To make a long story short, writing used to be a huge part of my life. I found a project that I loved and was dedicated to making it a published novel. Several beta readers reviewed later drafts and said that they loved the characters and the writing style and wanted to see more. Then about a year ago, I started struggling with depression, anxiety, etc., and somewhere in that transition writing stopped being a passion of mine. Seeing this reflected in the quality of my work, I decided I was burnt out and took a sabbatical. I haven't picked up creative writing since (and never wanted to).

One belief that I took from all this: If I was truly as passionate as I thought I was, I wouldn't be able to let it go. Now in recent months I've been re-inspired to pick up that unfinished novel again. I've weighed the pro's and con's and I've decided being a writer is worth it for me. I'm in a better state of mind at present and I want to give creative writing another go.

This has created a dilemma: Do I start where I left off or try something entirely new? A year is a long sabbatical and I'm definitely out of practice. At the same time, I see the major story problems in my unfinished novel and I have a clear idea of how to fix them.

I've had a couple of false starts in either direction. Before I go any further, I was wondering if anyone else has experience with a similar problem. I'd greatly appreciate any advice or insight into this issue.

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    I am voting to close this as I cannot see any objective criteria on which to base an answer. As a pure matter of opinion, though, I would say write the story that is running through your head, and if you don't have a story running through your head, don't write at all. – Mark Baker Sep 3 '17 at 20:12
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    As an FYI on depression, it's not true that "If I was truly as passionate as I thought I was, I wouldn't be able to let it go." Anhedonia is a symptom of depression, and it doesn't correlate with how passionate a person is about something to begin with. In fact, depression is defined by having either low mood or anhedonia or both, plus or minus additional symptoms. It's common, it's treatable, and it doesn't mean you don't want to write or aren't good at it. – DoctorWhom Sep 4 '17 at 4:06
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    I strongly oppose the close vote! This question is no more subjective than any other question about writing (which is a subjective endeavour by definition). – user26338 Sep 5 '17 at 6:15

Psychology has found a strong correlation between creativity and mental illness. For example, a study found a higher prevalence of affective disorders among writers (Andreasen, 1987). Depression is an affective disorder. There was an article in Scientific American that summarized the research on the connection between depression and creativity (Jamison, 1995), if you are interested. You should be able to find it in most larger public or university libraries.

I'll not go into the details of how depression relates to creativity. Suffice it to say that many artists experience depressive phases and, like you, had to struggle with doubt. There is no answer for how to deal with this that fits every individual, but it has helped me in certain situations to remember that what makes me prone to depression is also what makes me an artist. It is part of what drives me to creative expression, and it is part of my enhanced ability to perceive aspects of the world that others cannot fathom.

You write that "if [you] truly [were] as passionate as [you] thought [you were, you] wouldn't be able to let it go". That is wrong.

It was not your lack of passion that made you stop, but your depression. A sportsperson who breaks their leg and has to pause to heal would never think that if they were truly passionate about sports their leg wouldn't break. Your depression is an aspect of the intensity with which you live, and sometimes you hurt a part of yourself and have to pause to heal.

But now that you have begun to heal and feel the need (i.e. passion) to be creative again, you ask yourself, whether you should pick up the work you have abandoned or begin something new.

I am convinced that you know the answer to this.

Either you still feel strongly about your last work, or you don't. I suspect that you do, or you wouldn't be here asking this question. So we know what you want to do: Start where you left off. The question remains how to do it. And that's easy.

The hiatus has given you a distance that allows you to "see the major story problems in [your] unfinished novel and [you] have a clear idea of how to fix them". The only obstacle is that you feel "out of practice". And that's easy to fix.

Just start writing. Anything. Sit down each day (or whenever you have time) and write. Whatever comes to your mind. Get into the habit again and flex your muscles. Think of the sportsman or -woman. After an injury they'll not enter into a competition right away but will slowly pick up training. You'll probably not have to go as slow as a football player who tore their ankle, but do allow yourself to begin with something that cannot hurt you, if it goes wrong.

At the same time, begin to think about your previous work. What was it about? Where were you? What had to planned and how do you feel about it now. Then review your notes, write out a new outline (or leave it as it is, if you still agree with it) – get into the world of your novel and put your mental working space in order.

And then begin to go over what you have already written. You don't really have write anything from the blank page for that, you already have a text, and all you need to do is edit it. Start at the beginning and go through what you have written and correct the mistakes that you can now see. You have now been writing some unrelated things and your writing has become more fluid again, and revising what you have written should be fairly easy (or as easy as it ever is). And now you are working on your own text again and writing on the real thing, and when you come to where you had broken off, just keep on going and you are in it again.

