Pilfering Your Novel Graveyard

graveyard“Finish what you start” is some of the best advice one can give a burgeoning writer.

However, what happens when you absolutely can’t finish something? It’s not Writer’s Block nor Creative ADD. You’ve reached critical mass. No matter how long you edit, send off for critiques, and outline, it’s just not coming together.

Writing can be like making a soufflé: if it’s imploded, sure, you can still eat it, but do you want to serve it to others? So what do you do when the recipe is screwed and you have a burnt dessert?

Scrape off the blackened parts and salvage it, right?

Maybe.

One might call me “The Novel Gravedigger.” Since around 2003 or so I’ve scrapped dozens of novels. Some had 100-200 pages, some had three. The common theme was that I was not a closer. And remember the famous line from Glengarry Glen Ross: “Coffee’s for closers only.” I, sir or madam, was not a closer. No coffee for me.

What can be learned from my serial murder of countless novels is this: I should have done more. Even if I couldn’t fix the numerous mistakes or restructure them, there were solutions to my problem. The novel graveyard doesn’t have to be your first stop.

Piece Together a Frankenstein’s Monster of a Novel

You may have a character you love that was caught in a sinking mire of bad plot. Or you may have had a winning plot full of characters drier than the Arrakis desert. You can certainly do a little novel transplanting. Move that character you loved to that awesome plot if possible. If it feels like mashing a puzzle piece that doesn’t fit, you can always make adjustments so that everything clicks.

Why start something new every time when you have all these spare parts lying around? One thing I’m sure all your failed novels have in common is that at one point you were excited about them. An idea, a character, or a setting entranced you. With your improved skills, you can pick and choose pieces to start a fresh project instead of using all new concepts.

Use Your Word Necromancy

Have a dead novel that’s been sitting on your desktop staring at you for years? Why not open it back up and give it a gander? You may see that it’s not as eye-searingly awful as you remember. Perhaps with your new perspective and writing wizardry, you can pluck it from your “Puke-Worthy Novels” file and back into the light of day. An extensive edit and a new pair of eyes might make those old bones sparkle like a dead pixie.

Let Sleeping Novels Lie

Sometimes in life you’re just not ready. Maybe staring down into the pool from the high board scared the dog mess out of you as a teenager, but now you can do a triple gainer. By comparison, maybe you weren’t ready to do a 2,000 page doorstopper about the conquering devil frog people five years ago. With more words under your belt, maybe you feel more comfortable tackling a new epic now. If your past attempts at massive epics failed miserably, use your newfound experience and skills to try again in earnest. Let your dead devil frog novel stay dead.

However…

Never Throw Anything Away aka Be a Novel Hoarder

Novels don’t rot and stink up your computer last I checked. Even if something sucks and you hate it, keep it. There’s always the chance of conversion. Perhaps make a crummy novel idea into a better short story or script. That’s one thing I’ve learned over the years: not every good idea makes a good novel. Some work just needs to be shorter, cleaner, or have a shift in tone. What you thought was a horrifying book about zombie businessmen might be better as a comedy. Or a story that originally seemed like a great SF concept could be better in a fantasy world. If your novel actually does start to stink, you have my permission to toss it out. But I’d say in general to never, never throw away a project completely. If anything, you can dig it up and laugh at it when things get dull at a dinner party.

So Finishing A Story…What Does That Feel Like?

If you’ve never finished anything, welcome to the club. There are probably thousands of writers out there that simply never reach that stage. Ultimately, that’s up to them. You don’t have to be in that boat forever. You can stop quitting novels and see them to completion. I’ve recently found that some of my novels I’ve been working on weren’t as ready for the main stage as I thought them to be. In the past, I’d say, “Well, crap. I’ll just start something new then.” But at this point in my life, I rather work on a mediocre novel and make it better. I prefer this to spending years quitting novels trying to attain a level of perfection I’ll never reach. You can only make each novel as good as your current skills allow. You will always look back and think, “Geez, I wish I would have spent more time on that novel.”

The keys to completion I’ve found are the following:

1. Know Your Limits: Don’t start multiple projects if you can’t handle them. If you’re not good at multi-tasking, then you need to focus on one big project until it’s complete. Don’t start anything else until you type “The End.” If you can balance more than one thing, go for it, but setting deadline goals certainly helped me complete multiple projects. I know that I can’t handle more than two things at a time now, so I don’t overexert myself lest I want to get a writing hernia.

2. Have Pride In Your Work: If you’re always talking about how crappy your work is, then you create a self-fulfilling prophecy. Your work sucks because you think it sucks. Then to get more into psychology, your looking-glass self projects that perceived suckiness to the rest of the world. Having a certain amount of pride and satisfaction in your work will do wonders towards completion.

3. Hold Yourself Accountable: This goes back to setting deadline goals but also to the usefulness of writing groups and social media. I know some people think talking about a novel while you’re writing is a big no-no, but hell, what else would writers talk about on Twitter if not their own writing? If you have a solid writing group or critique partner(s), they can motivate you to completion. Even if you don’t mind disappointing yourself, you may find seeing all your friends complete their work can be a big motivator. Sometimes you need others to kick you into gear. Cherish these people.

One reason self-help books are so popular is because they show “This is how I became successful. See how easy it is?” Yes, writing is hard and publishing is harder, but they’re not as hard as brain surgery. There’s a reason there are hundreds if not thousands of books to help writers and not many “How I Became a Brain Surgeon in Only Five Steps!” books. Advice from other writers can be valuable, but don’t let it rule your roost. Only you can figure out what works best for you at any given time.

4. Completion Breeds Completion: If you complete one work, it becomes infectious. You’ll find yourself completing more and more work and seeing your work in print. Now I’m not suggesting rushing all your work. By all means take the time to make it as good as you can possibly make it. Get feedback, polish, and get it ready for the world stage. But be realistic with your goals. If you’re not happy completing something once every five years, then you’re the only person that can change that. Completing work is the lifeblood of your writing. Without completion, well, you’ve got that novel graveyard lurking outside your window, taunting you, haunting you.

If you’re not happy with your writing progress, figure out what is preventing you from completion. The only real way to fix it is by putting in time. Time is a writer’s best friend. But finding it can be difficult and can cause novels to get sidetracked or abandoned. One thing I’ve done to prevent this is working on my projects every single day without fail. This doesn’t mean spending hours on end writing, it just means spending time with it. Like a plant needs water or an undead unicorn needs elf blood, novels need time. Carve it out however you can and you’ll see your novel graveyard shrink. That means sacrificing some TV, movies, games, basilisk breeding, Youtube trolling, or whatever other things are huge time sinks. (By no means do I ever mean sacrificing family time though. Binge watching Swamp People can certainly go though.)

For those that have suffered through multiple failed or abandoned novels, how did you escape the rut? What tactics did you use to reach completion? Share below!

For discussion of all things fantasy-related, check out Philip Overby’s Fantasy Free-for-All.

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Smittyfan
Smittyfan
6 years ago

Great advice. 🙂 A few of my earlier works i ditched, never to see the light of day again, since they were such bad opening paragraphs without any depth, rhyme or reason. A seemed-like-a-good-idea at the time. So far, very few stories ever had an ending, and now only one has become worthy of being called a novel 10 years later. Yes, it’s taken that long to get to the point of re-writing the second drafting. 😉 Procrastination, work, school, other’s opinions and fear of not getting enough sleep are the greatest enemies i’ve faced. About 6 years later after writing the first draft, and re-writing certain chapters, it’s amazed me how 90% of the original draft has been scrapped from the story, while 90% of the original storyline/plot has stayed the same. It’s weird, and ironic at the same time. 🙂

Philip Overby
Reply to  Smittyfan
6 years ago

Hi Smittyfan,

Glad you liked the article! I have also had work that I’ve come back to after years of letting them sit and while I rewrite them, they still end up vaguely similar. Anyway, good luck with your work going forward!

