These writing projects of ours take a lot of time and effort. Some folks I know can pound out short stories (and more power to them!), but I know I'm not like this, and certainly novels demand more. Even those who write NaNoWriMo novels often spend a lot of planning time in advance of the writing period, and then more time revising and cleaning up afterward.
So let's say you've invested a large amount of
worldbuilding time, design time, and writing time into a project, but no
matter what you do, it refuses to do precisely what you want. It might
be that you've dived into something but it has petered out in the
middle. That was what happened to me with For Love, For Power
after I'd written around nineteen chapters. It might be that you've
rewritten something over and over but every time you fix one thing, beta
readers keep finding something else that bothers them. That one
happened to me with a work in progress called The Past Unhealed,
and the things they kept finding weren't tiny fix-its, but major
rethink-this-whole-section stuff. It might be that you've got whole
books which are sequels to other books that aren't quite working (yep, I
have those too). Or maybe your work in progress is just acting ornery
and doesn't feel right.
Don't just leave it
alone for a weekend. That's fine, and it helps, but by this time you've
probably already tried that. What I mean is, go and write something else.
it can feel like failure. Holy cow, I put years of work into this!
How can I abandon it? But I'm not suggesting you take all your precious
hard-won files and toss them in the trash can (either literally or
figuratively). I'm suggesting that you refresh your brain by giving it a
different problem to work on. A challenge - particularly if it's
something you haven't done before.
When I walked away from my
first four novels, I started writing short stories at first. That felt
different. A good number of those were in the same world as the novels,
and were up against some big hurdles because of that, but it was good
to give them a try. Why? Because I'd never forced my brain to think
short. I'd never tried to create a story small enough to balance in the
palm of my hand. Slowly I started learning that when the story was
small, I could visualize all its pieces in my head at once, and I
started understanding how the parts of the story related to one another.
Writing the short stories took on a new fire for me, and my rejections
started getting better.
Then I picked up a new novel. Totally
new - not in the same world, with none of the same characters. I
applied what I'd learned from short stories to this novel. Lo and
behold it was working. I wrote the whole thing in (for me) record time.
Revising it was still brutal, and I had a few very embarrassing
failures with agents before I had it in the right place, but when it
came out finished, it made me happy. And my agent liked it too!
it was a novel that used none of the same parameters, I exercised my
brain on it in a different way. I did different things trying to revise
it, and set my brain against different kinds of problems. For a
writer, trying new things is really important. We have to try things
that are challenging, because they help our minds and skills to grow.
For me, more than four years went by before I went back to my previous material.
wouldn't have had to, necessarily. There are a lot of people out there
with "trunk novels" that never see the light of day. I could have left
mine in the dark, but there were some factors that drew me back to
1. The world wouldn't leave me alone. I'd be going along,
and learn something about language or culture or writing, and a new
connection would form in my head. Wow, I'd say to myself, that could really apply to Varin in an interesting way.
The story shifted whenever I started thinking about it again. My new
ideas of structure gave me new ideas for how to approach it, and I
started seeing things here and there that would change for the better.
The characters grew without me writing them. They kept coming back to
me and whispering things in my head - but even more than that, I
started seeing things about how they interacted on a larger level. And
when I spoke about them with friends, I figured out even more. The fact
that Tagaret had to be the protagonist in For Love, For Power (shoot,
why didn't I realize that before?). The fact that sweet little Xinta
can't be sweet little Xinta any more, but has to start out as the
antagonist in the first novel where he appears (and I mean scary).
The fact that one character whose head I've never visited has
something terribly important to say that will add to the structure of
the entire novel when I get back to it.
When I get back to it. Not if, though it was if for a very long time.
do you decide to go back? I can't speak for others, obviously, but the
thing that convinced me was when I decided experimentally to go back
and think through the stories, reorganize my thoughts and outlines - and
I discovered how much better everything would be. By writing for four
years on other projects, I've improved my skills immensely. When I look
at those old versions, I find some things that embarrass me, but other
things that I think still have value. Those old words aren't a waste.
They've created something in my head that has grown while I let it rest.
They stand behind me now as I go back and write again. I'm not fool
enough to try to revise them any more - empty files for me! - but if I
need a reminder of what should happen next, or if I remember a phrase I
loved, I can go back.
Here's the reward. Even before I'd finished For Love, For Power,
I could tell it wouldn't die in the middle this time. I wrote a chapter in
the beginning and I can feel everything in the story interconnecting. I could just feel it was better. I could handle everything more confidently and more
subtly because I'm a better writer now. I even feel ideas coming
together for the books I wrote before this one, the really old books I
wrote when I had no idea what I was doing yet. I'm excited now to think
of those books, not embarrassed. I know I'll go back because I feel
what I'll be able to do with them. The underlying structure of the
world is still sound, even when I'm good enough to test it in totally
different ways. It deserves a better writer to write it - and while I
have no illusions of perfection, I know that I'll be good enough to
draft something worth sticking with this time.
It's hard to walk away. But if you can do it, it might be the very best decision you ever made for those books you love.