When It’s Time To Move On And Abandon Your Novel
WHEN IT’S TIME TO MOVE ON AND ABANDON YOUR NOVEL
originally published July 9, 2015 in Prose
Leonardo Da Vinci said,“Art is never finished, only abandoned.” This is true for every short story I ever wrote, whether it was published, or not. The published pieces, upon subsequent reading months or years after the fact reveal things I would change today. And the rest – many, many of them – either failed to find a home, or I wasn’t able to finish them for a number of reasons, usually that I’d lost faith in the central premise the plot was built around and preferred to work on something new.
A novel can take a long time to write, usually at least a year. That’s a lot of time to have nothing come of it. However, I do believe that any time spent writing is worth it, regardless of the outcome, especially if you learn more not only about writing, but about yourself as a writer.
My first novel was called Pen’s Road. Penny Stillman, my main character, first appeared in a story called “Pinny and the Fat Girl,” published in 2008, and later in my first collection of stories, All The Roads That Lead From Home. When I wrote that story, I felt for the first time as though I could use more room to roam. I mention this because a number of people had wondered why I’d never attempted a novel before, and my answer was that stories were engaging enough. Stories still were, but all of a sudden I felt hemmed in. Penny and her family, along with her sidekick, Eunice, were people I could spend more time with, so made that initial story the first chapter, and rolled forward from there.
It wasn’t a bad novel, and I actually found a publisher for it, but the publisher ran out of money, and that was that. Maybe it was a blessing in disguise, though at the time I really didn’t feel that way. There was a fair amount of fuming on my end, as I recall.
I thought of finding a new publisher, and to that end I went over the entire text – again. Here’s what I found. Penny, though near and dear to my heart, was actually a dud. She was descended from another character I wrote about for years, Nina. Nina will, I hope, be the subject of my third novel, and in doing so undergo a brave transformation from the depressed, down-trodden, and frankly boring person she always was. Penny, as her heir, suffered from the same degree of blah. Nothing makes her happy, nothing turns her on. I’m not knocking depression, believe me. It’s serious, and it’s bad. The good thing is that a depressed person in real life has recourse, one on the page has only her author to save her. And I just couldn’t save Penny, no matter how hard I tried, any more than I could save Nina from another tale of wondering why she didn’t have more in her life. I sent story after story about her to my mentor Mike Curtis, at The Atlantic.
Recently I dug out his response about the last Nina story I wrote for a long time:
“I worry a bit about this character, whose salient quality is a sort of unfocussed depression, combined (predictably) with passivitiy and high suspectiviity. She’s misfortune waiting to happen, and I question whether readers will invest in her troubles/prospects for very long. Maybe, as in a long-term sitcom, she should begin to fade a bit into the background, and be upstaged by someone who is more active on her own behalf.”
This was exactly the problem I found in Pen’s Road, because Penny, the protagonist, is exactly as Mike described her predecessor, Nina. Furthermore, Penny was, in fact, upstaged by Eunice, who acts in her own self-interest. If this dynamic didn’t work in a short story, how could it possibly work in a novel?
I had options, of course. One was to rewrite the novel with Eunice in the center, and Penny as the wan friend who comes to life with Eunice’s prodding and encouragement. Eunice would then not only be compelling all by herself – she was already full of spit and vinegar where any sort of injustice was concerned – but she’d become a hero as Penny got to the root of her issues and set herself free.
And here’s where I made a big mistake, because I thought that since I’d already invested so much time in Penny, I’d have her rise from her misery all by herself, with brave hard-won revelations and courage she’d never before possessed. Ultimately, though, I saw that it wasn’t going to fly, because it was all too convenient. I’d been lazy. I tried to cut corners.
By then I had another idea for a novel, something far larger in scope with four generations of one family spaning over seventy years. That become What Is Found, What Is Lost. The book had its challenges, to be sure, especially when it came to keeping all the many details and descriptions consistent over 80,000 words. The finished product was exactly the way I wanted it to be. I couldn’t be prouder.
Simply put, it’s time to abandon a novel that doesn’t work when you conceive of one that does.