A recent blog post by Jodie Llewellyn asks the question, “Do you always finish your novels?” This is a huge issue for writers who aspire to be published. Some writers are of the mind that you should always finish a story.
That’s like saying you should marry every person you start to date. I only dated one girl before I went out with my wife, but I knew before I took that girl out on the second date that I didn’t want to be with her anymore. That relationship didn’t need a third date (It didn’t even need the second!), and I’d have regretted a third date if I’d tried.
There are some novels you try to write, and you shouldn’t put a ring on them either. Drive them back home. Be kind enough to let them know, “It’s just not working,” and then move on. Make it a clean break. Don’t even give into that temptation for a break-up sex scene.
Before I wrote my first published novel, Gidion’s Hunt, I was more than 40,000 words into another novel. The book was an urban fantasy that took full advantage of my experience as a 911 dispatcher. In many respects, the rough draft was working well. The characters were well-developed, the world-building was strong enough that I knew I could potentially build a series out of it, and the pacing was solid. Unfortunately, I was miserable. The story had stalled, and I couldn’t even force myself to sit down to work on it. The reason? A lot of the material was just too painful.
Some of you might argue, “That’s the best stuff to write!” No, it’s the best stuff to read, but it’s not always best to write it. My relationship with that story wasn’t remotely cathartic. It had passed unpleasant and turned toxic. Writing that story forced me to tap into a lot of anger, the kind of rage and bitterness that at one point had me take a boken (that’s a wooden practice sword) and swing it at a tree until it shattered into tiny pieces. That’s not something I need in my life. The prospect of a book with series potential had gone from exciting to horrifying.
All that said, walking away from that book wasn’t easy. That I could use my then near-decade of experience as a 911 dispatcher was a great marketing point that gave the story an extra chance to succeed, and I’d already written more than a third of the story.
I sometimes wonder how things would have turned out if I’d kept going with that book, if I’d forced it to the finish. There’s a good chance I never would have written Gidion’s Hunt. I also fear that what would have come out of that effort would have been an unpublishable manuscript, tainted by my growing antipathy for it. There were a lot of reasons to stay with that book, to cling to the advice of “always finish a story.” That would have been a mistake.
A lot of writers ask how to know when it’s time to give up on a story. During the next two weeks, I’m going to offer my advice on how to answer that question. Next week’s post will look at some of the reasons to walk away from a story. The week after that, I’ll flip it around and discuss the signs that you do need to stick it out and finish what you’re writing.