A Novel Cannot Be Finished, Only Abandoned

Girl Painting

There is writing that is good and tickles the senses and soothes the heart and provokes the mind, and there is writing that is not so good. From my writing experience and from the books I’ve read and the interviews with authors I’ve listened to, first drafts tend to suffer from bad writing. Especially when the writer is inexperienced.

But with discipline, patience, and determination, you can go over your writing time and time again and improve it. That is what good writers do, frantic rewriting.

“What is written without effort is in general read without pleasure.” – Samuel Johnson

But you can’t go on rewriting forever. If you want to bring your story to life – to publish it – you need to stop at some point. Right now I feel that I could rewrite Oliver Colors’ biography endlessly and with each new draft improve it – rewording sentences, cutting adverbs, exchanging adjectives – but that is a selfish thing to do; it makes the writing better, but dooms Oliver to remain forever on the screen of my laptop, unknown to the world.

There is a point when the author must take a bow and retire from the stage and let the crowd applaud. Or hoot.

A novel is a condensed summary of a period in its author’s life. Unless autobiographical, it rarely records events exactly as they happened to its writer, but I believe it always captures the prevailing moods that he or she had at the time of writing, even if not overtly so. It’s a kaleidoscope of feelings.

“We write to taste life twice, in the moment and in retrospect.” ― Anaïs Nin

You can never finish a novel, but you can abandon it. When you’ve said the most important things you wanted to say and did it clearly, when you’re beginning to be drawn to another story, when your interest in your current novel starts to wane, when you’re bored rigid of rewriting, when you know a period in your life has ended and a new one is about to begin, that’s the right time to let go.

How much rewriting do you do?

98 thoughts on “A Novel Cannot Be Finished, Only Abandoned

  1. This is also a common problem in many art forms. I feel it the most in painting – when to stop? There is usually a very fine line between “just right” and that dreaded “overworked” feeling. And among many of my artist friends there is an untaught agreement that reworking an older “abandoned” piece is a kind of sacrilege. We must not fall into the trap that our initial ideas, no matter how genius, will be our last great offering. We have to convince ourselves that there is unending inspiration and talent flowing from us, so we can continually let go and keep moving.

    1. I would say that many, if not most, famous authors don’t actually reread their books after publishing them, except when they are on their book tours.

  2. Your post came at a good time for me. I have an unfinished novel … no, truly unfinished in that it does not yet have an ending. I know that is not what you are writing about here, yet your thoughts on endless rewriting remind me that I haven’t even gotten to that point with my last novel 🙂 I need to get to that point, otherwise it really will never be done!

  3. I change some things in my writing, but more often I leave the majority exactly the same. I write things how I feel them. If I worry so much about trying to get things perfect, I can never be satisfied. But I always find beauty within the words that were written from the soul.

      1. The soul does not reside specifically in one’s head or heart. It’s deeper than that; your head and your heart are just working parts of your soul, not the dwelling place. The soul amazes me 🙂

  4. You sound much better then from the time I started following your blog. I hope that trend continues for you and yours.

  5. A lot. Depending. I’ve never written a novel. But I edit everything I write—and write and rewrite endings and beginnings—until they are as good as I can get them at the time. I almost never post anything immediately after writing it, especially if it is late at night. It is much better to read things with fresh eyes… so that I can “kill them” again. Once they are good and dead, then yes, I abandon them. The world will be my judge.

  6. Well said time to set Oliver Colors free to the public! I can’t tell you how long I laughed at your phrase “That is what all writers do, frantic rewrites.” That really hit the nail on the head, seems like all I do these days is erase and start again. Thanks for sharing.

  7. I’m amazed how often I read your blog,and find I’ve also posted something along the same lines.
    revision is re-visioning-ing your first drafts.

  8. I’ve been rewriting a lot something that I’ve been working for the past six months. Except for this blog, I have never written or published something. I think I’m just afraid of doing it, even when I really want to do it. As always, great post!

  9. No matter the art form, the work is in the revising. I think we’re all pretty much agreed on that. I don’t “like” doing it but I really feel good when it’s done.

    By the way, Vincent, where’s my “invisible gift”?

    1. Soon Ksenia, soon!

      By the way, will you please give me your email address? If it’s not too much trouble, maybe you can send it via the contact session. I must discuss with you matters of literary consequence. 🙂

  10. For my short stories I do two drafts, send it to my writer’s group and then, based upon what they thought of it, do another draft or fix a few things here and there. The last story I submitted all I did was add an extra sentence to the end of the story. Novels are another thing entirely. I feel like my sister-in-law and I will never finish our novel with as much work as we need to do to it.

      1. Yeah. We were roommates when we did the first draft. I worked in the morning so she would write then and when I came home and she went to work I would write. It was exciting because everyday at work I wondered what our character was getting himself into. I knew when I got home there would be a couple paragraphs or a couple pages waiting for me.

  11. I have this issue, i’ve been obsessed with my character Zackariah Locke for years now .Until recently, my interest in him was definately deteriorating. Yesterday I realised that I want to rewrite his world just once more, before closing the curtains on him.

  12. “A novel is a condensed summary of a period in its author’s life. Unless autobiographical, it rarely records events exactly as they happened to its writer, but I believe it always captures the prevailing moods that he or she had at the time of writing, even if not overtly so.”

    Interesting thought. 🙂 Unrelatedly, your blog makes me think of Nabokov and his butterflies.

  13. ” When you’ve said the most important things you wanted to say and did it clearly, when you’re beginning to be drawn to another story, when your interest in your current novel starts to wane, when you’re bored rigid of rewriting, when you know a period in your life has ended and a new one is about to begin, that’s the right time to let go. ”

    Although not exactly in the context that you mentioned, the above lines seems to make immense sense to me. A particular phase of my life seems to be ending…but I don’t want to let go…

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