When You Shouldn’t Finish What You Started

By Katriena Knights

One of the cardinal rules of being a writer is to finish what you start. After all, if you don’t finish those stories, you won’t have anything to submit or publish, right? Right. But there are times when it’s best not to finish or revisit an unfinished or unpolished piece. And I’m not talking about work that’s sub-par, like the science fiction/anthropomorphic animal romance you wrote in sixth grade (or last week).

Yes, if you find something you wrote that just isn’t up to your current standards, it’s allowable to let it go by the wayside. Sometimes work just isn’t salvageable. But what if the story is salvageable? Should you always go do that salvage work and get the story out there on submissions?

I think the answer to this is no. Not always. There are legitimate reasons not to revisit a piece, even if you think you could bring it up to your current standards, and even if you think there would be a market for it if you did. Sometimes stories take us places we don’t want to go—back to the previous “us,” and into a state of mind that isn’t profitable to revisit. I don’t think that’s good for the author, the art, or for anyone, for that matter.

It’s probably easier to provide an example than to try to explain. A few years ago, I wrote a book in which an estranged couple reunited. It ended up published at Ellora’s Cave, where it made some money, and eventually the rights reverted to me. I decided to market it as a reprint.

The first place I submitted it to was interested, but they asked for some pretty extensive rewrites. I didn’t have a problem with the changes, per se, but as I started working on incorporating them, I noticed my mood getting weird. I had mild panic attacks thinking about the changes, and actually trying to work on them sent me around in circles. It was like I couldn’t get a handle on the book. Something in me just didn’t want to.

It finally hit me that working on this particular book was taking me back to the place where I was when I wrote it, then piling on the baggage I’d accumulated since then. When I originally wrote the book, I was married. Having a nearly divorced couple get back together seemed romantic. But by the time I got to these new rewrites, I was divorced, living on my own, and still trying to figure myself out. Going back to where I was when I wrote the book required getting into my own head when it was in a very different place. It also required getting into the head of a character whose outlook was now very different from mine.

Finally, after dithering for a while, I decided not to do the rewrites. Not because they didn’t have merit, but because I didn’t like the way I was reacting to diving back into that book. I shopped it around a bit more and found another publisher. This time, they wanted the book as it was, and I contracted it there.

The problem with this book wasn’t the quality of the writing, or the story, or anything else that might make you want to toss aside an older draft. The problem was that it just wasn’t “me” anymore. Attempting those rewrites was mucking with my head. It wasn’t good for me, and I didn’t like where I had to go to engage with the manuscript.

I think this kind of evaluation is just as important as assessing an old manuscript based on its quality. A story could be solid and well-written, but if it just feels bad for your mental health to dig back into it, it’s okay to let it go. It might be that if you come back later, your headspace will allow you to work with it. Or maybe it won’t. Maybe it’s a story that you needed to write then, but need not to write now. And that’s okay. The story you do need to write now, the one that more accurately reflects the you of today, is there, too. Give it your attention instead.

5 thoughts on “When You Shouldn’t Finish What You Started

  1. Patricia Stoltey

    I have a couple of old manuscripts on my shelf, Katriena, and I keep wondering if I might go back and re-work them someday. Maybe it means something that I never quite get there before another new idea steals my attention. For whatever reason, those two first drafts may someday end up in the shredder.

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  2. Mari Christie

    I have half a manuscript written as the sequel to the best book I have ever written. I just wasn’t finished with the characters when I finished the book. However, I was (apparently) finished with the story. ;-) It may, eventually, become a whole new book in a different genre with different characters, but setting it aside was really the only option to achieve any potential use later, which may or may not come to fruition. In the same vein, I have a half-finished blog post on abandoning manuscripts that I am now inspired to complete.

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  3. glenperk

    Katriena, I’m in this exact position right now. I have received the rights back on my three published short stories. I want to fix my first published one and release it myself. But when I started going through it, I noticed a huge flaw in the story, which will need an entirely new ending. I’m excited and reserved about doing it.

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  4. Arlee Bird

    Since I don’t have anything published I think anything from my past is worth revisiting. I’ve got tons of material that’s been started and left to languish. I can understand the “ti’s not me” philosophy because most of this old stuff of mine is no longer part of my mindset, but that’s not to say I couldn’t still use it someday and rework it to fit my mindset as it is now.

    Lee
    Tossing It Out

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  5. Katriena Knights

    I think what I’m trying to get at is that there are a lot of reasons to quit a manuscript, or completely retool it from scratch, and some of those reasons might not make sense to other people, but they’re still good reasons and you shouldn’t feel bad about it if you make that decision.

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