Sunday, March 13, 2011


How do you know whether what you've written is worth anything? Brianna raises this question in her previous post "When You Can't Tell Anymore." At what point do doubts overcome your hopes? When do you kill your words and abandon a manuscript?

In "Burn Before Reading," (NY Times Book Review, 3/6) Dan Kois gets answers from a few famous authors. Chang-rae Lee threw out two year's work on an unfinished novel he now calls "bombastic" and "unfunny." Is this unusual?
After over five years of work, Michael Chabon abandoned his second novel. (Can't imagine the despair and frustration!) John Updike, Truman Capote, Harper Lee, Saul Bellow, Richard Price, Stephenie Meyer - all killed novels for various reasons. Ironically, Harper Lee abandoned a second novel after the success of TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD.

Most often, however, the killing takes place because the writer realizes the book just isn't working. That's when what Chabon calls the "Hand of Dread" should be heeded.

Yes, I've killed manuscripts. We all have. It takes courage to grasp the "Hand of Dread" and abandon our idea. But is it total disaster city? Maybe not. Perhaps there's something - a description, a figure of speech, a character quirk - that can be recycled. Waste not!
Have you ever been lucky enough to reuse material from an abandoned manuscript?


  1. The male MC in my latest wip began as a secondary character in a novel I was a hundred pages into then abandoned. While I was writing that other novel he kept monopolizing the scenes, I found I wanted to know more about him - in that other novel I'd sort of cast him as a bit of a throw-away jerk, but when I really got to know him, I realized I kinda/sorta liked him a lot and wanted to give him his own novel...weird!

    And yes, I've taken things from abandoned (and collecting dust) novels...I'd call that recycling!

  2. I've abandoned projects - a certain YA set on a mesa top in New Mexico in 1944 should ring familiar to the Paper Waiters. It's hard when, as Brianna noted in her last post, a similar, well-done book hits the market while you're still in the midst of creation. It took the wind out of my sails for sure. That's not to say that just because a project has been done before it can't be done again - as the vampire craze proves. But sometimes, the situation is too unique, to be done again without a gap of several years.

    I've also got all those completed stories that never went anywhere that I need to pull out of the drawer and start anew.

  3. I have such a hard time killing manuscripts, and there are a couple that fit that category. I keep them in a drawer and pull them out occasionally to do some tweaking. I do not know when to pull the plug.

  4. I've yet to kill an entire manuscript, but I do have some 1000-5000 word starts that may or may not be finished some day.

  5. Robin, you're a recycling genius and I bet he's a great character.

    Meg, We have each had projects die because of timing - my Lincoln book and your New Mexico one. Very frustrating!

    MG, But it's HARD to kill something you've worked hard on.

    J.A., I bet there are some excellent snippets hiding in those abandoned beginnings.

  6. I just killed a whole character - even though she was dead already.

    Sometimes it's refreshing.

  7. I abandoned my very first attempt at a chapter book. I worked at it slowly forever before I abandoned it and moved on. I had learned so much by that point that it was much easier to start fresh with a new manuscript than to try to correct all the problems in my earliest efforts.

    Then a few years later, I started an easy reader (which I just turned into a picture book manuscript). The premise is the same as that original manuscript, and it even has one of my favorite scenes. But the main character is completely different-- which I hope makes it a lot more intriguing. And, of course, it's a lot shorter. (One of the faults of my original draft was that it was way too wordy. :o) )

  8. I didn't exactly abanndon my first two MG novels so much as I scrapped them for parts. There are at least two characters that have moved on to other works. And others I will never be able to abandon entirely.

    I've shelved my first YA after the second draft, because a Magnificent Brilliant Idea turned out to be the same as a thousand other YA writers. Ah well. There's always another blank page to fill :)

  9. I have at least as many abandoned mss. as I have published books.

  10. Brianna, Lily and Marcia, Yes, it's amazing how manuscripts are abandoned and yet kept around. You never know when you're going to need a spare part!

    Abandoned manuscripts also provide a history that illustrates a trail of improvement.

    Did I really write THAT?