My description probably makes it sound as if returning to your work will take a couple of months, but in my experience you'll probably not need more than a week or two and you'll be in the middle of things again. Just don't pressure yourself and trust your feelings. Go as fast or slow as you need.

As for your depression, I hope that you seek psychological help for it. Depression can be treated to a large extent. In severe cases medication can make a fundamental difference, and in mild cases psychotherapy will give you the "tools" to better deal with it.

All the best and good luck with your writing.


Sources:

  • Andreasen, N. C. (1987). Creativity and mental illness. American journal of Psychiatry, 144(10), 1288-1292. doi:10.1176/ajp.144.10.1288
  • Jamison, K. R. (1995). Manic-depressive illness and creativity. Scientific American, 272(2), 62-67.

Given the reason you gave up, I'd say continue with the same story. I would regard depression as an illness or at least similar to a car accident. I have never been disabled by such a thing, but if I stopped writing due to health or accident I would try to get back into whatever I was working on before (as Stephen King eventually did, when run over by a car).

If I quit a project for project reasons, like I can't figure it out, hate what I'm writing, feel like I have no good ideas --- Then after a few months of recovering from failure I'd probably start something new.

But if I just stupidly walked in front of a Twinkie Truck and spent six months in a hospital, in a daze watching Days of Our Lives with no way to change the channel: I think I'd get back to my book.

First, congratulations for coming out of that hole and taking up writing again.

It can be worthwhile to take up an old project. You can look at it again from your current perspective with fresh insights. Be ready that you might want to do extensive editing.

I wrote a novel to about 90% of the first draft while I was in university. Then it sat on a harddrive for a decade. I picked it up again after that and completed it, wrote a really powerful ending, and went over it two or three times editing and improving my - at that early time - writing with potential for improvement. Then real life happened again and I didn't touch it for some years again. Then, about a year ago, I dusted it off again and went over it with new knowledge about how to do this or write that, edited it a couple more times, throwed out one chapter, added three new chapters, and I'm now nearing completion.

I've had other works that I wrote and then left unfinished, and when I came back to them after a few years, I throwed them out. Sometimes a distance in time makes you understand just why a story doesn't work.

I suggest you read through this old text and check what you feel about it afterwards. Are you still convinced that it is a story worth telling? If so, go for it.

I have come and gone from writing. I have stopped writing for many reasons:

  • First, I was never really dedicated to it; it was just a dream. I would be a famous writer some day. My name would look good on the front of the book. I didn't know what writing was and made all the classic mistakes assuming anyone could pump out a book. This was my elementary to high school phase.

  • In college, I was shown what real writing was and introduced to a lot of the core concepts of craft and what made stories work. I heard about the Hero with a thousand faces; I read some stuff no one would ever pick up casually, and I was taught that what I thought I wanted to do write was both wrong (genre fiction), but also a sign of some internal weakness or failure. Unable to elevate my craft and convinced I needed to make money (school debt :( ) I did not write seriously again for a long time after college.

  • Post first job, reconciling should with can; I learned some jobs are awful, moved, & picked up writing again. I still had not considered work ethic, a healthy habbit. The group I worked with was great; but I just wasn't there yet. I read King's book on writing and was shortly convinced that I wasn't able to take writing seriously enough to make it a part of my life and do it. A major depressive episode, laced with all of the fun of PTSD, hit shortly after that and a car accident. I gave up writing again.

  • Two years ago I had what felt like nothing. Didn't like my job. Didn't particularly like me. Didn't feel a connection to anyone. Really didn't like the mundane crap I was doing day in and day out. I sought help and was questioned about what a good life would look like. I'm not sure I know today, but writing has always helped a bit here. So I picked up writing again. I dove head first into my real problems: why wasn't I writing when I called myself a writer? I listened to every episode of Writing Excuses in six months. I read several books on the craft and practice of writing. And, I set a near daily habbit and tracked my process. At the end of the year I had 200,000 words; a beginning, a middle, and an end. And the whole thing didn't work. It hadn't really been planned. I'd gotten the writing habbit down, but still didn't know how to tell a good story. So, eight months ago, depressed again, I stopped writing again. It wasn't a haitus like the ones previous. I just didn't know where to go or what to do. I was burnt out & depressed about the project. Convinced I'd written something that shouldn't see the light of day, but also convinced I needed to work on it to be able to seriously say I was making progress.

I'm finally to the point in my journey I think is relevant.

I needed to give up the project I was working on.

I did the math and the time it would take to change the story I'd worked on was quite high; higher than my five year plan allowed for. I knew what the problems were. I knew the drastic level of change it would take. I was not interested in changing the story because even though it was flawed and unsalable it was the story I had needed to write. And it was proof that I could.

