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Seven Things I Learned From Wrecking My Novel

Photo by Francesco Mazzola Maurizio via Flickr’s CC

My most recent novel sits finished in a file on my desktop. It’s the culmination of a couple of years of work. 91,535 words now, at one point over 120,000. Hard work. Yet after honing and rewriting and editing some more, it’s still not ready to be sent out to my critique partners, let alone to agents.

The truth is, I’m reluctant to let anyone read it. My husband read an early draft—he’s always my first reader—he said he liked it. A couple of writer friends have read the first chapter or excerpts of others; they had mixed reactions but looked forward to reading more. But since I finished the last round of edits, the final round, it just doesn’t seem ready for anyone else to read it. And I’m not sure it ever will be.

So, What Went Wrong?

Surprising (to me), I feel okay with letting the file sit, untouched, on the desktop—it’s been about a month since I’ve opened it. I made my final decision to abandon it a few days ago. My main feelings are disappointment and ambivalence. I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about it. Why did this happen? More importantly, what next?

Although I know I won’t be able to (completely) objectively assess what went wrong—I want to. I feel like I need to. This isn’t a decision I came to lightly, and my biggest fear is that it will happen again. What made this project end in abandonment, incompletion? After all the work I put into it I’m not moving on to query or self-publish like I have with the other novels I’ve written, and I want to know why. And what’s to keep the next project from following the same course?

Here are seven things I’ve learned.

1. Don’t ignore early warning signs. The idea for this story came to me after hearing a podcast about a rare medical condition. Granted, it’s a fascinating condition with many repercussions that could drive a storyline, but I’m wondering now if it was too thin an idea that I didn’t develop well enough into a whole-story idea. As I wrote, I found myself grasping at straws as I wondered how to infuse the idea into a whole character (not just a syndrome) and expand the idea into a whole story.

2. Think things through. When I started this novel, it was for adults, then I switched to YA, then back to adult. At one point I described it as The Wizard of Oz meets The Breakfast Club, but toward the end I realized I’d started it as a literary novel which became a romance… then a thriller… then a muddle. I waffled back and forth about audience and number of main characters and voice and setting.

3. Be true to who you are. I wrote this novel without too much forward planning (obviously, see above). Usually a plotter or a “hybrid” writer, this is the first novel I’ve written completely as a “pantser.” Late in the project, on a push to finish, I wrote a scene-by-scene plan, but it felt forced, and I rarely looked at it. Although in retrospect I see reasons why I plunged headfirst into writing without planning, I learned the hard way I’m a plotter at heart.

4. Don’t be impatient. It took longer to write the first draft of this novel (than it’s taken for me to write any other). This was due to life events that by necessity took me away from writing, but once I felt freer to write, I found myself rushing and pushing myself harder to finish faster. I think it would have been better to allow myself to take the time I needed, to think things through. I realize now that sometimes things take longer than I expect them to. It’s okay and not necessary to rush or push when there’s a lot of other things going on. Take as much time as it takes.

5. Listen to yourself. Trust yourself. I shared (and over-shared at times) my story with writer friends, trolling for advice and input. I was looking outside for the motivation I should have felt inside. I needed the support and push, but it backfired. It did motivate me to write, but I think it also made the story feel less my own, less special to me, and it made me question my judgment and ideas at a time I should’ve felt confident. A few times I decided to make changes based on others’ suggestions, even when I wasn’t sure of those changes, and I also let “market considerations” get into my head.

6. Follow your passion. This is the first project I’ve worked on that I questioned almost constantly. Almost every day when I sat down to write I wondered why? Why was I writing thisWhat was I writing? There were parts I really liked, but I felt little enthusiasm for the project as a whole. Most days I felt like I was plodding through. I certainly didn’t feel passion like with the other novels I’ve written—they were like love affairs. I couldn’t stop thinking about them no matter how hard I tried. With this novel, I felt none of that passion.

7. It’s never too late to jump ship. I’ve abandoned novels after a few chapters, even half way through; I’ve also put novels in the drawer after querying for a while, but I’ve never finished an entire novel and decided to walk away. I suppose I could’ve continued to work on this one, but (at least right now) I can’t see how to fix it. I also don’t want the frustration of querying a novel I’m not one-hundred percent proud of. And I’d rather spend my time working on something I feel completely invested in.

So, What’s Next?

As I was writing this post, I found a NY Times article by Dan Kois [1], “Why Do Writers Abandon Novels?” I’m in good company, with the likes of Michael Chabon, Junot Díaz, and Jennifer Egan—all who “wrecked” novels (Chabon’s description)—Evelyn Waugh going so far as to burn his unpublished first novel. This made me feel better, relieved, that I will find my way forward. I could relate to how Chabon described feeling the “Hand of Dread” when he sat down to write his abandoned novel, wishing he’d heeded its grasp.

I, too, felt the grasp of the “Hand of Dread” and wish I’d heeded it. Maybe if I had, I’d be querying a new novel instead of writing this post. But maybe there’s also some element of working through… something… that if I hadn’t written this novel, I’d never have discovered as a writer. After all, I strongly agree with the philosophy that there are no wasted words, that I learn something about writing from everything I write. And although this novel may never live as a standalone book (I never say never), parts of this story or characters or writing style will undoubtedly show up in other stories I write. Maybe in decisions I make.

Meanwhile, I’m looking at new ideas. One has some real promise. Perhaps understandably, I feel cautious, protective. I don’t want to get into another project like I just got out of. I’m carefully researching, plotting, and outlining—spending time thinking critically about what I want to work on. I’ve written a synopsis and although optimistic, I’m not letting down my guard and I’m not sharing. And this time when I sit down to write, I won’t ignore the “Hand of Dread” if I feel it on my shoulder!

Have you ever abandoned a finished project? Why? What did you learn? And what advice can you offer?

About Julia Munroe Martin [2]

Julia Munroe Martin [3] (@jmunroemartin [4]) is a writer and blogger who lives in an old house in southern coastal Maine. Julia's other passion is photography, and if she's not writing at the dining room table or a local coffeeshop, you'll likely find her on the beach or dock taking photos. Julia writes The Empty Nest Can Be Murder mystery series as J. M. Maison.