Is it time to give up that project or carry on? Bronwen Griffiths

I recently wrote about sticking to a project; about not giving up. But what if your work in progress really isn’t working? How do you know when it is time to give up? 

There are no easy answers to this. If you’ve invested a large amount of time and effort in your work you won’t want to ditch it. However, there are times when deep down you know a project has hit the wall.

Painting by Eduardo Kingman, 1962

This happened to me recently. I lost all interest and passion in my novel in progress. I know that this will inevitably happen with any long project. I wrote about not giving up, about working through the bad times. But when you have put your MS away for a while and you still dread working on it, perhaps it is time to think again, just as it has been for me. If you aren’t interested in your project, your reader won’t be either. I’m not talking about the usual doubts and lack of confidence we all experience from time to time – I’m talking about knowing when the project has lost its focus, when you need to acknowledge that the story isn’t going anywhere, when you have a deep-down gut feeling that this isn’t the one. This is not a good feeling. But it needs to be acknowledged.
Perhaps the questions to ask are these:

1.      Is the idea original or has it been done a hundred times before?
2.      Does your novel/story have a plot or is it just a series of ideas?
3.      Have you sent it out and received endless rejections? I know that great novels can be rejected many times but perhaps the rejections are telling you something. The book might not be bad but perhaps it doesn’t have quite enough zing. It’s like a boyfriend or girlfriend you really like – you keep convincing yourself that you should stay with them but you know something essential is missing.
4.      Are you bored with it and know this isn’t ‘writer’s block’ but something much more fundamental?
5.      Is the manuscript so flawed that it needs a complete re-write but you find you can’t be bothered? You’d rather go on holiday/take up skydiving, bake cakes/do anything but work on this project.
6.      Do you have no ending for the book and can’t think of one? Or you’ve changed the ending so many times it’s affecting the rest of the book – and again you can’t be bothered to start again and re-write the whole thing?

If the answers to all these questions are yes, yes, yes, it might be time to make that painful decision. But whatever you do, don’t throw away your manuscript – keep a copy of it on the computer or a hard copy. It isn’t a failure. You will have learned a lot. You might even return to the story later, or use one of the characters from it. 

 ‘The phoenix must burn to emerge.’ - Janet Fitch.

I’m not suggesting you burn your manuscript! I’d advise you to keep a hard copy and/or a copy on your computer. You might want to come back to it later, or use parts of it. But let it metaphorically burn to make way for the new.

Bronwen is the author of three books of fiction. Her novella-in-flash ‘Listen with Mother’ will be coming out this summer. She has recently ditched her novel in progress and is wondering whether to take up knitting.


Griselda Heppel said…
I read this with great interest as some of it definitely chimes with me - especially the sense of dread. But then I think it’s because I haven’t given the idea a chance. Is the dread more about the difficulty of finding the headspace to work through the idea properly without all the demands of real life eating away at it until I can’t grasp it anymore... I don’t know! But I do admire you for calling it a day when you are clearly not invested in your novel anymore. Much better to do that and (cripes) take up knitting (can you tell that is TOTES beyond me?).

Do you remember the beginning of Life of Pi - the writer has wasted 2 years on a book that, as you put it, hits the wall, and someone tells him the story of this boy and a tiger, so he goes for that instead. (I’ve only seen the film, and not even all of that - lost, um, interest when it went all weird - so I may not be strictly accurate about the actual book!) Still, The Life of Pi won lots of prizes, so there’s a lesson there..
Umberto Tosi said…
Thought provoking. I've been there with more than one project in the past. One of my daughters, who also writes, and well, once incinerated the hefty 300+ page manuscript of a novel-in-progress. This was back in the early 1980s when manuscripts were typed on paper and burning one meant literally setting it aflame! She had notes and fragments that she tossed on the fire with the rest of her pages, thus obliterating the whole meghilla from the face of the earth - other than in uneliable memory. I bemoaned the loss, although I tempered my disappointment with parental (and writerly) compassion, I hope. I had read drafts of her work and thought it potentially superb. I had encouraged her - but to no avail. Life goes on and she's accomplished much since then, so her burning her work wasn't the end of her productivity, and perhaps cathartic!..Now, of course, we keep multiple digital copies of everything. Burning a paper manuscript would only be symbolic. That might be the solution to the doldrums you describe! Print out a paper copy of your manuscript. Put it in what metal barrel, barbeque or fireplace is handy and set it afire! Send of all demons and doubts associated with the work up in sacred smoke! Invite friends. Do ritual readings and chants, serve drinks and snacks. Roast marshmellos and weenies while you're at it!

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