Haunted By the Book I Never Finished Writing

Did I abandon them? Did I fail?

In 2015, I wrote about 60,000 words of a novel I thought would be “the one.”

Over the next three years, I wrote about 15,000 more words of that same novel. I was in it for the long haul, and I figured all those years would eventually pay off.

But at the end of 2018, I realized that I had spent months struggling through one sentence of that book at a time. I dreaded opening it. Every day I would force myself to keep working on it, inching closer and closer to the finish line, but never quite getting there.

Finally, I decided it was time to let it go. Not just for a little while, not “until I figured out what I wanted it to be,” but forever. I felt as if the story, the characters, everything about the novel was holding me down. I wanted to desperately to free myself from that miserable place. I wanted so much to just move on.

And yet, when I stopped working on it, I felt anything BUT free. I did not feel relieved, I was not glad that I had left it alone. I felt guilty, for a very long time.

The longer you spend on a story, the more attached you often become to it. It’s why many writers are never able to move on from their “first loves.” They continue working on the same story year after year, rewriting it, undoing and redoing it, refusing to let go of the familiar. Refusing to wave goodbye to the past.

I did not want to be that person, and I definitely knew there were ideas and projects more worth my time than a story I had been stuck on for so long. But these characters, this story, it meant to much to me. I felt that no longer working on the novel meant I was abandoning a group of close friends for something “better.” I never finished the story. Those imaginary people never got the ending they deserved.

Even worse, I felt like I had given up. Failed, even. Had I just wasted three years of my life working on a book that would never become anything more than an unfinished draft on my hard drive?

I should have just finished it, I kept telling myself as I fought the urge to open that document again. I should have just finished it and called it done so I could say I wrote a book even if I never look at it again.

But what, honestly, would have been the point of that?

While I’m very quick to acknowledge that pushing yourself through a difficult writing session is both necessary and beneficial, I don’t think it’s beneficial at all to write something just for the sake of finishing it when you have zero interest in doing so.

If I would have finished that book, I would have dragged my feet the whole length — and not in a good way. My writing would have been lazy and unfocused and the book wouldn’t have gotten the ending it deserved. I may have even started to resent the story, despite the fact that it was one that meant a lot to me and one that I am still glad I mostly finished telling.

When you’re writing, there is always something to be learned or gained from the experience, whether you realize those things are happening or not. I wasn’t learning anything. I had nothing to gain. The opportunity I’d had to complete the story while it was still fresh and emotionally raw in my mind and heart had passed. It was time to move on. I didn’t want to, and I was sad about it for a while. But somewhere, deep down, I knew it was time to say goodbye. Sometimes, it’s a feeling you just have. You just know you’re ready to move on.

There comes a point where you’re going to realize you have been working on the same thing for so long that you have since outgrown it. Or perhaps it’s as simple as you’ve lost interest in it and have already begun moving on. There will be projects you try to go back to and just can’t get in the right headspace to do so.

And do you know what? This isn’t just completely normal. It is also completely OKAY.

I’ve written it many times on this blog and in other places, but I have no problem repeating it: Nothing that you write is ever a waste of effort or time. Nothing. Not even the two sentences of that book you started and just gave up on. And definitely not the 75,000-word novel that you almost completed but couldn’t quite manage to finish, whatever your reasons may have been.

Everything you have ever written has mattered. Everything you have ever written has influenced your work and your future as a writer in some way. It’s not usually easy to pinpoint exactly how, but it’s a complete misconception that writing doesn’t count unless you finish, edit, or publish something. OF COURSE IT COUNTS! You wrote it! Why does it matter who sees it and who doesn’t? You made words happen. IT COUNTS.

I understand there are people who have a very difficult time finishing writing projects. As in, they have never finished one, because they always move on to something else before completing the previous task. I think this is a different problem entirely than the one I am describing here. Not being able to finish anything is a difficulty of focus and creative commitment. This, however, is a matter of giving something all you can give it, and paying attention to how you feel, and knowing when it is time to set something aside because its time in its active stage has come to an end.

There are days I still think about that story. Every once in a while I wonder what would happen if I went back and finished it one day. At this point, I’ve accepted the fact that I shouldn’t. It is an important part of my writing past and I will always appreciate the role it played in my earlier writing journey. But I have moved on, and it’s important to keep my focus on the stories I am telling now.

It’s a good memory. It doesn’t haunt me so much now. I wish that I could have finished it, and shown that story to the world. But it wasn’t meant to be. I learned what I had to from it. I grew because of it. And now I can look back and see how far I have come since then. And that is what makes the unfinished project worth each of those 75,000 never to be seen again words.

Meg is the creator of Novelty Revisions, dedicated to helping writers put their ideas into words. She is a staff writer with The Cheat Sheet, a freelance editor and writer, and a 10-time NaNoWriMo winner. Follow Meg on Twitter for tweets about writing, food and nerdy things.

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6 thoughts on “Haunted By the Book I Never Finished Writing

  1. A big YES to letting go, when it’s just not working. But it is difficult, isn’t it–feels like getting a divorce from characters you walked alongside for so long. But imagine trying to then sell a novel you just weren’t into–that would be painful!

  2. If you had finished that story, readers would have picked up on your resentment and unhappiness even if you were unaware of those emotions slipping down between the words. And who knows, some day there may come a bit of inspiration that unlocks the problem child. I had one sit for almost fifteen years before I realized what was needed. I can’t just go back and edit that one though. It will have to be completely rewritten; new characters, everything. The only thing that will remain will be the setting and the premise. And it will be a much better story for gestating so long.

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