19

Writing is rewriting. The first draft of a novel is commonly riddled with mistakes: the beginning doesn't grip, the characters aren't consistent, the plot has holes, the story lacks suspense, turns aren't foreshadowed and appear ex machina, the ending is dissatisfying, and so on. But that is to be expected in the normal course of things, and a revision will smooth those imperfections out.

Sometimes one rewrite is not enough and it takes a few passes to finish a novel. Tolstoy famously rewrote War and Peace seven times. Hemingway rewrote the ending to Farewell to Arms fourtyseven times.

But sometimes even accomplished writers have to give up on a project, because no amount of rewriting can overcome what appear to be fundamental flaws. Sometimes a novel cannot be salvaged – or the time and effort necessary make it unfeasible.

But how do you know? How can you tell when it is better to abandon a project, move on, and write another book? What are the warning signs that indicate reliably – or at least with a high likelihood – that a project has failed and I should divorce myself from it?

  • 1
    While it doesn't discuss exactly what you're asking about, you might still want to check out Patricia C. Wrede's recent block post Making it Perfect. – a CVn Jan 18 '18 at 17:01
  • When you have a better one that feels more urgent to write. – Pieter Geerkens Jan 20 '18 at 4:23

11 Answers 11

25

Don't abandon it, just put it aside.

There is a difference between abandoning it and putting it aside to work on something else.

At the point when you cannot stand working on it anymore, and still think its broken, trying various forms of analysis and breakdown and rewrite, whatever is in your toolchest.

Then my last attempt at fixing it would be this: Write as much as I can about what is wrong with it, what I don't like, why I think its crap. Include every detail I can think of. Just as a letter to myself. Then put it away. It is not abandoned, I just need six months to clear it out of my head. Or a year.

Write something else completely, even another novel. From scratch, preferably with a different plot and definitely different characters. Finish that.

Before you start another project, take out the project(s) you put aside, read your letter(s) to yourself, and then decide if it can be fixed you know how to fix it yet, or it needs to be put aside again. Perhaps a new idea can fix it, perhaps your experience with other projects can fix it.

Your letter to your project, which should be as thorough as you can make it, will give you the best of both worlds, the freedom to do something new and the freedom to come back to it and understand why you left, and if you have grown enough as a writer to rescue it.

What I would NOT do is put it aside and start nothing new. I might take a week and read somebody else's novel first, but I would find a new project and keep writing.

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    You say to "decide if it can by fixed", but you do not answer my question how one can decide and by what indicators. – Sylvain Prudhomme Jan 18 '18 at 11:00
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    Every story can be fixed if we include the possibility of changing characters, plots, motivations, goals, personalities, etc. The only story that cannot be fixed is one where the author refuses to give up some ridiculously implausible premise that doesn't work. So the only question is whether the author knows how to fix it, and that requires lessons and experience. Putting aside your story to gain new experience, and perhaps learn some lessons on writing, is the solution to fixing your story, even if the fix demands major surgery on the plot or characters. – Amadeus-Reinstate-Monica Jan 18 '18 at 11:21
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    @Amadeus Semantics. This is not a theoretical question it’s a pragmatic one. Economics of whether or not to start over, risk and reward, shortest path to achieve a goal. The goal is a good story, the way I read the question they want to get there as quickly as possible regardless of whether or not it includes the original work. The point being, whether or not it’s possible has little to do with what decision to make. – whitneyland Jan 19 '18 at 0:01
  • @Amadeus Re: Your comment. What Lee says. Cf. "the time and effort necessary make it unfeasible" (in my question). There are examples of posthumously famous authors who spent a lifetime revising a single novel and never finished it. – Sylvain Prudhomme Jan 19 '18 at 7:31
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    @Lee I responded to the OP, his question about "decide if it can be fixed" has an answer: Yes, always, by an expert writer. So his real question is how to decide if he can fix it, and that answer is complicated and depends entirely on his writing skill. If frustrated, the answer is "no," but my suggestion is to make it "not yet," put it aside, and learn (by reading or writing) with another project to gain the experience and skills need to make the answer "now I can salvage that story." As for semantics: I am a writer, "semantics" is my life! Look up the definition. – Amadeus-Reinstate-Monica Jan 19 '18 at 11:18
13

Others have addressed what to do with an aggravating manuscript, so I'll address the warning signs.

The biggest and most reliable warning sign is a lack of passion. If you're not having any fun writing this, then it's nearly a given that the readers aren't going to have any fun reading it.

