Therefore, my editor threw my world off kilter a bit when he suggested a new idea for a blog post: “When,” he wanted to know, “is it okay to abandon that book?”
“That’s a wonderful idea!” I said to myself, and set about writing immediately. I hadn’t gotten as far as the first sentence, however, when I realized I might not know the answer: When is it okay to abandon your book?
And, more importantly, it is ever okay to abandon your book?
I’m practical person who believes in logic and reason, but the emotional, artistic me has a tendency to take over when I’m trying to be overly-rational.
Looking at this from a purely practical standpoint, I’d like to say yes, there are times when a writing project can and should be pushed to the side. Just as in any dead-end situation, there comes a time when you must step back and say, “All right, I’ve gone as far as I can go with this.” And if you recognize when it is time to give up, you can then devote your attention to more worthwhile pursuits.
But then my more idealistic side jumps in, shouting that some people may be too quick to give up on a long project or novel. Even the most solid projects are not free of road bumps, after all–and if we allow ourselves to be thrown off course by the first bump that comes along, we might end up missing out on something that could have been spectacular.
Writing a novel is not unlike committing to a marriage, and no marriage is without its flaws. “Hold on to the love,” the emotional, artistic me says. “Love will carry you through the hardest of times.”
“Don’t be absurd,” replies logical me. “Some marriages aren’t meant to work out. After a while, you have to step back and realize that you’ve done all you can do. It’s time to move onto a happier, healthier option.”
I decided that I might do well to consult the experts on when to give up on a marriage. Unable to find any experts in such a short time, I resorted to an old guilty pleasure:
Dr. Phil believes most people in America are too quick to get divorced. You shouldn’t get a divorce, he says, until you’ve turned over every stone and investigated every avenue of rehabilitation possible; [until] you have no unfinished emotional business…
Ever since the Oprah days, Dr. Phil has regularly advised guests to walk away from a marriage only when he or she has done everything possible, so there is no remaining anger or deep, soul-crushing bitterness left–just a sense of calm. And while Dr. Phil may not have it right all the time, I suspect he’s nailed this.
Let’s say that things between you and your novel are not going as smoothly as they once were (plot lines are going nowhere, you don’t recognize your characters anymore, etc). You had high hopes for this project once, but the honeymoon phase is over now. Is it okay, then, to divorce this book?
Don’t give up without a fight. Add a new character. Write a scene from a different point of view. Best case scenario: Write an ending. It may not be the ending you originally envisioned, but force yourself to write it anyway. If you’ve done all of this and still feel that you’d like to give up, you can know know that you aren’t doing so out of laziness. No, you fought hard, insisted on closure, and “turned over every stone and investigated every avenue of rehabilitation possible.” In other words, you know that you did not let yourself run the instant things got rough. With a clear conscience, you can move on to bigger and better books.
Once you’ve made the decision to end things with your old novel, you may find yourself thinking that you never should have begun that project in the first place. Try not to allow yourself to be sucked into that place of emptiness and loss. The fact is, no writing is wasted writing. If you have spent the last three years on a half-finished novel, you at least have spent a significant amount of time honing your writing skills. You may have learned some things about yourself, both as a person and as a writer. Finally, while the material you’ve produced never quite turned into what you hoped, it may someday provide a springboard for a newer, more exciting project.
My practical and emotional sides may argue relentlessly, but they both agree on this: Although it may be time to put that old novel away for awhile, do not forget about it and (definitely) do not destroy it. A few years from now, you may look at the story with fresh eyes and decide to take it in a new direction, or steal a character to use in a new adventure. Yes, that old novel may yet prove a treasure trove of inspiration–even if it takes you twenty years to see it.
Writer and educator Sara Goas is a graduate of Lycoming College, and she specializes in creating content for the web. Her site saragoas.com has more examples of her work.