Last week I wrote about ‘completion fear’ and was then asked if I’d ever thought it worthwhile letting go of a manuscript. The person asking was someone I’ve never met, except virtually. She did one of my short courses some years ago and has been on my Masterclass twice. The first time she wrote a novel called Suitcase of Memory which Kwela will publish in May next year. Her name is A’Eysha Kassiem.
In a discussion on the Masterclass she said that she’d abandoned a number of manuscripts – several times ‘Suitcase’ was one of them. Fortunately she kept on going back to it.
Her question: is there a point where a manuscript should be abandoned?
Lots of writers think there is and the list includes names such as Jennifer Egan, Richard Price, Stephanie Meyer, Evelyn Waugh, John Updike.
In a sense I abandoned five novels. I did finish each one of them but gut feel told me they were no good and so I kept moving on to the next one until right at the end of number five a character appeared and I knew, just knew, that this was what I’d been waiting for. His name was Captain Nunes and he featured in my first published novel, The Powers That Be.
Four novels later I started a book that was to go nowhere. I was in Berlin on a DAAD writer’s residency. That meant no financial worries for a year. At year’s end I had a 100,000-word manuscript. It was a saga spanning two centuries. I battled with it for the next three years by which time it had become a 60,000-word manuscript. And at that point I abandoned it.
Back to the question: is there a moment when abandoning a manuscript is a good thing? There is. But there is no tick list of elements that can help you make this decision. As with so much in the writing life, it comes down to gut feel, instinct, an epiphany, a weariness with the world you’ve created and the characters that live in it.
If you are writing because that’s what you do each day and you’ve lost that ‘what’s going to happen next?’ excitement then maybe it’s time to put that project aside. You can keep on slogging away but the words will be dead.
If you end up in a complete tangle with no idea of how to structure the story – my problem with that saga – then shelve it. Move on. You can always go back, as A’Eysha did.
The odd thing is that letting go often frees you up to write, and the next book might bring with it a whole new world.
After abandoning the saga I felt I had the freedom to try something new, something completely different. I turned to crime. Okay, there had been a fair amount of crime in my books up to then, but this was genre crime. Suddenly the excitement was back. A character from my third abandoned novel last heard of twenty-five years previously, stepped up. And then in walked a breath of fresh air called Sheemina February. She had traces of a character from the saga in her.
The thing is you just never can tell when the abandoned will come calling. Sometimes letting go of a manuscript can be the best thing you’ve ever done.
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