Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

When should a novel be abandoned?

with 3 comments

Like many novelists, over the years, I’ve abandoned more projects than I’ve completed. During my freshman year in high school, I wrote more than 100,000 words of a post-apocalyptic science fiction novel before finally discarding it. In college, I spent the better part of a summer researching a crime story set in Boston (partially inspired, oddly enough, by the career of Whitey Bulger, long before The Departed), before scrapping this as well. A year after graduation, I read dozens of books to gather background material for an epic novel of Hollywood, with a huge cast of characters, only to give it up after a couple of chapters. And I’m sure that there are other, more embarrassing unfinished projects that I’ve since repressed, probably because they never got past the planning stages.

Looking back, though, I’m not sure that any of these projects were inherently unworkable. What happened, instead, is that I tackled them before I’d had the time or inclination to develop the necessary habits that would allow me to complete any novel at all. At that point in my life, I didn’t know how to outline, or how crucial it was, at least for me, to have a detailed sense of what happened in each chapter before starting that morning’s work. Instead, I did exactly the wrong thing: I devoted massive amounts of time to the research phase, which gave me a lot of amorphous material without a clean narrative line. And I have a feeling that if I revisited any of these projects today, using what I know now, I could probably finish all of them. (Whether or not this would be a good use of my time is another question entirely.)

So what do you do when a story has seized your imagination, and you’ve spent at least a few months brainstorming and outlining it, but suddenly aren’t sure whether it’s worth the trouble? The crucial thing, before deciding whether to scrap it altogether, is to separate the story’s real, inherent problems, if any, from the routine jitters and stumbling blocks, common to even the most promising ideas, that your good writing habits will eventually overcome. And the only way to do this, it seems to me, is to avoid abandoning a project until you’ve diligently applied your time and energy to writing a decent portion of the story—let’s say, the first third. Try to approach it as systematically as possible, ideally with a highly structured approach, like the one Kenneth Atchity outlines in A Writer’s Time, until you’ve got at least a hundred pages. (I’m not advocating you do this with every idea that floats into your head, mind you, but only the ones that you were reasonably sure, at least at one point, were worth a year or more of your life.)

Once you’ve got that substantial excerpt, stop, take a week off, and look at it again. At that point, you’re in a much better position to distinguish the story’s actual problems from more incidental issues, like insecurity or lack of time, that have nothing to do with the project itself. If, on further consideration, you decide that the novel is worth finishing, you’re in a great position to continue: you’ve got a third or more of a first draft, a sense of where the story is going, and, most importantly, the skills and habits to see it through. And if you decide to drop it, you haven’t lost much—only the three to six months it took to write the opening third, as opposed to the year or more that a full novel requires—and you’ve gained useful experience in the meantime. You have a better idea of what your writing process looks like, and of the kinds of narratives that do, or don’t, hold your attention. And when the time comes to choose your next project, the one that you will finish, you’ll be ready.

Written by nevalalee

June 24, 2011 at 11:13 am

Posted in Writing

Tagged with ,

3 Responses

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  1. Don’t you hate it when the fire goes out of a project you once found irresistible? My problem is that I can clearly see the beginning and the end, but I can’t patch up enough of a middle to keep me interested.

    But keep writing. Someday, once you get past all the half-books you write, you’ll create a masterpiece.

    Visit my writing blog at


    June 24, 2011 at 11:28 am

  2. In terms of writing I’d say nothing’s ever wasted. I’ve started and not finished several novels but subsequently plundered sections as the basis for short stories; and I’ve integrated characters, situations and plot devices into current projects. Once it’s written down, however rough, it’s something you can go back to and use as a resource for material that does see publication.

    The problem I sometimes experience is that having got some distance along with a project I get bored with it. I try to remember that it will all be new to another reader, grit my teeth and just finish it.

    Jon Vagg

    June 24, 2011 at 11:36 am

  3. @GD: Middles are hard. As a famous screenwriter once said, everybody has second act problems.

    @Jon: Good point. One thing I’ve learned as a writer is that you never want to throw anything away.


    June 24, 2011 at 11:57 am

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