He’s Dead, Jim…

Writers BlockThis has been one of the most difficult things I’ve had to admit to myself in a very long time. Harder than the realization that I’ll never be a child prodigy, that my bikini years are probably behind me, or that no matter how often my chiropractor attempts to relieve the compression in my spinal disks, I will never grow tall enough to become a Radio City Rockette.

The novel I’m working on has met an unfortunate end.

It coded a few days ago. I attempted to revive it through extraordinary measures, gave it CPR, a few jolts with a defibrillator, every lifesaving modality known to modern literary science. Time of death: 6:21 p.m.

This was not an unexpected loss. We’ve been to this point before, just on the brink of disaster. While the dialogue tried to fake its usual perky insouciance, the prose had not been looking well for a good few months. Privately it complained of fatigue, an unredeemable protagonist, and a plotline too predictable to survive. So I took it to a specialist. My suspicions were confirmed. “It’s a foregone conclusion,” one intoned, shaking her head. Another suggested organ donation, seeing particular merit in a first chapter that could breathe life into a decent short story.

But we have come to praise Caesar, not to bury him. Or, as my Unitarian friends and family are wont to say, “We are here to celebrate the life of Unnamed Manuscript #7.”

It started with the best of intentions. A conflict. A notion of where I thought it would end up and how I might get there. But I now know that the deadly flaw was that instead of going with my instincts and letting the characters lead the story, I tried to force them into a plotline designed to be a mouthpiece for my own opinions. I didn’t want to believe I couldn’t make it work. But I persisted. I’ve been taught persistence. To keep banging my head against the wall, trying to make the pieces fit. I could have continued, shoving these unfortunate characters hither and yon, even finished the damned thing. But I’d always know that it was rotten at its core, and readers would know. They always know. Can’t you tell a passionless read when you stumble into one?

So what have I learned from this Lazarus of a novel that twice rose from the dead? That persistence is an admirable trait, a vital one for an author. We need to be persistent to survive the process of learning our craft. We need to be persistent in creating a finished, quality product for the marketplace. And beyond, we need an extra bit of stubborn to sell the product and have the courage to start a new one.

But maybe part of that persistence, part of that discipline of learning the craft is in knowing when to walk away from something that can’t be saved. Letting this one go was a hard decision. It hurts like hell, but I have to do it.

Have you ever had to abandon a project? What did you learn from it?

41 thoughts on “He’s Dead, Jim…

  1. Wendy Jones says:

    Brilliant Laurie. I loved this blog. Although I do feel somewhat guilty receiving pleasure from the unfortunate demise of your manuscript

  2. Victoria Grefer says:

    I feel like I could have written this myself. I have so many posts about this same topic: about how sometimes it’s ok to let a project go (I’ve done it after 100 pages), about how fiction requires letting your characters guide you and not pigeonholing them…. You have a great sense of humor, though, and a wittiness I lack 🙂 fabulous, fabulous post. hope things look up for your writing career!

  3. Ed Drury (@yirdaki) says:

    It is in a better place. Actually, its probably in the same place. Fortunate we are to live in the times of twitter, blogs, and facebook. It is in times exactly like this that….oh look, Kittens!
    PS – Your Bikini days are behind you when you say they are!

  4. C J Jackman Zigante says:

    oh yes indeed many a time, many a time…which is probably why I write as I do and as often as I do….Every now n then I dust off the good ones and add another chapter or two…and stare with meloncholy at those that I laid to rest…Then I go and have some pizza!

  5. Yvonne Hertzberger says:

    I have not had to do this yet with my writing, (though I came very close with my current WIP) but I have had to abandon other important things in life that just could not go anywhere positive any more. It’s hard … very hard. But I have read two of your books and I know you ARE a writer. The phoenix will rise from the ashes. Knowing when to give up and begin on something new is the mark of a strong person. Hugs.

  6. Rachel Rossano says:

    Oh, I have been there. And keep returning to those carcasses and half dead bodies hoping to revive them by sheer will alone. Some have come back from the edge of death while others still languish there on the brink of eternity of never reaching their potential. “Someday.” I tell them. “Someday I will figure out how to bring you back to life.”

  7. glynissmy1 says:

    My condolences. Maybe the spirit will return with a new plot, and all will not be lost. Good luck with the next project. 🙂

  8. jkmikals says:

    Cats have 9 lives. Sometimes books have more. Just don’t throw it away or burn it – I guess “delete” is the active verb these days – and it might come back again, transformed. Great post, Laurie! Charming.

  9. ianwatson2013 says:

    I have had several novels executed by firing squad after they were half written (the novels not the members of the firing squad). The ones I got rid of were those in genres that bored me. Fantasy bored me to tears and magic gave me nightmares. I have written several ‘men’s action’ novels – published as e.books and I wondered why I wrote them because I spent over five years military service asleep on my bunk. The genre I enjoyed most of all was the historical novel I wrote set in the late Nineteenth Century. I’m seriously thinking of leaving ‘men’s action’ and going back to Queen Vick.

  10. Klaw says:

    Around here, nothing ever dies. They live half-lives until in the middle of despair they rise again and dance triumphant on the keyboards.

  11. Klaw says:

    By the way, L, I had a devil of a time opening your Blog Hop entry. This evening is the first time I was able to get through. Usually just a blank page came up.

  12. Karen Wyld says:

    Condolences, Laurie. My thoughts go out to you at such a difficult time. Saying ‘enough’ is never easy.
    I have never had a writing project die on me (although, miscellaneous arts & crafts projects are another story). Instead, I have ‘the bottom drawer’ for frail WIPs, or what I like to refer to as: The Suspended Animation Chamber. One day, in the not so far future, when humankind has advanced by leaps and bounds, there will be the technology to cure these WIPs of whatever was causing them to droop.
    Until then, sometimes I take one out, and prod it a bit. And then either return it to its deep sleep or give it a jolt of electricity to zap it in to life again. The oldest one in there is about 16 now…..its almost time to revive it, but is the world ready for something so ugly and misunderstood?

    • beccakinla says:

      Pardon me until my (empathetic) giggles cease.

      I have to agree with Karen Wyld. A lot of the stories that I’ve written remain unfinished–but they are (I love Karen’s label!) in suspended animation, not actually dead.

      Many of the pieces that I put down aren’t terrible. Okay, they are sometimes BAAAAD, but not 100%. I just took on a project that was beyond my current skill set, found my views of the character/topic shifted as I wrote, used the wrong voice or POV — something that might be fixable in the future. They languish in a drawer, file cabinet, notebook, or computer memory. Quite a few of my older pieces have been hauled out of the freezer, thawed and overhauled. Some eventually sold, including one of my most successful pieces.

      So find a nice, dark, cool, and dry location and gently lock the manuscript into suspended animation. Okay? Even Spock (Kirk in the reboot, right?) came back from the dead.

  13. Tiffany says:

    I remember this happened to me one year for NaNoWriMo….I was writing a story, and at one point it just stop feeling authentic. I felt like I was forcing it. I backtracked and tried to recover it, but in the end I just didn’t feel like it was “my” story. Sometimes it’s hard to let go, but in the end you have to feel good about the work you do.

    • laurieboris says:

      Tiffany, I had a NaNo experience like that, too. The story just…wasn’t. Or maybe I wasn’t ready to tell it yet. Strange things, these novels… Thank you for reading!

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