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?