Ron C. Nieto
6 years ago

Awesome article, Philip. You make a very good point in a very motivating way! Ultimately, if we don’t finish our books, we can’t ever learn how to finish them *better*.

I think there’s a very interesting idea you point out and people seem to overlook: the frankenstein novel. I think every author needs to write practice novels before getting serious about publishing, and these novels can be appalling rip-offs, stilted epics or even cliched fanfiction. It’s just practice, and it’s necessary if we want to get the trick of voice, rhythm, character development…

Still, there are eventual nuggets of gold hidden in everyone’s early rabble. I’ve only just realized that, but there was a great character or two back there. A concept that deserved to be better explored. Heck, even a inspiring quote that should have been salvaged! But we hardly ever pick through our early writings to rescue those important bits, and I think we should.

We shouldn’t be afraid to write crappy things, because that’s how we learn to improve. And almost every crappy thing has the one redeemable feature we can use later, in a better work, when we are ready. We just have to remember about it 🙂

Thanks for sharing the great article,

Philip Overby
Reply to  Ron C. Nieto
6 years ago

Hi Ron,

Thanks for the comment! I’m glad you found my article interesting. I’ve made the argument before that I think “practice novels” are a good way to start out when you first start writing. Some people may see that as fan fiction or just trying anything. I tend to think if you’re just starting out, learning how to finish simple stories will help you later in tackling more difficult ones, like epics or whatever. I’ve found trying to write simpler stories has helped me a lot in completing my work, but I may still have some way to go before I get exactly where I want to be. Thanks again!

Ron C. Nieto
Reply to  Philip Overby
6 years ago

Exactly!

About still having a way to go, my personal definition of being on track for becoming a great writer goes as follows:

“So long as I keep thinking ‘Oh, wow! My upcoming novel is going to be the BEST yet’, I know I’m doing it right.”

Looking forward to your next article!

Philip Overby
Reply to  Ron C. Nieto
6 years ago

I posted a long comment but not sure if it showed up. Just testing to see if this is working.

Antonio del Drago
Reply to  Philip Overby
6 years ago

Hi Phil,

Your comment showed up, but was automatically sent to moderation. Most comments have to be automatically approved by a moderator, as the Askimet/Wordpress filter is a little too sensitive.

saeed sabbagh
saeed sabbagh
6 years ago

nice article having several symptoms of various learning disabilities i have lot of unfinished ideas for stories and my first novel idea too that i am glad i did not Finnish it yet because it would have been a weak as it my first attempt after 10 years being too simple missing lot what needed to proper book but i still have it and might try to redo it

saeed sabbagh

Anne Marie Gazzolo
6 years ago

Love your article! The fantasy I am working on now I originally wrote and finished 20+ years ago but did nothing with it. I have kept it all these years – just in case. I revived it last year after I joined a writing group. It’s a better tale now because of that, and I didn’t think it was too bad to begin with. 🙂 Another fantasy is just as old, and I will be reviving that too.

God bless, Anne Marie 🙂

Anne Marie Gazzolo
Reply to  Philip Overby
6 years ago

Thanks, Phil! I need all the luck I can get – especially when described as the luck that Bilbo had in abundance. 🙂

God bless, Anne Marie 🙂

Lorinda J. Taylor
6 years ago

I’ve had two stints as a writer – one between 1969-1983 and one starting in 2000. Everything I’ve published with one exception has been from the latter period. I have a lot of material from the earlier period. My initial learning efforts probably will never be published – they are pretty much unfinishable. But I do have three finished pieces which remained unpublished because in those days there was no self-publishing except vanity press. Those I may very well resurrect if I live long enough. In my memory they aren’t so bad. They are somewhat Tolkienesque constructed world pieces. An example is my novelette The Blessing of Krozem available FREE on Smashwords.

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