On trying, and failing, to abandon a novel

I have a novel I’ve been working on for a while (if a while actually means forever) that involves family, crime, love, sex, despair, murder, drugs, and … Proust. My character is struggling to write a doomed essay about him and keeps failing, due to all kinds of bad behavior.

I’ve tried many times to get her to give up on this essay, even to the point of thinking I should just throw this novel away altogether. I guess my fear is that people will see Proust and experience a violent lack of interest. If I didn’t love Proust the way I do, I might see this in a review or on a book jacket and probably think “what a load of pretentious horseshit.”

That aside, just mentioning him creates an almost intolerable comparison between my rather lightweight novel, consisting of hi-jinks and a few desperate jokes, and the great 20th century masterpiece that is In Search of Lost Time. In short, I think my book is doomed.

Just recently, the New York Times Book Review ran an endpaper essay about aborted novels. Some novels simply can’t be fixed and need to be abandoned, and in the article a bunch of prominent authors contributed anecdotes about the bad novels they had given up on. I read this at a vulnerable time when I really thought I had mucked things up with this book badly enough – having put all my favorite things in there only to come up with a book that would appeal to an audience of one – that I should just stop.

And I really thought about stopping, moving on. But I’ve tried to stop and kill it so many (many!) times, and each time it’s re-animated and come lurching after me, haunting my thoughts. So instead of trying to kill it, I re-read it, and read an earlier draft (which sometimes has more energy), and I decided to make another try.

I hope I am not stuck in a lifetime loop of abandoning and then retrieving this story. But if I am, I’m not sure if there’s much I can do about it. By this point it’s become a strange companion, something that, just by virtue of being in my life over so long, has taken on shape and density – almost like a person I keep running into every so often. In its own way, it’s a comforting presence. And maybe, even if I never finish or publish it, I can simply enjoy it for being there.


  1. says

    Hi Heather,

    It’s been awhile since the SCBWI conference in Oct where we met!

    Instead of abandoning the novel altogether, perhaps you can just put it down for awhile, and revisit it later on when you can look at it through fresh lenses. Maybe all you need to do is change is the pov or take out a character who looks pretty in print, but doesn’t help you move the plot forward. (What I recently did with my YA manuscript)

    Your story sounds scandalicious (and I love scandal in fiction) so if you decide to abandon your novel, perhaps you can still hold onto all the juicy passages for a different manuscript.

  2. Heather says

    Hi Cynthia, that’s such great advice, and kind of what I’ve been trying to do. Taking breaks really helps. And it’s kind of fun to think of what I could do with all the dead “darlings” I’ve had to kill in this thing. Good luck with your ms, and maybe see you in October if you head to the Mills conference again.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *