Abandoning a novel, or shelving a novel, can seem like an end of the world scenario. But the question is: how do you know when to walk away?

If you read over your work three, four, five times, you run the rest of getting sick of your own writing. Getting sick of reading your own work is not the same as needing to walk away from a project. The problem is knowing how to spot the difference.

Since I recently shelved a work in progress, but have gotten sick of plenty of my novels in the past, I’m going to tell you the major differences.

Being sick of your novel:

  1. The writing reads smoothly, but your eyes go crossed as you search for typos.
  2. While you are still happy with the story, you want the editing process to be over with.
  3. You might start searching for editors and beta readers-is there anyone else out there who can read this thing so I don’t have to for the seventh time?!

Needing to shelve your novel:

  1. There’s an inkling in the back of your head that this scene could be better.
  2. While you want to be happy with your story, dread prevents you from being in love with it.
  3. You might begin to over-analyze everything (from plot to characters to dialog to pacing), making it impossible to improve the novel.

This is a rough sketch of the differences, but there is a difference.

I’ve been working on The Unanswerable since 2012 and making the decision to walk away didn’t come easily. I questioned the book, the pacing, the plot. But I forged ahead anyway, because I rewrote it. Clearly, the writing is way better than it was back in 2012.

The writing, however, isn’t the problem. The problem is inherent to the story, the plot, and the characters themselves. I wasn’t being gripped by my own writing during the rewrites. Instead of looking at the finish line and being proud that “this book is almost done,” I rolled my eyes whenever I needed to open the doc file again.

Now, shelving a novel does not mean you are permanently abandoning it. It means you recognize that right now, in your current state of mind, you cannot possibly improve upon the story as stands. Whether you need a complete plot overhaul like The Unanswerable or you need to tighten the pacing, being too emotionally involved in your own work can make these improvements impossible.

Shelving a novel creates emotional distance that will allow you to “destroy” it later. I don’t mean bonfire burning with a maniacal grin, but instead taking the best parts of the story and removing everything else. What holds it back? Why did you hate working on it? What made you love working on it?

Putting distance lets you see the story for what it is-the good and the bad. Since I wanted The Unanswerable to survive the rewrite and five edits, I was trying to square the circle*. The Unanswerable was never going to be what I wanted it to be, not right now.

So how do you know when to walk away? Some writers are always nervous about putting their work out there, but it’s not nerves. The feeling is deeper. It’s not fear of failure, it’s not thinking, “Well, maybe one more edit will make me happier.” It’s the dawning, horrendous realization that you didn’t do this novel justice. It starts slow, a little feeling in the back of your brain, but the more you read over your novel, the more you realize it’s true.

If you’re thinking about abandoning a piece, I recommend getting a second opinion first. My go-to developmental editor is also my husband. He’ll be honest, real, but kind. He’ll explain what I did well (the writing) and what I failed at (the pacing, the plot). He’ll tell me how I could change it, fix it, improve it.

Having the second voice can confirm or deny your feelings, but you need to make sure it is someone you trust, someone who would never purposefully steer your wrong out of jealousy or misbegotten feelings (or perhaps not wanting to hurt your feelings).

If this person confirms your suspicions, then shelve the novel. Give it six months to a year. Revisit it when you are ready to break it down into the basic parts and make it what it should have been to begin with. Writing is a constant learning experience, and shelving doesn’t mean failure. It means you were smart enough not to publish something that wasn’t ready.

Take the criticism with a grain of salt. Turn it into a conversation about what to improve, how to improve, and explore the strengths and weaknesses of the piece. This information will only help you when you revisit the story.

Remember, you haven’t failed. You’ve learned a powerful lesson about walking away.

*Idiom lesson: Square the Circle came about in 1882 when the geometric task of “constructing a square with the same area as a given circle by using only a finite number of steps with compass and straightedge” (wiki) was proven impossible by Ferdinand von Lindemann. It has since been used as a metaphor for trying to do something impossible.


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