Another warning sign is that you keep spinning your wheels in the mud no matter which direction you try and go. If you find yourself writing and rewriting a scene that doesn't go anywhere, then the chances are that your mistake is earlier. If you back up before a pivotal point and try and go a different direction, and a different direction beyond that and still get no love, and you back up some more and still can't seem to find your way, it may be a sign that there are deep-rooted problems as far down as the premise, and at that point, you might want to consider knocking it all down and starting from scratch.

Can you summarize your entire novel in a single sentence? If not, then you likely have a big problem.

Do you have a clue? After some reflection and a cooling-off period (at least a week, preferably two or more) can you point to an issue and say, "Yeah, that needs fixed, and here's how I'm going to do it..." If not, then it might be a problem with the story, or it might be a problem with the author, and in either case, it may be time to move on.

  • +1 for not having any fun writing being a huge warning sign. – Wildcard Jan 19 '18 at 3:19
  • Thank you. I found the idea to attempt to summarize the novel in a single sentence especially helpful. – Sylvain Prudhomme Jan 19 '18 at 8:12
4

I am not much of a writer, these days anyways. I had written a story which got to 90,000 words under draft two and a half. At that point a few friends had a skim over it and they liked it (to the point one was outraged when I told him I was abandoning it).

I put it aside for a while and would come back to it later, but a few months later I simply decided to abandon it and start plotting a new one.

The most important issue was that this was no longer the story I wanted to tell. It wasn't anxiety about any particular element being unpolished, it was that there were too many things which were fundamentally wrong. The whole thing would need rewritten to the point it would be a completely different story. What's the point rewriting everything to fit a new idea when you could just start writing a new story from scratch?

Only you will know if you still want to write this story. There's anecdotes of some authors who go to the trouble of doing fifty or so drafts of the same story to perfect their vision. But that's not the same as feeling like you've just moved on. That the core of the story is wrong, the messages implied from the text are wrong, that you could write better characters in more interesting environments to present deeper and more mature ideas.

You'll either know you want to write it, or know you don't. If you're feeling somewhere between, put it aside for a few months and see how you feel.

3

Without a lot of experience in the field, I'll give following advice:

Give it time and have beta-readers.

Here I'll focus on the readers.

A great way to check whether or not something has enough value to be thoroughly reworked is to have beta-readers.

Some, that have read the work without talking to you about it first. Some, who have read it, knowing what you want the story to contain, express and evoke in the reader.

Sometimes, the readers will give you the same feedback. Most of the time, they will focus on wildly different things, because previous knowledge changes our perspective on things.

So, the first thing is to have some people read it. People who are close to you may not be completely honest with you because they do not want to hurt your feelings. They may not even realize that they are sparing you of the truth. If you want feedback from them, tell them to be brutally honest - but expect it to be rough. People who are not close to you will be more honest. Finding such people to read something "unfinished", is probably not easy either, though.

If you're lucky, you find a few people who can communicate to you what they feel is lacking or unsatisfactory in your work, in a way that makes sense to you. If they are also willing to re-read it, that's truly a gift. Establishing such a relationship with someone is probably most realistic if they too feel that you 'give them something in return' and that they're valued.

This could be the case in writing groups.

I have no experience in this (yet), but I guess that's most of the reason they exist.

Gathering information

In this case, you could have some standard questions that you ask your readers. For example:

  • What was your experience when reading the first 5 pages?
  • What is your understanding of the things that happen to x character?
  • What did you think of the way things ended?

These three broad questions could have their own sub-questions. Those questions could get more and more specific.

Perhaps having readers read smaller parts of the story will make your questions easier to answer.

An important tip is to give the reader as open questions as possible, eg. don't ask questions with yes/no answers, unless that is exactly what you need.

The actual signs

If you end up with wildly different answers to all the questions, it is difficult to know what to change or how. In this case, you'd probably benefit from more specific questions.

If your readers more or less agree, then it should be 'easier' to find the issues within your work.

Then, it's a matter of figuring out "How to write a gripping beginning", "How to write a satisfying ending" and so on, and applying it to your specific story.

Sometimes, this is straightforward. Other times it's a serious challenge.

In any case, giving it time and thought is valuable, but feedback is crucial.

  • 1
    In my question I assume that the mistakes have already been identified (for example by beta readers, as you suggest). The question I ask goes beyond identifying the mistakes to how one can tell whether the mistakes can actually be corrected. – Sylvain Prudhomme Jan 18 '18 at 11:02
  • My answer may not be very useful for your specific situation then, sorry. Hopefully, someone will eventually find it useful. – storbror Jan 18 '18 at 11:39
3

I always think of that wonderful scene from Michael Chabon's Wonderboys where the writer's ungovernable manuscript literally blows away in the wind. But the universe doesn't always give you signals that clear.

