This weekend, I am in mourning.
Time of birth had been somewhere in the spring of 2007; the time of death was around 3 o’clock in the afternoon, July 26th 2012 while hunched over my much-dog eared and highlighted copy of Jane Austen for Dummies.
Yes, that was the moment that I realized that the manuscript I had been working on for nearly five years was dead. And just like for every other death I’ve had the misfortune of experiencing, the swift realization was followed by an even swifter sucker punch to the gut.
That was it. It was over.
I curled over the book, pressed my forehead against the spine, and cried.
Because this manuscript? This novel I’d written and was fact-checking with Dummies? That manuscript was unsalvageable.
Well, this book was meant to be one of those kinds of books that is a revisionist history without changing any history whatsoever. The steel frame of 100% historical accurate events was the mold, and the story itself was melted plastic that I had pushed through the cracks to ooze out the bottom. It was meant to be one of those books that you read for the fictional story, and then when looked up the historical persons and events, realized it was completely plausible that the story had happened, even if there was time travel and science fiction.
Only the frame, I realized, was the wrong shape. I had messed up somewhere four years ago, messed up again on both research trips to England; I had gotten one itty bitty number wrong (1805 instead of 1804) and it had shattered the plastic of my story. There was no way to take the steel frame away and reposition the plastic segments without cracking the whole book apart.
The book was dead.
Now, before you try to tell me that there’s always a way to shift things and muddle, please understand that I filled a whole notebook and several hours worth of conversations with friends and fellow writers. And there are cheats, there are always cheats, but I didn’t want to cheat.
The whole point of this book is that there weren’t going to be any cheats. It was going to be all right and plausible and yet completely fantastic and impossible.
So getting this one thing wrong, this one major thing, completely destroyed the rest of the novel. The time line was thrown entirely out of whack, and no matter how much tetris or jenga I play with the plot, I cannot make the shattered pieces of plastic fit the frame any more.
This was especially hurtful and frustrating to me as I had already had a discussion with my agent about the book and he had said that while it was a fine manuscript, he wasn’t interested in shopping it. I wasn’t trying to revise it to make him change his mind, but because I thought the story was still worth fighting for, still worth improving, and that if the book was in great shape I could put it away for a while until someone asked me if I had a romance novel to shop.
I had also mentioned it to some important folks in NYC whose interest had been piqued, so I felt like I was not only witnessing the death of my novel, but that I was in some way betraying the confidence these other people had in my work. That I had let them down.
That, I think, was the worst part of it of all.
I felt like a miserable, utter failure. I still do, a little.
So what now? What does one do now, when something you’ve worked so hard on suddenly becomes non-viable? How do you, as an author, handle actually giving up on a story?
The first thing I did was open a very good bottle of wine, sit out on my deck, and brood. I filled notebooks with possible cheats, but disliked every single one of them. I called my ever faithful beta reader and hashed it out with her, and we came to the same conclusion: unsalvageable. I spoke to an author friend: unsalvageable.
I am frankly still flailing emotionally. I had two very rough nights, one filled with horrendous nightmares about how none of the books I ever produce again will be good and that I’ve used up my life’s allotment of ideas.
The only way, it seemed, to be able to get over this decision to bury the book was to treat it like an actual person who had passed away. After all, we writers really do emotionally connect with our novels as if they were people. We cherish the characters and the worlds, we take pride in the moments and fight with the errors. We spend years thinking about, thinking through, thinking around our books.
Books take up real estate – emotionally, mentally, physically.
To have to give up a book is, very much, no different from having to safe farewell forever to a loved one.
To that end, here is the Kubler-Ross model of the Five Stages of Grief:
Denial – like me, you’ll probably be stunned and horrified when you realize that this book is done. It is gone, and not in a good way, where it’s heading off to an agent or editor. It will never be read, it will never be cherished, and it will never leave your home. You’ll rage, you’ll wail, you’ll have a very tough few nights.
Anger – and then you’ll be mad. Angry that you screwed up the research so very badly, angry at your beta readers when they told you that it was a good book (even though it’s not their fault that it’s not working, and they may have genuinely enjoyed it; that’s why it’s called irrational anger), angry at the book for not being better, angry at the world for forcing you to give up.