To prove to myself it was the right move; I wrote a treatment, struggled to figure out how to do that for quite a while. The treatment didn't seem consistent. It didn't build properly tension. 3 POVs that didn't intersect. Lots of classic writing problems I'd learned about, knew about, but hadn't planned or thought well enough to avoid. I just needed to write words; I could fix it later. (but I couldn't)

I started researching how to make a better start on the next story. I looked at all the ideas I'd written down over the last year and tried to write pitches for them (something I couldn't do for the last book). I picked the pitch that was most interesting to me, that my new writing group also seemed interested enough in. I tried to write the story and immediately noticed I was making the same mistakes I'd made last time. Meandering prose, purposeless in my scenes. I backed up and looked at something called the Snowflake method. I'd known about it the last time I started a book, but didn't get why it was useful. Now, it had appeal. It basically was a direct route to a treatment that proceeded the writing of a book. So now, I can make sure my story is internally consistent and my problems that I'll be fixing will be much smaller.

Ok, so what does this have to do with you now?

I recommend you figure out where you are, and where you think you're going.

Often when we write, we write to write; but we don't think where we're going. We don't have a map. We don't have a plan. If you have a map & a plan it's easy to evaluate whether you're on track with that. If you have plan, but it's unrealistic, you can adjust your expectations and your plan.

Take a moment and think about what it is that's stopping you from progressing. You know you can progress. You've made it quite far. There's something not quite right that's bothering you. It may not be the writing, it may be depression; depression is a beast that can make even wonderful things seem awful. Take some time for that introspection. Free write on what you're feeling, what you're thinking, where you think the problems are. Make lists to see where you could go next, what you could do; why you're not doing certain things. Figure out where you want be. Then be honest and challenge your reasons for why you can't progress. If someone else told you that's why they weren't doing something, how would you give them advice to proceed?

Evaluate how large of a project you want to work on.

Part of my struggle was that I wanted to take 200,000 words and turn it into 100,000 words without losing anything. I'd written the wrong story for my goals. I was misaligned. If you're writing to be published, try and be honest about how far you've come, whether restarting with something new would really give you an opportunity to get closer. If you're writing for fun, then figure out if what you're doing is fun; if the scale at which you're working is exciting or a drag.

Evaluate what you want at the end of the day.

Publishing is just not realistic for so many of us. The economics aren't there. The time management skills aren't there. The support network may not be there. If you're writing to publish you need the time and will to treat the craft like a job. That means pushing through the hard parts when you might otherwise choose to do something else. This means growth, but it also means that if you're doing this on the side it might not be good for your mental well being, especially if you're already stretched.

If you're doing this for fun; then give yourself permission to suck in the pursuit of that fun. If fun means having a polished work, then figure out what it was that was fun about the work. Have you gotten way from that?

If you're doing this to tell a story that's important; if it's part of your purpose then maybe you need to go back to the well and remember why that's important. Maybe you need to reach out to others that share your values and have some conversations to get excited again.

Figure out what your purpose is for writing, figure out if it's aligned with your current project. Figure out if it would be better aligned if you pivot.

You need to do you

I can tell you whether to continue the project or abandon it for something else. People tend to say you should stick with what you're doing. But most people who are in a coin flip situation (50-50 on whether they should stay or go) end up happier when they make that switch. It's just a thing that happens. Escape velocity is hard; but you only feel the need to launch that rocket if things aren't going well. At the same time, sticking with something when it's hard is important for growing. If you do switch, you don't want to switch right back into your same position.

Do you, but do it with your eyes open. I give you permission to do either thing. You have it. Both things are acceptable. Just make sure at the end of the day you feel good about your decision.

I think, it fairly depends on how much you "remember" your original story.

For instance, when I do battles in X-Com: Long War with long breaks, it usually results in a gigantic mess-up with destroyed SHIVs and corpses of my best soldiers littered everywhere. But that's just an anecdotal evidence, as it can be just as much the fault of those aimbot-using Thin Men, or the endless swarm of Floaters.

So, try and see, if you can continue it, but if that doesn't work out, you still can create a new story, that keeps some elements from the original.

For instance, the original (leaked) Half-Life 2 was much more different than it's released version, out of which, many contents were cut, including the entire Half-Life 3.

As someone who loves starting projects, and struggles with finishing them, I recommend you stick with your novel-in-progress unless there is a really good reason to abandon it. The reason is that you can't publish something you don't finish, but you can start any number of books without ever finishing one. So if you ever want to see a book project through to the end, you'll need at some point to commit to finishing one, no matter what happens in between. It might as well be this one as any other.

Sometimes there are books --like the massive, unfinished tome in Wonderboys --that are better off abandoned. But it doesn't sound like there's anything that solidly places this book in that category.

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