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

  • Interesting article, as usual. Thank you for your insight 🙂

    Like many others I have shelved stories/half stories that I might go back to at some point. Whether to finish or salvage the parts that I think really work and drop the rest, time will tell.

    I won’t throw anything away, because I just know that I’ll regret it. You can never get back what you throw away, it’s just not worth the risk

    Plus … isn’t it great to be able to see what sort of crap we wrote when we were young teenagers? 🙂 Embarrassing, but we had to start somewhere.

    Reply
    • Thanks, Blaine. Yes, every now and then I treat the SO to an early gem, and we usually wind up falling off the sofa laughing at the delicious dreadfulness of earnest first tries. ;-D

      Reply
      • I only knew my husband for a week when I gave him a copy of my first gay fiction …
        and he still wanted to marry me 🙂

        Reply
  • However, if we keep buying, the authors will keep churning out what we’re buying. Don’t get me wrong, there’s some good stuff out there and I have been lucky to read a few excellent books in the last couple of months, but that’s because I’ve become much more selective.

    I think a kind of natural selection takes place eventually, and only the strongest survive. The catch is that what I consider the strongest or you consider the strongest may not be what survives. In the end it may simply get down to those with the loudest voices and the best able to promote.

    No, that sounds too discouraging. I do honestly believe there will always be room for good writers and good stories.

    Reply
    • I think in time, this genre will become segregated. Those who write light, fun, sex-filled stories and make money from them, and those who write more plot centered stories. I think there are market for both. Just like there are market for potato chips and gourmet. Just like sometimes I’m in the mood for sex filled mindless stories and sometimes I want to read something more serious.

      Reply
  • Wave, thinking about your comment and all your DNFs, do you think you’ve become spoiled for choice? When I started in this genre there were a handful of very well-known m/m writers. Now there’s a glut of m/m fiction with hundreds of titles published each month. And much of it cheaply priced. So do you think perhaps you and your readers have become a little jaded? Do you think the quality of books is going down or do you think there’s just so much to choose from that you’ve become more critical?

    OR is it just maybe so much of the same thing over and over that the bar inevitably has to raise for writers to compete?

    Reply
    • Josh
      I’ve been reading this genre in its present form since TQ set up house 8 years ago, and while a lot of their books were not what I consider to be the best of the genre, at least the books I bought at the time were excellent – they had authors like Chris Owen, Laura Baumbach, etc.

      Then a number of other publishers set up shop in a hurry to cash in on a good thing and while some were experienced in the publishing business, many fly by night operators were only after a fast buck and the product rapidly went downhill. Unfortunately some of these publishers are still around churning out the same stuff. Why then would an author abandon a WIP I guess?

      I used to buy mostly print books up to 3 years ago, but today there are so many books coming out every week there is no way anyone can buy/read even one twentieth of what’s on the market. I dread every new week because I have so many books on the list that I send out to the guest reviewers to select one or two for review but there’s no dent in the list, only additions from me. Some books are on the list for months before mercifully I take them off because no one’s interested.

      At first readers were just happy to have ANYTHING to read other than het, but now we’re seeing a lot of shoddy ebooks flooding the market and there’s no stopping them, unless the readers rebel, say “enough,” and stop buying. That may not happen for a couple of years but I’m seeing a trend from the complaints of other readers and maybe that will happen sooner rather than later.

      Do you think the quality of books is going down or do you think there’s just so much to choose from that you’ve become more critical?

      It’s both.

      OR is it just maybe so much of the same thing over and over that the bar inevitably has to raise for writers to compete

      This, probably more than anything. I wrote a post several months ago about whether imagination had deserted M/M writers. A lot of writers criticised me because I said that M/M would soon write itself out of business if the current trend of shoddy books that were all the same tropes continued. However, if we keep buying, the authors will keep churning out what we’re buying. Don’t get me wrong, there’s some good stuff out there and I have been lucky to read a few excellent books in the last couple of months, but that’s because I’ve become much more selective.

      The books that are DNF for me? Many of them had great blurbs but when I cracked them open they fell far short of what I consider enjoyable. My time is too valuable to spend reading books that are shoddily written, so I never finish them.

      Reply
  • Thanks Josh for another insightful article. I’m another reader who loves learning about the creative process. I like Kate’s comment about cannibalizing/rescuing characters from sinking ships. So I’m curious Kate, which of your characters were rescued? 🙂

    Question: what exactly is a beta in reference to writing/publishing? 😕

    Reply
    • Thanks, Dianne. I never heard the term “beta” used in mainstream publishing. But then I never heard “plot bunnies” or “muse” used either. I think the usage of all that stuff comes from the realm of fan fiction.

