Setting a Project Aside

Every writer I know has faced this decision. When is it time to put a project aside? Sometimes the project has become a long, hard uphill climb with no end in sight. Or maybe a new project popped up and demanded attention. So, when should we put a project aside?

I am about 46,000 words into a novel. I have the ending mapped out. I know where the story is going. I know more or less how my characters are going to get to the ending. I estimated another 30,000 words to wrap this thing up. Then I started writing a “short story” that is now over 15,000 words and is demanding a promotion from short story to novel. My goal was to complete the novel before NaNoWriMo. But that was before I made the decision to switch my focus to the new project.

What happened here is I lost my enthusiasm for the project because I was so excited about the new story. This new project demanded my attention. At other times,  I get bored with a project. I have to be careful of this because laziness sometimes feels an awful lot like boredom. Maybe there’s an issue with the plot or my characters that I need to fix. I’m being lazy about solving the problem, so I convince myself I’m bored with the project as an excuse to move on to something new and different. In other words, when the going gets tough, am I just looking for something else to do?

I have also put projects aside because it had become such a huge, hot, smelly mess. All those tangled plot threads, and I couldn’t hack my way out with a machete. These are the projects that look a lot better with a little time and space.

I never delete my work, even the stuff I have deemed irreversibly crappy. No matter how bad it seems, if I just let the project hibernate for a while and focus on something else, I can come back at a later time with renewed energy and fresh eyes. Sometimes I scrap most of it, while keeping the best bits for use somewhere else. More often, I am able to revise my way out of the word-jungle and I’m back on track.

For me, the decision to put a project aside can’t be made lightly. I fight an ongoing war against my own laziness, tendency to procrastinate, and chronic inability to finish things (I have ADD, which doesn’t help). I have to honestly evaluate why I want to set the project aside. And if I do, I have to write myself detailed notes about why I stopped working on the project. I also have to leave myself at least a partial outline of what I see happening for the rest of the story. To be completely honest, sometimes doing this work to put a project into hibernation revs up my enthusiasm for the project again.

Letting a project hibernate for a while can be very useful. The first draft of my recently completed novel sat on my computer for more than a year before I got back to it. During that time, I did some work on a number of other projects. When I returned to this novel, I was able to fix plot holes, strengthen my characters, and finish the story.

Before you set a project aside, consider why you want to do that. If you think the story is crap, give it to a trusted reader to get some feedback. If you’re bored, what do you want to do instead? If the project is a big hot mess, what do you have to do to fix it? If you have another project demanding attention, is that project worth setting aside considerable work?