This blog is an expanded response to a post today at Allison Winn Scotch's blog. (Link here: http://www.allisonwinn.com/ask-allison/2010/8/2/setting-aside-a-beloved-manuscript.html ) A writer asked Allison for some advice on when to give up on a manuscript.
This is what I believe: NO WRITING IS WASTED. If you decide you have to walk away, it's not like the manuscript and all its characters are dead and gone forever.
I didn't want to let go of my first-ever novel manuscript. I kept frantically revising to try and address every concern every reader raised, thinking just ONE MORE DRAFT would make it sing. After all, an agent said "there's much to admire", right? (I now recognize this as merely a polite softening of the rejection, not to be taken literally.)
Here was my moment of clarity about that manuscript: my trusted critique partner, having read the latest of umpteen versions noted in the margin, "Hmmm, physical violence? Really?" I'd been so desperate to make the story more exciting, the conflict more vivid to address these complaints, that I'd jumped the shark, so to speak. It just didn't make sense, in context.
That's when I pulled the plug.
I mean, let's say you built a table for the first time ever. And it's a little wobbly but you can fix that, so you plane down one of the legs to make it more stable. Only one leg is a little crooked so you have to take it off and reattach it. And then the finish didn't go on just right so you have to sand it down and do that part over. Even if you fix every single mistake, how great is that table going to look?
My first manuscript, by the way, was after years of time and space away from it turned into a long, literary short story and accepted in its first round of submissions to the Cimarron Review. See? Not wasted. All along, I was building new, better tables.
My second novel, THE LIFE YOU'VE IMAGINED, is in fact a vastly overhauled version of an earlier dead manuscript. To beat this table metaphor to death, I re-constructed a brand new table loosely based on the rickety one I'd built before. I never could have done that, however, if I hadn't moved on.
Naturally it's a personal decision. I've heard other writers tell of working on the same manuscript for ten years and in the end finally making it sing and landing a publishing deal.
But if you're afraid to move on to something new because you'll feel like a quitter, or you believe you are betraying your beloved characters, fear not. They can yet live again. Maybe it's time to clear out your workshop and start fresh with the lessons you've learned.