@Amadeus' advice (which I upvoted) is excellent and probably the single best thing to keep in mind, but it still leaves questions around when to put a manuscript to the side. So here are my own guidelines:

  • If the book is more than halfway done, finish it. This is a rule I have for myself because I have a psychological aversion to finishing projects --as do many of us. So when I get close to the end, I know I have to soldier on through, despite how I feel about it.
  • If I'm rewriting, I stop when my rewrites aren't making the book better. In particular, if I revert a major portion of what I'm doing to a previous version, it's time to stop for at least a while.
  • If the book is finished, try to sell it. I think it was Roger Zelazny who said the only two mistakes writers make are (a) to not stop writing when the book is done, or (b) to stop selling before the book gets published. I know that I have a consistent pattern of loving my own work when I'm writing it, and hating as soon as I'm done, so I can't trust my own judgement. In the long run, the opinion of the publisher (and after that, the audience) is the one that counts. (The one caveat is that it needs to be technically perfect --spelling, grammar, etc. --before submitting it.)
  • From experience, I wholeheartedly agree with this. What made the final decision for me to shelve my first novel was not selling it. Edit the first three chapters until they're the best that they can be. Write a synopsis and a cover letter. Because the process of selling can lead you to solving many of the mistakes in your work. Then query agents. See if you get any bites. If they love the concept, you'll know you have something worth pressing on with. – GGx - Reinstate Monica Cellio Jan 19 '18 at 9:32
2

What is it you're bored/ tired with? Is it the plot? The characters? A theme? The entire world the story is set? If there's something you like about your story, chances are there are elements you can salvage and use to either revise your project or start a new one.

Try zooming out. Rather than focus on specific elements, try to see the grand scope of what you're aiming for.

How much of the grand scope are you able to see? Can you see what the general idea is? Do you like your characters? If not, can you see things you like, work on their backstories, or replace them?

Try talking with others about your story idea. That helps do a couple things, find ways to summarize the action as well as find what ideas are interesting enough to expand.


Other resources.

8 Signs It's Time to Scrap Your Writing Project

(A lot of it boils down to how confident you feel about yourself, your project, how persistant you are, and if you can put aside your ego, take constructive criticism, and do revisions. If not those are good signs to put the project on hold.)

Terribleminds (warning language)

There are even more really good articles you can find, but these can hopefully get you started. The general focus seems to boil down to how much self confidence you have and how much desire you have. If you lack the desire and the self confidence all else will fail.

Edit 2: Found another article with a slightly different twist. How to keep on writing when you want to quit. I found the last part of it rather inspiring.

1

I'd say there are three possible scenarios here:

  1. The basic idea is hopeless. You set out to write a novel that would combine a sweet, romantic love story with juvenile gross out comedy, so that it would appeal to both Mormon spinsters and 13 year old boys, and you now realize that this is just not working out. Or some such.

  2. There's nothing wrong with the basic idea, but you're stumbling over fundamental problems. The hero's personality just doesn't fit in this story. You had a great idea for how the story should start and a great idea for how it should end, but now you can't figure out how to get from here to there. Etc.

  3. You're struggling with a bunch of details. A scene that you intended to be exciting just seems flat. That speech the hero gives that's supposed to make him sound brave just makes him sound like an arrogant jerk. What was supposed to be a romantic love scene that leads the characters to live happily ever after sounds more like two friends chatting about the weather. Etc.

If you think your story fits scenario 3, then likely the solution is to step back and rethink it a little. As others here have suggested, work on something else for a while. Perhaps discuss it with friends and get suggestions. Read other people's books and see if you can spot solutions to your problems.

If you think it's scenario 1, then yeah, it's time to either abandon the project completely, or do a major redesign.

Scenario 2 is probably the hardest. Can the story be salvaged, or is it hopeless? I'd incline to working on it and seeing if I can't come up with some solutions, much like scenario 3.

One piece of advice I heard years ago that has really stuck with me: Don't get married to anything you have written. No matter how much work you put into a scene, no matter how much fun it was to write, if it isn't working, if it doesn't advance the plot or character development or contribute SOMETHING, be prepared to throw it out. It might seem like throwing away a chapter that you spent six months working on is a terrible waste. But it would be an even bigger waste if the entire book is ruined because you are unwilling to admit that you made a mistake.

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    I wouldn't say such "chapters" are a mistake. Maybe they are needed for the writer to understand their characters/ stories. Those chapters may not be useful for the story, but they can help develop the story's evolution, even if they aren't worthy to make it in the final cut. – BugFolk Jan 18 '18 at 15:39
1

For me, what I do depends on how I feel about the project.

If I still have interest, I go back to my early drafts, extract the story outline, and start over with just the ideas and the backbone. It lets me address the faults that made me so frustrated in the first place while they're still small. I can usually save more of the story than I expect. A major restructuring takes place in the process and because of how I do it, it seems less intimidating.

