Writing is a lot like a game of five card draw; you take a risk that what you throw down is good enough to win against other influences in your life, such as time, unsupportive friends or family, and your own inner critic. But what happens when the writing doesn’t go your way? Like a bad hand, it can be difficult to continue working when the prose feels flat, the plot has run amok, or you hate your characters more than you like them. Most writing resources will tell you to keep going and ignore the instinct to flee, but is there ever a reason or right time to give up on a project? As Kenny Rogers says in “The Gambler,” you’ve got to know when to hold and know when to fold.
Let’s face it, starting over feels good. It’s a way to slough off all those negative feelings of inadequacy and begin anew when the page is fresh and you see nothing but open road in all directions. Whether you’re a few hundred words into a draft or you’ve polished a final manuscript that still doesn’t feel quite right, the first step to figuring out if you should keep working or let go is to take a good, hard look at your work.
1. Be Honest
Look at your draft objectively with the intention of studying why it isn’t crackling anymore. Read like you’re editing and pin down the reasons by making a specific list of what you like and don’t like. After reviewing your list, you might find that what’s already written isn’t all that bad, just misguided. A draft that’s veering off a cliff can often be saved by figuring out the element that isn’t working. Is it a character who is sullying the whole story? Cut them out. Are there a series of scenes yanking the plot in a rudderless direction? Cut them. A lot can be accomplished by pruning out tthe dead parts so the rest of your draft can grow.
2. Separate the Emotional from the Technical
Your wish to move on might truly be emotional (fear or anxiety at approaching the troublesome middle section), as opposed to something technical (a knowledge gap of a topic in the story). The technical problems can be worked out by writing and editing (see above), but the emotional is a little harder to tame.
The problem with starting over due to fear is this: trouble is always around the corner—you just can’t see it yet. Trouble (which might be anxiety over a plot hole, fear that one of your other ideas is better, losing initial steam after the exciting opening scene, etc.) will always lurk around the first bend, because writing isn’t a process where you get from A to B smoothly and unscathed by battle wounds. It’s okay though, because you’re in good company. All writers have been knocked around by fear more than they’d care to admit. If fear has you by a leash, instead of giving up on your draft just yet, explore methods to work through fear and nullify it. While this might not seem like it’s part of the writing process, I assure you it is. These coping methods will be a key weapon in your writer arsenal for years to come.
3. Ask Yourself: Am I a Serial Starter?
If you’re a serial starter—someone who begins a draft only to shelf it once things get complicated—then I suggest holding onto your draft with white knuckles and seeing it through to the end. Yes, it will be uncomfortable. Yes, you might have to bungee cord-tie yourself to your writing chair so you can’t run. You’ll be glad you did though, because there’s something amazing that happens when you finish a draft despite all its frustrations: You learn to write. You exercise your brain at unraveling plot holes and navigating the arc of your character’s growth and editing like a sword-wielding pirate. While it will be a terrible draft (and all first drafts are), the reward for finishing is experience. You’ve gone through the entire process of writing a book, whether it’s 15 pages or 300 pages, and the value of this knowledge will pay dividends later on. If you start over instead, all you’ve learned is how to give up before you’ve really given it a chance.
On the flip side, there are also times when starting over is the right choice. If you’ve completed all the steps above and still feel like it’s time to fold, then you might just need to follow your instincts. Maybe the words and plot don’t excite you despite efforts to weed out the subpar parts, or you find that you’re no longer thinking about the draft at all (other than torturing yourself for not writing). If that’s the case, then it might be the right time to scrap it and start over.
Before you throw down your cards though and walk away, see what you can salvage from the draft. A character, a scene? Maybe you like the theme, but how you’ve presented it doesn’t give you the skin tinglies anymore. Perhaps you’ve headed down romance road when you should’ve taken a left a science fiction. Identify any kernels you can use in a future draft of a different story, or even a new iteration of the same story. Pull those parts out and place them into a new document so you can see them scrubbed clean of your past draft.
The idea of starting may feel like failing, but writing is like a pilgrimage to some unknown destination; we have to keep moving in the face of obstacles. Deciding to scrap a project in favor of something new doesn’t mean moving backward. Instead, it’s like moving sideways. Learn from it and carry the experience with you on your journey. There is always more writing to be done!
Has there been a time you gave up on a draft? What did you learn in the process?