      I think in this context a beta is either an informal critique or an informal critique partner.

      Reply
      • I never heard the term “beta” used in mainstream publishing. But then I never heard “plot bunnies” or “muse” used either. I think the usage of all that stuff comes from the realm of fan fiction.

        “Beta” and “plot bunnies,” I agree came from fan fiction, but the concept of the Muse for literature and other creative arts has existed since the time of the ancient Greeks.

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        • I don’t mean the concept, I mean the common use of it as a daily writing challenge, i.e, my muse only wants to look at nekkid pictures today.

          You just don’t hear that from mainstream writers.

          I realize it’s meant as playful and fun. It’s just I never heard it used like that before I wandered into m/m.

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  • Josh

    Do any writers’ groups ever suggest to their peers that a ms is not ready for publication? Many of us read books and wonder how they ever got published because, in our opinion as readers, they are obviously not ready for prime time.

    Do editors, writers’ groups, betas etc. tell the writers the truth? Do they ignore them and go ahead anyway? I ask this because I notice a lot of poorly written books in M/M, maybe because I read so many of these books, but general fiction has similar problems although not to the same extent.

    It seems to me that more WIPs need to be given a decent burial and hopefully this post will prompt writers to take an objective look at some of their WIPs – not to bring a wrecking ball to all of them, but maybe File 13 is not such a bad place, considering.

    About at least one third of the books on my hard drive that I actually bought are DNF because they were so awful, for different reasons. The authors probably had all of the right resources, yet it seems that if they were told the truth about their ms they just went ahead anyway, which makes me wonder what is going to happen now that anyone can publish on Amazon. That aside, obviously authors need groups that will help them evaluate whether that WIP is a potential best seller, or if it should be abandoned, set aside, etc. Of course a lot of these WIPs can be resusitated and you gave excellent examples of that, but many authors don’t have your experience in knowing what life saving techniques to use. 🙂 Listening to and taking advice is another matter entirely when it comes to giving that WIP a decent burial. 😮

    Your post offers great advice and I’m hoping that a lot of writers will pay attention.

    Reply
    • Wave, I was thinking about that last night. I don’t think I’ve ever told anyone they’re not ready or they can’t publish as is — partly because, as we know, you can pretty much get anything published in m/m. Instead I focus on the work ahead and what (in my opinion) needs to happen to get the work up to speed.

      In other words, I try to focus — and I try to get the groups I’m part of — to focus on the positive even while addressing the negative.

      As for the rest of it, a critique group is only as good as the experience and skills of its individual members. Very often there’s a learning curve to the group dynamic and the group gets better at helping each other because they gain experience as published writers and as critique partners.

      As far as editors and publishers? A publishing house is only as good as its editors. There’s no secret that some publishers in m/m have a reputation for churning out crap. But then again there are crap books out there that sell jaw-droppingly well, so you can see that there’s not a huge incentive for such a publisher to turn anything but the most incoherent of manuscripts down.

      Reply
      • There’s no secret that some publishers in m/m have a reputation for churning out crap. But then again there are crap books out there that sell jaw-droppingly well, so you can see that there’s not a huge incentive for such a publisher to turn anything but the most incoherent of manuscripts down.

        You’re absolutely right Josh. 3 years ago I tried my hand at writing on a dare from a friend and wrote a short story (which was to be part of an anthology) over a weekend. To my everlasting shock it was accepted and I signed a contract. However months later I had forgotten about it because there was a problem with the publisher. When they told me they were ready to publish I took a look at my story and I was horrified. I asked a friend I trusted to read it and she agreed with me. I immediately withdrew it and decided that writing fiction was not for me; I never regretted withdrawing that damn story. 😮 Luckily writing fiction has never been my dream or it might have been difficult to let go, so I do understand why so many awful stories get published, but M/M seems to have more than its share. Maybe some day the genre will grow up.

        Thanks for this post Josh. It and the responses were enlightening. 😯

        Reply
  • Thanks for this. As I’m currently struggling to get through edits of a story that I’ve just read too many times, this gives me plenty to think about…for this time and many times in the future!

    Reply
  • I’ve always thought of my shelved projects as just on hold unless I die before they do. Or until I cannibalize them to the point that they can’t be revived.

