Breaking up with your novel – hanging it up when it’s just not working

Photo by Celia Stander

A couple months ago, I read a post on a Facebook group page
– an author was shelving her novel. She’d written 68,000 words! What Celia Stander said about shelving her novel –

“I’ve just shelved my first novel. It’s been a very, very hard decision, but ultimately I just had to admit that it was not working. The fact is that the story is just not strong enough. I don’t think my writing sucks (at least not all of it), but there comes a point where something can’t be fixed and any attempt at fixing it will leave it looking like a woman who has had too much plastic surgery. Fake. I couldn’t, however, bring myself to say goodbye to all the characters. After all, I’ve spent the last two years with them and have gotten to know them really well.”

After Celia posted these statements, there was an influx of encouraging comments from other writers –

Mallory Snow – Not a good feeling but sometimes you just have to let it go and move on to something else. It made it easier to remind myself I could always pick it back up again later if I figured out how to fix it.

Kathleen Bolton – I think everyone has a book in the drawer, if not four or five. Keep going!

Therese Walsh – I sort of shelved mine; I kept a few key scenes and then completely rewrote it. Sending you lucky vibes that the next draft comes together more easily for you.

Why shelve it?

I was curious about why a writer would shelve a novel after 68,000 words. I wondered why you would dump a novel after you’d invested so much!

Shelving a book is like a relationship breaking up.

When you first start a relationship, it’s all heady cologne and fluttering eyelashes and heart palpitations. Very much like starting a novel.

– Your first date was the best ever! He took you on a picnic and there were no ants. You went to art museum and he liked all the same artists. He listens when you are voicing your opinions. You wake up every morning with a smile on your face.

And then …

You wonder why you ever started this relationship in the first place! His dirty socks are dumped next to the hamper, he plays Call of Duty with his pals every day. You’re feeling guilty – you want to break up, but you have made so many promises. And dang it, you love his mother!

THE NOVEL – You started the project great guns! You have an outline, banged out the main ideas, and you’ve named your characters (it’s sort of like naming your first born). You wake up every morning, and you are happy to see where you left off in the chapters. You’ve been introduced to the characters and their families – they are all fabulous!

And then …

You wonder why you ever started this novel in the first place. It smells like dirty socks. You wish you could post it to Call of Duty and shoot it to death. You’re feeling guilty – you want to put it away in a drawer, but you made so many promises. And dang it, you love your characters!

What goes wrong?

Why does it go bad? I asked a few questions of Celia to determine what went wrong.

Question: At what point (the negative boo-hoo moment) when you knew it just wasn’t working?

Celia – “There wasn’t a specific moment. It was more like a creeping realization that the story was not measuring up to what I wanted it to be. I am a prolific reader and when I write, I always ask myself, ‘Is this something I would like to read?’ So I had to be honest and admit that I would have been disappointed had I bought that book.”

Question: Can you been more specific about what wasn’t working? Why it felt “Fake?” And what do you mean by “Fake?” Did you feel it was too far-fetched? or did you feel your characters were not working with each other?

Celia – “I wrote ‘The End’ at about 68,000 words and I know that the minimum word count for urban fantasy is about 80,000. No matter how long or hard I thought about it, the story had nothing more to give. If I had tried to add anything it would have felt forced and fake; as if I was trying to add more pieces to an intricately sewn patchwork quilt, just to make it bigger.

I don’t think the story was too far-fetched, as I am writing urban fantasy and you can really use your imagination in that genre. The characters also got along fine. I do think that my protagonist was too nice, and to be honest, such a character doesn’t make for interesting reading. The problem was probably that I thought too much about what my family/mother would think if they read my work!”

Question: The new story with the old characters – are they the same names, but completely different people? Or are they the same names and the same people?

Celia – “Same names, slightly different people. They still know each other, as in the first novel, but the relationships are much more layered. The style of the second novel is already very different from the first. I think I am being much more honest this time around and not so preoccupied with what ‘other people’ would think if they read it. It is very liberating!”

This blog article was inspired by Celia Stander.
About Celia – “I am a South African expat, currently living in Beijing. Besides being a wife, mother and slave to three crazy cats, I am also a writer, reader, traveler, photographer and hypnotherapist. I try my best to be a responsible member of society – although not always successfully. Right now, I am following my dream of being a full-time writer. It is a scary ride, but well worth it.”

“Talent in cheaper than table salt. What separates the talented individual from the successful one is a lot of hard work.”  – Stephen King

Remember Tabitha King fished the first few pages of Stephen’s Carrie out of the garbage and encouraged him to finish it.

Please stop by Celia’s blog to read her stories and see her beautiful photography.

When do you know your story (or relationship) is not working? What is the defining moment – that moment you decide to hang it up?

Photo by Celia Stander

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Filed under Guest Writers & Bloggers

10 responses to “Breaking up with your novel – hanging it up when it’s just not working

  1. What a wonderful post. And hats off to Celia for being so open and honest about the process. I haven’t done it (yet!) but I can totally see the correlation between shelving your novel and breaking up a relationship. Just like in a relationship, it’s not all bad but the bad does outweigh the good, just like a novel that’s not working, I guess.
    Thanks for posting, Karen and thanks to all who participated! 🙂

    • It is hard sometimes when you realize a story, novel, or relationship is not working. Celia was my inspiration on this and so forthcoming. I’ve not shelved a novel, but I have shelved a few relationships!

  2. Great blog! So many reasons we put something on hold. I had a novel half finished with 140,00 words and I tucked it way because I wasn’t a good enough writer at the time to do the story justice. i will take it out again and do it right. Soon.

  3. This is great! I love the comparison to a relationship. It’s difficult when you invest so much of yourself in something, and when it doesn’t work, I always have the tendency to take it personally. I suppose we all have a spark of genius as well as the mundane. Only one makes for a great novel, though.

  4. Thanks, Heather! You keep banging away – thinking you can make it work, change things that are wrong – sometimes it’s best to let it go (novel or relationship). And you can always put the novel in a drawer and look at it next year!

  5. Ouch. What a brave writer. The mark of a true one.

  6. Thanks everyone and it is a very good comparison, Karen. It is not easy to be objective when you’re so invested in something – and it can be applied to anything in life – but it is very liberating once you’ve made that difficult decision 🙂

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