Are You Starting New Writing Projects to Avoid Finishing Old Ones?

Image of a modern fountain pen writing in curs...
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If you haven’t been reading Ava Jae’s blog, this is a great time to start. Ava posted a great piece on what it takes to finish writing your novel, a struggle every novelist knows all too well.

One passage in particular from Ava’s piece stuck out to me:

You need to understand that if you really want to be a writer, you’ll need to go through this process many many times. And sometimes you’ll get tired. And sometimes you’ll get bored. And sometimes you’ll wonder if you’re wasting your time with your current WIP and if you should start on something else or if you’ll really be able to survive a couple rounds of revision.

In the past, I’ve been rather infamous for starting new writing projects mid-stream. I’d start a story, get to the middle act, then find something new. I’d finish a draft, then let it sit while I started something else. As recently as this year, I’ve found myself vacillating between projects, trying to decide which one was “right,” starting new things, while finishing nothing. Eventually, all forward momentum ground to a halt while I waffled so hard you could have poured syrup on me and served me at iHop. For cannibals. Serving meat waffles. I used to play bass for the Meat Waffles. Look, nevermind.

A Problem of Perspective

Sometimes there are perfectly valid reasons for abandoning a writing project. Often there are perfectly valid reasons for swapping that project out for a new one. But if you find yourself creatively stalled while you try to juggle two or more projects in the air, maybe it’s time to stop and think about why you’re juggling and not, you know, writing.

Finishing is Fear-Inducing

Finishing a novel can be scary as hell. Yes, there’s the rush of satisfaction and accomplishment you get from writing THE END, too often followed by crushing doubt and insecurity. Finishing closes a door. It makes a commitment. It says “okay, that’s the best I can do” — whereas shoving an unfinished piece of writing in a drawer says “well, maybe I can do better later.” And that’s perfectly valid, assuming later ever comes.

But an unfinished work can take on its own sort of romance, if we let it. A mediocre book is just a mediocre book, but an unfinished, unwritten work of unalloyed genius, well, that’s a joy forever, isn’t it? But if you’re serious about being a writer, I suspect you don’t want your body of work to consist entirely of imaginary books.

Starting is Sneaky

On the other hand, starting a new writing project is often its own kind of rush. It can become an addiction. A new project doesn’t have the plot snarls, impenetrable character motivations, structural issues, and glaring flaws of that work-in-progress. Sometimes, when we find ourselves facing a mountain of difficult work, it can be so much more appealing to just go build another mountain, convinced that Mount Totally-Awesome won’t face those same problems.

Maybe that’s the right decision. Maybe you get midway through a book and find out it’s truly unworkable — but maybe you’re just being lazy. In case no one’s told you (today), writing is hard work. Writing a novel can be a true-blue bitch-kitty. Abandon a story if you truly feel you must, but don’t do it to dodge the work.

Perfection is Persnickety

As writers, we thirst to have our writing soar, to transcend, to change lives. No one sets out to make a dull and mediocre book — we set out to make the best damn book we can write (or at least, I sure hope so). Facing down a book’s flaws can be nerve-wracking.

Sometimes it’s easier to put a book away, hoping that it will somehow sort itself out while it’s sitting in the drawer. You know, you’re sleeping soundly, and all of a sudden the little pages start coming to life, marching across your desk while Night on Bald Mountain plays and sentient fountain pens scrawl heartbreaking passages in flawless calligraphy. How’s that coming along for you? I can’t seem to get it working no matter how much peyote I take.

Nothing’s perfect. Your novel’s going to have flaws. And ultimately, that’s for the best. Because if it didn’t, that’d mean you’re either as good a writer as you’re ever going to get, or it’s all downhill from here. And who wants that? Embrace imperfection. Face it. Accept it. Do the best work you can.

Leave that unfinished book in the drawer for awhile if you need to, but do so with the knowledge that its problems will still be right there when you return.

Resist the Resistance

Not all works-in-progress are reedeemable. Some deserve to be abandoned. Maybe they’re flawed in ways too big to fix (or ignore). Maybe a better idea really has come along. Maybe you’ve decided you don’t want to tell that particular story after all. These are all fine and good. If you’re going to abandon an existing project for a new one, just make sure you’re doing it for the right reasons.

Don’t let fear stand between you and finishing.


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10 Replies to “Are You Starting New Writing Projects to Avoid Finishing Old Ones?”

  1. Meat waffles? I think that’s the image of the day.

    I’m glad you responded to my comment. I haven’t been to your blog in a while, and your comment prompted a visit. 🙂

  2. Firstly, thank you so much for the kind words and link. You’re fantastic.

    Secondly, I’ve said it before and I’ll probably say it again, but you are 100% right. Finishing a novel is terrifying, especially because writers as a whole tend to love the ability to go back and fix something if needed (a reason, I think, so many of us love the “edit” function available in many commenting systems…and use it frequently). Accepting that you’ve completed something and no, it’s not perfect, but it doesn’t need to be is hugely important.

    In the end, you summed it up perfectly with, “If you’re going to abandon an existing project for a new one, just make sure you’re doing it for the right reasons.” Couldn’t have said it any better.

  3. Why yes I am! Great post. This was quite a wake up call for me.

    It’s very interesting that you compared it to a romance. The analogy fits perfectly. There’s a honeymoon period in the beginning and it’s easy to abandon the project after that wears off. Finishing it can be scary and it can be hard work, and you’ve started to discover the project’s flaws. If it’s special, then pushing through is more than worth it.

    I need to stop being so fickle and promiscuous with my projects if I ever want to finish one.

  4. Oh, the waffle imagery was priceles. I’m hungry now but it was still priceless.
    But more importantly, thank you. This was something I needed to hear. Im still not sure what I need to do about the rewrite I’m staring in the face but it’s true, that rewrite has me doing all sorts of OTHER things.

    When I wrote my first novel, I remember now, I could not finish it. I knew the end but I couldn’t put it down. That is, until I wrote the story clear into the second book and then lopped it off. Voila.. ending. Well sort of. But that’s a rewrite for another day! Thanks for the common sense and encouragement. As always, you rock.

  5. I used to think that starting a new project halfway through another would be like a shot in the arm, and that the reinvigorating energies gotten from a fresh start would be beneficial to both projects.

    How wrong I was. As it turned out, I only sapped the life out of both.

    “Not all works-in-progress are reedeemable,” you say. “Some deserve to be abandoned.” I hit my head on the wall a couple of times before I arrived at that simple truth. You’re tempted to see each of your stories as your little baby, and what parent would abandon their child?

    But they’re not babies, they’re milestones. What I now understand is that stories only feel like babies to a writer who hasn’t written enough.

  6. Great post! Definitely something to think about, considering the folder full of unfinished short stories that sits on my desktop. With novels, especially with NaNoWriMo, I’ve gotten better at finishing those. Whether they’re “usable” is something else….

    Right now, I’m working on a novel. I had about a week or so hiatus, where I also resisted starting something else (which I only have vaguely in mind this point anyway). I’m glad I did; last night and tonight, I’ve covered some good ground in the current Work in Progress.

  7. “an unfinished work can take on its own sort of romance”
    That’s it in a nutshell for me. Entering my quote collection (with attribution!) immediately.

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