    Great post, Josh. Is this what you were talking about — the shelving, and resisting the impulse to just get something done — when you were talking about teaching patience?

    Reply
    • As far as cannibalization goes, just think of it as a donor program, Anne. One WIP could give you two corneas, a heart, a liver, two kidneys, some skin grafts…

      I guess I subscribe to the zombie school of writing.

      Josh, to an earlier comment you made, in case it’s ever a column you might have an interest in writing (or others have an interest in reading), I’d love to hear your thoughts about finding the right people to read one’s work. I know a lot of people use writers’ groups (and it can take time to find the right one for each person) or professional manuscript review (as you provide, I believe).

      Not to be answered in this venue for sure, since I don’t want to derail this interesting discussion, but I think my question is, do writers need peer groups to improve their writing? Or can it be done in a vacuum?

      Reply
      • Can’t answer for everyone else, but I definitely need peer groups to improve. I can’t imagine unleashing my work to the public (or to unsuspected editors) without having input from betas. And I need them beyond line edits. So, inputs are always invaluable to me, even if it’s just “Oh, this is great” or “Oh, this sucks.”

        Reply
        • One of the biggest favors you can do yourself is to find a good critique group — or a couple of good critique partners. I’m all in favor of that. And yes, copyedits are handy, but you really want and need folks who will look at content.

          Reply
      • Josh, to an earlier comment you made, in case it’s ever a column you might have an interest in writing (or others have an interest in reading), I’d love to hear your thoughts about finding the right people to read one’s work. I know a lot of people use writers’ groups (and it can take time to find the right one for each person) or professional manuscript review (as you provide, I believe).

        It takes a little work to develop a really good critique group. For one thing, you’re dealing with people’s egos and that can lead to tension. So you want grown ups and you want members who aren’t so obsessed with their own career that they can’t spare a thought for anyone else.

        Every group seems to develop its own character. I think if the mutual goal of all is made clear and everyone works actively toward that goal (of all members being successfully published), it helps keep that necessary focus.

        Also, you really do want writers from this genre. M/M is rather specialized.

        Reply
        • That could certainly be a good topic for one of these days!

          You are always thinking about what to write in your monthly posts Josh, 😕 now you hve one handed to you. 😯

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          • Actually, I’d like to throw that question out there — any particular topics someone would like to see covered before the end of the year? Wave’s right. I’m always hunting for topics.

            Reply
    • That’s a big part of it, Anne. As a matter of fact, I think the biggest favor a writer can do him or herself is to learn ot cultivate patience. If nothing else, it saves wear and tear on the nerves.

      Reply
  • I have a number of pieces in various stages of Progress. Some are in Developmental Edits (which means I got in everything I thought it needed, came up short on word count and begged my editor to throw me a life-preserver), Some are at Nearly Ready to Submit, some are at the “I have two paragraphs, please don’t forget me” stage.

    I don’t think I’ve ever killed a WIP. I have put things on the back burner to simmer and wait until I was good enough to write them.

    Reply
    • And sometimes that back burner is WAY in the back, yes. I did that with a proposed fantasy series, Angelia. I realized it was too complex, too big for me to deal with right now. I just didn’t have it in me — and probably won’t in the foreseeable future. But the outine and notes are still back there waiting for the day I feel ready to tackle it.

      Reply
        • Yes. It takes a lot of persistence to succeed as a writer, so I think we naturally resist the idea of throwing in the towel. But like the song says, you gotta know when to hold ’em and when to fold ’em

          (Dear God. Did I really just quote Kenny Rogers?)

          Reply
  • I recently revisited a novel I wrote several years ago to see if I could spiff it up with any skills I might have developed lately…let’s just say it wasn’t NEARLY as good as I remembered it!

    The ideas were good, but the execution just plain old sucked.

    There are some things that aren’t fixable, and in my case, the problem was pacing. The best way for me to fix that novel would be to draft an outline from it and then rewrite it from scratch. But that takes all the discovery out of the writing–as you said, Josh, some authors can kill that storytelling bug even by talking about their piece.

    So I’ll probably end up just stealing a few interesting parts from it and chalking it up to practice. I would rather throw words away than fling something lousy out for the wolves to bay about!

    Reply
    • Jordan
      I’m not flattering you when I say that you write the most original books that I’ve read. I don’t know how you do it but just keep on doing what you do, if it means throwing out some WIPs or just plain cannibalising them.

      I would rather throw words away than fling something lousy out for the wolves to bay about!

      I wish more authors felt the same way. 😀

      Reply

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