When is the right time to shelve a project? Taking the difficult decision to stop working on a manuscript.Read Now
A couple of weeks ago I shared a hyperlapse video over on my Instagram profile which involved me cleaning up my desk and removing a lot of my sticky notes from the wall. This happens on an infrequent basis, but always for the same reason; it signals the end, be it a full completion or a temporary hiatus, of a work in progress. Now obviously, for reasons of being economical with the amount of wastage in my writing, it’s always better if the end of a project aligns with the completion of page proofs, that magical moment when fresh books are landing on my doorstep. But projects do not always end there. Some have the good grace to arrive as little more than brief ideas, enter and depart with equal speed and efficiency. They remain shallow, and do not linger. Yet others drift in, stay a while, grow to the size of 50, 60, even seventy thousand words before they begin to flag. Grind to a halt. Some projects undoubtedly call for a break, and some never get off the ground in the first place. But how do you know when to stand up and wave the white flag of surrender on an unfinished novel?
Well, sometimes it’s really easy. Simply, your agent tells you it’s time. And in this instance, for me, the end of my current project has come in much that way. There is still merit and value in the fundamentals of the idea, but the overall structure and execution does need a moment for consideration before any valuable conclusions can be drawn about the best way forward. But what if there is no external source telling you to stop? How do you know when to call time?
Shelving any number of thousands of words feels awful, and should never be a decision taken on a whim. It’s hours spent at your desk, and probably many more spent in contemplation and research. It doesn’t even feel good to delete a thousand words from a manuscript during the editing phase at times, so scrapping a whole project, no matter where you are at with it, is bound to hurt. But therein lies the real question; are you really scrapping them?
Projects come unstuck for any number of reasons. It might be that you need more research before you push on to finish. It might be that you made a mistake further back in the manuscript and that retracing your steps will bring you to a solution. Perhaps you have inadvertently written across two genres, and the traditional publishing world most likely won't know what to do with it. Taking a break, making a slight change to the plot, structure, or the way you tell the story might be all you need. My last manuscript needed a change in tense, and it elevated the voice of one of my main protagonists, and that made all the difference. Or rather, I think it did. I'll let you know if it sells. But, if you can’t see the way forward, it could be that what you have written simply isn’t working. That in fact, it doesn’t have a future. But that doesn’t mean the process of writing, no matter the length of the current manuscript, has been in vain.
For whatever reason you take a break from a project, no matter the level of permanence, the words haven’t gone to waste. Even now, as I shelve 70,000 words, I can see the value in having written them. They are not simply being scrapped. I wrote six books before I established a relationship with my agent, and when I look back now the earliest words were not all that good. But still, they were not wasted. Each was a step forward, and the lost words of discarded manuscripts push us further as writers. They help to hone a craft, and develop a narrative voice. They teach us where our passions lie, and how to filter those into the fiction that we create. Those discarded words might teach us what not to do in the future. While it will never be a simple choice, the decision to shelve a manuscript becomes a little bit easier if you remember that every written word pushes the goal of continued publication. I believe it is those lost, quietly filed away manuscripts that help us take the biggest leap in our writing, even if those words are not destined for the printed page.