Recently I critiqued two unpublished novels. Their authors wanted to know whether they should give up or not.
There’s no clear cut answer to that question. Some great novels had unspeakably bad early drafts.1 Some that their author never feels happy with, and are never published, have pretty good early drafts. Who am I to say this particular novel has no hope of one day being excellent?
I have novels started years ago I’ve never managed to get into a publishable state. But who knows? Some day I might. I never give up on a novel. I just kind of abandon them for, um, a while. Sometimes a really long while.
It’s also true that I rarely go back to these abandoned novels. There’s always a newer, more shiny novel to write.
Other writers do go back to them. I know someone who only got an agent after they pulled out a long forgotten novel, rewrote it, and sent that out. It was exactly what the agent they most wanted was looking for.
However, I would definitely suggest you give up on a novel (however temporarily) if you’ve been writing and rewriting it for years. Particularly if it’s the only novel you’ve ever written. It’s more than past time to write a new one. Who knows maybe in the process of writing a second novel you’ll figure out what was wrong with the first one?
Almost every novelist I know has given up on a novel.2 The important thing to remember is that writing that novel was not a waste. What you learned writing the abandoned novel will help with the next one. Bigger than that: YOU WROTE A NOVEL. You did it once so odds are good you can do it again.
Sadly, the lessons learnt from writing the previous novels don’t always directly apply to the next novel. Usually the lessons are more of a what-not-to-do kind of a thing. You’ve learned not to write novels with only one character locked in an empty room. Maybe you’ve learned about creating believable characters, but sadly not much about world building or setting, because you only had that one empty room to describe.3
Each novel tends to present different problems.4 They do this in order to keep things interesting. Thanks, novels.
So, yes, feel free to give up on a novel. But only once you have a complete draft.
If you’ve never finished a novel before, no matter how much you hate it, no matter how convinced you are that it will never work, you need to see it through to a complete draft. Especially if you’ve never completed a draft before.5 Scott has some cogent words to say on the necessity of writing endings as well as beginnings and middles.
It’s also good to keep trying to make a novel work. I know too many (mostly) unpublished novelists who don’t rewrite. Instead of continuing to work on the newly completed draft to make it work they move on to a brand new novel. The problem with doing that is rewriting requires a different set of skills from first drafting. You’ll never write a good novel if you can’t stand to work past that initial draft.
“But I don’t know how to rewrite!” I hear you cry.
For your convenience I have written this handy guide to rewriting. You’re welcome.
Whatever decision you make it’s going to be okay.
TL;DR There is no definitive answer on whether you should give up on your novel or not. It all depends.
- None of these novels were unspeakably bad. [↩]
- Or two, or twenty, or a hundred. [↩]
- There are many first novels sent in the one room with hardly andy characters that don’t go anywhere. Funny that. About the only successful novel set in one room I can think of is Emma Emma Donoghue’s Room, which totally pulls it off. But then not the entire novel is set in the room. [↩]
- Unless you’re one of those writers who writes the same book over and over again. If that one book is super popular. Congrats! You are a sure-fire commercial success. We readers love authors who are consistent and don’t freak us out by writing totally different books in completely different genres. [↩]
- Once you’ve finished a bunch of novels you’ll have a better sense of whether a novel isn’t going anywhere and can put it aside if it’s really not working. [↩]