later on down the line, he might. Again, if you think of it as temporarily shelving a project as opposed to trashing it, it makes the decision much easier.

Ask someone you can trust to be honest — but make sure it’s someone who knows craft and writing. Yes, you’re looking for someone who can evaluate the work as it is, but equally important, you’re looking for someone who can see what it might take to fix whatever is wrong.

Which brings us back to the question of how do you know if there’s a serious problem with your current work? We all have our moments of doubt. Nearly every writer I know inevitably reaches a point in every manuscript where nothing seems to be working and it all seems like a hopeless mess. That’s usually right before it all falls into place. If you pass that milestone and it felt more like a gallstone, if the pain continues and even mounts, then it’s time to consider getting help.

Or you could simply read back to just before the point where the story seemed to go off track, rip everything out that followed, and start over from there. It’s brutal, but it’s a fast and usually effective fix.

Before you begin surgery however, run some diagnostics. First, can you explain what your story is about in a couple of sentences? A couple as in…two. Three, tops. If you can’t, that’s the first step. Get it clear in your mind what the story is.

Secondly, can you explain the point of your story? Maybe the story is about a young, idealistic English veterinarian who is hired to work on a wild animal preserve in South Africa and he meets and falls in love with a hard-bitten game warden. Okay, that’s what the story is. But what is the point of that story? What will those characters have each learned by the final page? Every story should have a point, even if the point is as simple as love will find a way.

Thirdly, do the characters behave believably and realistically? Yes, it’s romance and yes, it’s genre fiction, but within those confines are the characters making choices consistent with the personalities you’ve imbued them with? Or are you relying on coincidence and your characters doing things merely because you need stuff to happen and that was all you could think of?

You’d be surprised how often straightening out those three basic things can fix a book that seemed destined for shipwreck.

But regardless of how difficult or problematic a manuscript may be, the most crucial question and the one that should decide whether you continue work or not, is how you feel about the story. If you love it, if you still feel passionately invested in your characters and their journey, and if you want to keep going, then that’s really the only thing that matters.

Writing is one of those jobs that you must love in order to do well. Love is not enough, unfortunately, but it’s the starting point for the blood, sweat and tears that must follow.

69 comments

  • Plus…I’ve never killed a project. Not from the day I began to write professionally.

    I wish I could say the same thing, but some of my budding ideas are WAY too ugly to ever blossom into beautiful flowers. (ha!)

    That said, I should remark that, I’ve never killed a project that I had a contract for. Some private experiments have failed though, for sure.

    Reply
  • Ginn Hale is not finishing the Rifter? That’s annoying. That should be one of the cardinal rules: Don’t start a serial unless you’re sure you can finish it. Even better, don’t start selling a serial till you have already finished it.

    Reply

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