If I'm not interested in it anymore, I set it aside. If you're not feeling it, forcing it won't help.

0

So speaking as someone who has "abandoned" a 50,000+ word novel and its 50,000+ word sequel that had been written and were in various stages of editing, I think I can help out a little. And the reason why I did are numerous and include real life butting in, a rethink of the universe lore that would render much of the story of the two books unsalvageable. This is despite beta readers loving the work and enjoying the concepts... especially for a few beta readers who were out of my demographic falling in love with it.

Now, abandoned isn't the best word for it... more like... delayed further work in favor of projects that will better handle the retool. Some characters might be changed and some might be omitted from future works or redesigned... but abandoned, no. Really, I refined it to such a point I need to do a full rewrite of the story.

I've wanted to write books (in this genre for this audience no less) since I was in the 7th grade and I have been in a constant state of changing, rewriting, and reworking, and redoing stories to this day. Evolved would be a better word: Some stuff has changed with the times and other stuff has died, unable to adapt. In a few rare extremes some concepts have stood unaltered through the test of time with only the slightest of changes. Sometimes the character works but the story doesn't. Sometimes the setting is cool but I can't populate it with characters to explore the society.

I don't think I ever abandoned a story so much as shelved it for later. If I have ever come close, the reason wasn't anything personal so much as marketability. This work dealt heavily with Vampire lore. As I was working out details, unknown to me, Twilight was becoming a thing and wishing to avoid the image of riding a fad, I put it away and moved to other genres that couldn't adapt elements as much. I might pick it up some day in the future, but right now I have no plans to put it back.

0

I think you (and others?) are thinking it too complex. It does not actually make any difference what the issues with your work are. Or rather it does but you can ignore it since you are only interested with the effect on your productivity and you can see that directly without thinking about the complex stuff.

Basically, the skill you need to develop is the ability to critically assess how productive your day of work was. How much did you improve your story towards publication or other goal you have for it? Did you make real progress towards fixing any issues? Did you build a good basis for further work?

Then you simply need to decide whether the productivity was good enough. Easiest way to do that is to have some point of comparison. Work on more than one project at a time and compare their progress. Whenever you are happy with the progress continue, otherwise switch. If a project fails to progress for several times in a row put it in a backburner and start something new or try taking an old project from backburner. Same with completing a project.

The goal is always to either be productively working on something or looking for productive work. You could for example dedicate some time in the morning on deciding what you can work productively on the day and then use the rest of the day on productive work.

If you are uncomfortable with switching projects because you are committed to a deadline or are simply bad at switching gears you can simply divide your current project into smaller parts and work on those separately. This can be problematic with a story and probably not worth it if work is already progressing well. But if you are stuck anyway, finding the parts, however small, that you like and are comfortable working with and expanding on can have value. You can produce lots of text that is useless for the final work but it will still help clarify your thinking and help work around the issues.

And, of course, if you cannot find a part of the story (or setting or characters) that you really like and want to expand on regardless of whether it helps your actual project, that kind of answers your actual question.

0

You already have some fantastic advice here, so I will just add this:

Early drafts of novels are supposed to be terrible. They are supposed to be filled with all the flaws you have listed. You should congratulate yourself for getting so far, since just completing a draft is an incredible achievement. To quote Anne Lamott:

‘All good writers write them. This is how they end up with good second drafts and terrific third drafts.’

Read Bird by Bird.

How do you know if this book should be abandoned?

Well, there’s only one trick to getting published: write a novel that’s gold dust. Publishing is harder than ever these days, so your book MUST have something that makes it stand out from the crowd and will make every agent stand up and shout, ‘Wow, I must have this book!’

So, ask yourself, in amongst all the plot holes, the lack of suspense, the inconsistent characters and dissatisfying ending, is there still something that could be gold dust?

If the answer is yes. Press on. As you say, writing is rewriting.

If the answer is no. Shelve it.

And don’t feel bad about shelving it. At some point, inspiration may come that’ll turn that novel to gold. And if it doesn’t, you should still love that shitty draft for the gifts it’s given you: the knowledge that you have the stamina and determination to complete a novel; that, thanks to the mistakes you made with it, you now recognise a dissatisfying ending, inconsistent characters, and plot holes.

Many writers are completely blind to faults in their own work, so you're already one step ahead. You know what needs to be fixed, you just need to decide whether to do it. The answer lies in asking yourself the hard question of whether or not there is gold to be mined from that enormous pile of rock.

Every piece of work is a learning experience. And if you decide to start a new novel, I promise you’ll be amazed at how much that first one has taught you.

Good luck!

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