Abandoning A Novel In Progress Doesn’t Mean You Failed!

Don’t get too frustrated! No need to break pencils or snap rulers. Your abandoned WIP is not a waste.

I’ve touched on this topic once or twice, most particularly in my post “Time to Scrap A Writing Project?” I’m a firm believer that although it is very frustrating–and I know, I’ve been there–sometimes the best option is to trash a work in progress and start again, changing things substantially. When this happens, yes, you can feel sad. Yes, you can wish it were possible to salvage what you’d written. Yes, you can be totally and completely annoyed. All those responses make sense to me, and I’ve experienced them all. But the one thing you should never, ever do is consider the time you spent on that WIP wasted. It isn’t, for sure, and here’s why.

  1. YOU’VE GAINED EXPERIENCE. Besides reading voraciously (see “Why Writers Must Be Readers” and “How to Read as a Writer,”) you cannot improve as a writer without practice writing. Well, that WIP you’re trashing after 40,000 words, or after 100 pages, or even after a completed first draft: that’s practice. That counts. You’ll have honed your craft a bit and come closer to establishing your style, and most importantly, you will have learned some valuable lessons about what doesn’t work in fiction, once you take a few minutes to consider why your WIP isn’t holding together. What’s the nature of the problem there? Identify it, and avoid that in the future. You can’t put a price on personal knowledge like that. (One reason my first novel didn’t work is that it took place in a made-up, fantasy-esque kingdom, but I used no magic at all. It didn’t belong to the fantasy genre, or any genre. I fixed that genre problem when I went on to write “The Crimson League.” Enter Herezoth and its legacy of sorcerers!)
  2. RECYCLE IDEAS, EVEN CHARACTERS AND PASSAGES. I know I’ve mentioned this before, but there is absolutely no reason you can’t return to your WIP to steal from it the things you like most, the aspects that DO work…. Just don’t sue yourself for plagiarism, and you’re in the clear. From my first novel I’ll never publish, I ripped off the plot-points of besieged royalty and a castle with a secret passage some members of the royal family can use to escape. I stole some phrases in dialogue I liked. After I scrapped the first 100 pages of the last installment of the Herezoth trilogy and started again, I recycled characters and even a couple of scenes in other contexts, or at least large chunks of them. The material you’ve tossed is yours, and just because you can’t use it in the way you first imagined, that doesn’t mean you can’t apply something of it to later projects.
  3. YOU CAN STILL HAVE FRIENDS/BETA READERS LOOK OVER WHAT YOU HAVE AND EXPLAIN WHAT PROBLEMS THEY SEE. If you’re comfortable enough to share your “failures” with a critique group, explaining that you know the piece doesn’t really hold together, but you’d like to take the time to explore why that is, you’ll learn even more about yourself as a writer from others’ remarks. And who knows? Maybe someone else will have a brilliant idea to help you fix things after all! That’s no certainty, but it’s a possibility.
  4. THIS APPLIES TO NaNoWriMo! If you’re considering doing NaNoWriMo but are holding back because you’re worried you won’t get a “workable” novel at the end of November, my advice is to go ahead and take the plunge anyway, especially if, like me, you’ve never attempted NaNoWriMo. Even if the novel you start 50,000 words for doesn’t develop more, as you can see, those words are not a waste!
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23 responses to “Abandoning A Novel In Progress Doesn’t Mean You Failed!

  1. Great tips! I love NaNo because you’re able to just be creative and play with ideas! Beth

  2. I wrote my first book during NaNo, of course it was only 50K words of the book and it was bad :), but it was a great start. I’m a huge fan of NaNo, it forces you to get the words written and like you said, you can scrap it or use parts of it in a later project. NaNo can be stressful, but if you don’t let yourself fall behind in your daily word count, it can be done, even if you work a full-time job. It just takes discipline. Good luck to you, Victoria!

    • thanks Jill! I appreciate your perspective…. I’ll definitely try not to fall behind in the word count. Might even try to give myself a buffer towards the beginning, the first few days.

  3. Good luck with Nanowrimo! I totally agree with this post, I have completed Nano 3 times and I haven’t managed to turn anything from there into a workable novel. But I did learn a lot by involving myself in the process, and by looking at WHY I didn’t think they were publishable.

  4. I always think of Cervantes waiting 20 years before finishing Don Quixote and Mark Twain stalling out on Adventures Of Huckleberry Finn before finishing it. If putting something aside was good enough for them and didn’t hurt close their path, I figure I can survive it. Sometimes things need to incubate a bit before even you understand the full meaning of it.

  5. There’s nothing wrong with abandoning a novel that just doesn’t seem to be working. All of the writers arguments are true. You do gain valuable experience WRITING, even if you feel you have to discard the manuscript. And, you can recycle ideas and characters in future works. I’ve used any number of short stories I’ve written later as portions of a novel. And, abandoning a work in progress doesn’t necessarily mean you won’t one day return to it. The late-Ray Bradbury worked on SOMEWHERE A BAND IS PLAYING off and on for fifty years before he deemed it worth publishing. He’d work on it, then abandon it, only to return to it five or ten years later. I’ve seen (and published) various drafts of the book as well as the finished product. What doesn’t work for a writer when he or she is twenty might be something a writer can return to at forty. I have a novel plotted out, characters I’ve developed and even passages I’ve jotted down. I haven’t begun to write the novel (and have in fact written four since I put this one down). This would be an epic novel for me and I just don’t feel I’m ready to dive into it just now. But, I value all the work and research I put into the novel and one day just may write the damn thing.

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  12. Victoria,
    My WIP seems like it was written by a child and the beginning doesn’t seem to reflect the maturation of my writing, so far. I feel like I want trash it and start over but I like the plot and have worked on it for awhile. Should I redo the beginning which could mess with the plot, or just start over or do something else?

    • It’s totally up to you, of course…. I think I would rewrite the beginning and then see what kind of an overhaul that necessitates. Maybe it won’t be that bad!!!

      You could also consider what you have a first draft and use it as inspiration for a second draft that is a rewrite, like you say…. I know a lot of writers who write that way routinely (though it’s not for me.)

      I would start with rewriting the beginning…. it could be that it’s mostly presentation issues and not content that makes it feel childish. If that’s so, you won’t have to change the content too badly throughout.

      That’s what came to my mind at least, right away when I read your description of where you are and what’s wrong with your project.

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