Bargaining – then you’ll start to try to find away around it. Changing plot points, switching characters, telling the book from a different POV or starting period, anything, anything to not have to give up on it.
Depression – but of course, none of that will work. Because if it worked, then it wouldn’t be a dead book, would it? So you’ll cry. You’ll hurt. You’ll feel terrible and probably walk around like a zombie. People will say, “it’s just a book” and you’ll hate them a little bit for not understanding. It wasn’t a book, it was a tiny spark of life and you are the one who had to smother that flame.
Acceptance – In the end, it will suck and it will hurt, but you will come to the realization that putting the book away will be good for you and your career. The book just isn’t working, just isn’t good enough, and to focus on something that is working, you have to sacrifice this one. It will be okay. Your world didn’t end because you had to let go. It’s just fine. You will always hold a warm spot in your heart for that book, those characters, that world, and in the end, at least you hold it.
In the end, I’m sad to see this story get put away in the box under my bed labelled “morgue”. But I also feel lighter, because truthfully, this book wasn’t working. It never really was working. I got some fabulous feedback from some fantastic beta readers (James Bow among them; what a swell guy! Especially since he’s pretty much the antithesis of this book’s target demographic and apparently loved it.) but I never really could seem to get it to work.
The characters were never quite on (though I loved my version of Captain Francis Austen), the plot contrivances never quite natural enough. It was like the plastic fit, but not comfortably.
So what now? Now, the book goes away, possibly forever. Maybe in a few years I’ll dig the research out again and start from scratch, re-read the whole set of articles and texts that inspired the novel to begin with and try to make a go of writing a whole new book.
In the meantime, I will mine the corpse for great scenes, imagery, and lines to feed my new manuscripts. I started a brand new novel a few days ago, and I think I can use some of the scenes from the dead book in this one.
Possibly, if someone invites me to an appropriately-themed anthology, I will revive the concept as a short story.
For now, I will make my farewells and move on to other projects.
And who knows, perhaps, just perhaps in a few years, I might release the original novel as a freebie for a laugh. “It’s a good book,” I’ll say. “Shame that it’s dead. Enjoy the zombie goodness.”
I am still in a rough place. I am not over this book, not yet. I don’t know when I will be. But I know that it was a far braver, harder thing to do to acknowledge to myself that the book wasn’t working, couldn’t work, and to accept that and put it away. Far, far better than flogging a book that no one could ever accept or sell, a book that I insisted to myself, to my agent, to editors and publishers and the reading public was good when it wasn’t, it simply just wasn’t.
And it’s tough. And it sucks. But in the end, it will make you feel better, feel proud, and feel ready for the next hurdle of being a professional writer.
Words from Other Writers On Mourning Your Book:
I asked: How do you deal with realising your book is dead? When should you abandon a book?
Nikki Faith Fuller (@Myth_Girl): When you no longer feel like you *have* to do it. And it’s not an abandoning, but a letting to 🙂
August C. Bourré (@FishSauce): Never abandon anything forever. Bits can be used, or it can take a new shape, but don’t see that as abandoning.
Gethin Jones (@gethinmorgan): When it stops being fun!
Fingers Delaurus: Look at George Lucas. Ponder. THAT should motivate to lock the thing away when your editor says it’s done 🙂
Victoria De Capua Campbell: Take a holiday. Distance.
Adam Shaftoe: Strip it for short story fodder. Remember that this will not be the last thing you will ever write. Find a take away from the experience that will let you improve on the next project.
K.W. Ramsey (@KWRamsey): It’s never abandoned. It’s just put on the back burner until the answer appears or I die, whichever comes first
Gillian Leitch (@gilliandoctor): From the ashes something beautiful will come out- lost, but not forgotten, and lessons learned.
Rob St-Martin When opening the file (or notebook or whatever) doesn’t excite me, drains me dry just thinking about it, and I dread the sight of it, it’s time to stuff it in the archives and move on. Whatever good that can be salvaged from it will be, one day. Just not right away. Time will offer the emotional distance required to deal with it.
Derwin Mak Similar to what Rob says: when it isn’t fun to work on the story anymore. However, exhaustion doesn’t equal fun. On both my novels, there were times when I was exhausted, but I was still enjoying it. As to what to do with it later, parts of it can wind up in future stories.
For more posts on the business and craft of writing, search my Words for Writers tag.