Can You Spend Too Long Drafting a Novel?

If you’ve ever attempted to write a novel or anything of that magnitude, you’ll know it ain’t easy. Creating is a process. And sometimes that process takes a long time. It can feel never-ending – a constant loop of recreation that never seems to satisfy you. You see the potential, but you just can’t seem to make it work. So you keep working at it, slowly carving away and reforming it into something that resembles that vision you had. But as many writers will tell you, it is entirely possible that you have spent too long on it.

Before I get into it I should probably do a bit of explaining. My current novel-in-progress, The Wolves of the Far North began as a last-minute idea that I took into NaNoWriMo 2014. I hadn’t figured out my process at this point, so I didn’t win. But I did go back to it the following summer to try again. And I failed. Again. The story wasn’t working, there were plot holes I couldn’t figure out and character arcs I just didn’t like. So after almost a year of working on it, I put it aside.

Fast forward to early 2018, when I realized that I had to pick a project to work towards publication. The novel I had been working on at the time was a blast to write but was too long to be considered for a debut. I needed something smaller in scope, and tighter in narrative. I knew one day I would come back to Far North, to patch up the problems and give it another go. So why not now? After several months of reacquainting myself with the story, going through all the old material and fleshing out a new outline I began writing the new draft. But that has not gone smoothly.

In spite of that, I’m not ready to abandon it. I recognize the struggle, both mentally and creatively, and the toll that this draft is taking. The obvious solution is to let it go – shelve the draft and move on. But this story has a special place in my heart, and I want to see it through.

Does this sound familiar? Are you, like me, struggling with an older project, or a draft you just can’t seem to put down? You spend years on a project – working and reworking it but you just aren’t satisfied with the result. Here are just some of the problems I’ve come across:

Bad Habits that Need Breaking

First of all, you spend so long on the story that old information and new information can easily get confused. The closer you are to a story, the harder it comes becomes to create a divide between the two. You become so familiar with older versions of the story that it becomes easy to slip back into thinking of the novel in that sense, with the older plots and details. It becomes a habit after all, and habits can be hard to break.

The Voice of a Different Writer

As time passes you become a different writer with different tastes and a new approach. You’ll grow – your skills improve, and you’ll discover your voice and that can create some dissonance between the writer who originally conceived of the story and the one that now exists, years later, struggling to reconcile the old with the new.

What it Was Versus What it Could Be

That bothersome plotline finally has a compelling solution. That overly simplistic character arc now has depth. When new pieces fall into place it can feel so rewarding, but sometimes they change the story. Change for the better, but sometimes it is so drastic that the old vision of the story is barely a shadow of the new one. Almost as if you are writing it from scratch. Now you have to distill the old information through this new filter, and it can be hard to let go of the things you enjoyed about the original concept. What the story was (or was heading towards) is different from what you want it to become now. Old ideas, no matter how good they were or how well they were written, no longer work, and that can be a bitter pill to swallow.

So now that I’ve outlined some of the problems that I know I’ve had (and maybe you have as well if you are reading this post). What you need now is a solution. What do you do when you think you have been working on the same project for too long?

This is a tough call. The time investment makes it that much harder to let go when something isn’t working. And that is precisely why I think time is the key here. Set a rigid deadline.An ultimatum, if you will. The reality is this: you can keep working on things endlessly. You will continue to grow and change as a creator and the story can continue to change to fit the new writer you have become. But at some point, you have to move on. If you’re really committed to making it work, you will find a way to get it done within that time frame. Otherwise, put it aside and spend all your time and creative energy on something new. Something less frustrating and hopefully more rewarding.

How long you can take to draft something you’ll have to learn by trial and error. There is no magical number that I can provide for how long you should spend. It’ll vary from writer to writer, project to project. A little infuriating if, like me, you’re frustrated and stuck, but I do know that a time limit is the best solution I can provide. I firmly believe it is better to move on than to continue working on a draft that isn’t cooperating. I also know how hard it is to move on, especially if you have convinced yourself that this draft is ‘the one’.

As I wrap up my own first draft, I’m going to give myself a substantial break (three to four months), and then I will have six months to edit that draft into something that I can say I am comfortable with. By that I mean there should only be small edits – no major developmental changes or rewrites. Something almost ready to query. After that, it’s time to move on, good feelings or no. As much as I think it has the potential to be amazing, it’s not worth spending all of my time on. Not when I have so many other ideas I’d like to write. I encourage you to do the same.

Returning to an old draft and spending such a long time with it has been a demanding process, something I am learning the hard way. It’s hard to tell when to give up on a draft, and when to keep going, but I know that cycle of work and rework can and will continue if you allow it. Give yourself a time limit. Do the work, and prepare to move on.

Maybe someday you’ll come back to it. Someday you’ll be able to finish that draft and give it the polish it deserves. But there is too much story inside of you waiting to be told. Don’t spend all your precious hours on the one that isn’t cooperating.

Have you ever abandoned a draft you were working on? How long did you work on it before you called it quits? How did you know you were finished? Or are you, like me holding on to a draft that has taken too long? 

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