When to Let That Novel Go

June 2016 imageI recently returned from my annual writing retreat with my fabulous writing group, the Salt + Radish Writers. We go every year and spend four days in a rambling, old Maine house on the beach. We have a schedule, stick to it, and get a lot of work done. This year was no exception. My plan was to revise the first 30-50 pages of my novel and redo my outline, making sure I had my story down. I was pleased with my progress. Yet something about it wasn’t right. Something about the whole project wasn’t right.

Over the last four years, characters were dropped, protagonists changed, and points of view varied. The novel took on different shapes and somewhere along the way, I lost track of why I was writing this book in the first place. As I sat in my chair at my tiny desk in that attic room in Maine, a view of the ocean in front of me, my fellow Salties weaving their stories in rooms below me, and thought back to the original idea I had had, I realized with a sinking feeling that perhaps it was time to let this project rest for a bit.

I have been working on this novel for four years. What do I do exactly with a piece of work I’d been working on for so long when I’m no longer sure why I’m working on it? The fact that I have had another story idea knocking around in my brain for close to a year wasn’t helping. And what about the concept that every story was fixable? Perhaps I just hadn’t figured out the solution yet. But it had been four years. I should have had a solution by now.

I brought up my concerns to my fellow Salties at our annual dinner in Portland. The four of us discussed it over squid ink pasta, salted potatoes, and local mushrooms. They asked me why I started writing what I was writing in the first place, and I realized that the original why had faded so far into the past that the driving force for me to write the story I was writing was gone. Or at least buried pretty deep. The wise Salties had a simple solution: put this project aside for a month or two and start the new project then decide where to go from there.

As smart and logical as this suggestion was, it was still a blow. Four years of work tabled for who knows how long – a month, a year, three years? As we talked about it further, I realized that the primary reason I didn’t want to let it go was the idea of having a completed novel in my hands, but not necessarily this particular novel.

On our last day of the retreat, I started doing some research for the new idea I had. I was hooked. I haven’t stopped thinking about it since I did my first Google search. I woke up one day with the first scene written in my head.

I am going to follow my writing group’s advice and take two months to play around with the new idea. At that point, I will have either gotten this new fixation out of my system and will be ready to go back to the project I’ve spent the last four years on, or I will have a new project to work on and a novel in drawer to be worked on at some point in the future.

And perhaps every story is fixable, but in order to fix something you have to have passion, drive, and interest in the solution. At this point in time, these were things I did not have for my current project.

It’s hard not to view this decision as a failure on my part. The mere act of giving up on something is defeating. I am going to try to focus on what I’ve gained by spending these last four years mired in novel muck, learn from it, and apply it to the new project, making it better from the start. I’m not giving up. I’m taking a pause. I’m learning. But most importantly of all, I am still writing.

 

8 comments

  1. Michelle Hoover

    Agree with Liz. And I did this. I put the Quickening aside for four years after spending three on it. Best thing I ever did.

  2. Lisa Birk

    The drawer can always be opened, I love that, EB. And I love this piece, Kelly. Sounds as if a second drawer is open and spilling its contents to you. I’m looking forward to hearing all about it.

  3. Giving up on a novel isn’t an act of defeat, but an act of bravery. Having the sense and strength to say “this isn’t working” is an achievement.

    May I be the first to say, I’m proud of you Kelly. Letting go is very, very hard, but sometimes the right decision.

  4. A brave move and it must feel liberating to put aside something you’ve lost enthusiasm for. Just admitting that is brave. I have wasted a lot of time banging my head against writing walls because I lack the courage to admit that. And with distance and time you may return to your novel with renewed interest.

  5. Kelly Robertson

    Thanks for all of the supportive words, everyone! This could be the best decision I’ve made or among the worst.

  6. Susan Bernhard

    This line was especially poignant: “I realized that the original why had faded so far into the past that the driving force for me to write the story I was writing was gone.” Wise Liz Moore nailed it. The drawer can always be opened. Something can click and it might make new sense. For now, exciting that you have other ideas capturing your imagination.

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