Many people dedicate this time of year to spring cleaning, tidying things up around the house and doing all the things they put off during the colder weather.
Spring cleaning can also include downsizing. Sorting through items you no longer need and donating them can be restorative, but it can also come with the melancholy of letting go. Whether it's an article of clothing that doesn't fit the same but was a birthday gift from a now-deceased relative or a souvenir from a trip taken in a long-since-over romance, even when we know we can still hold onto the memories, it's those memories that make it hard to bid farewell to those mementos.
Writers say a lot of goodbyes over the course of every project. The end of drafting's inventiveness and sense of unrestricted creativity as they enter the more analytical (and at times self-deprecating) throes of editing. Bringing the last exchange of dialogue involving a favorite character to a close. Typing "The End" for the final installment of a series. Killing darlings we so desperately fought to keep.
And sometimes, writers find themselves parting ways with an entire project.
Rarely is deciding to shelve a WIP simple. Doing so can come with much deliberation and many considerations. You may also find yourself experiencing something similar to the five stages of grief referring to the death of a loved one.
Whether you're setting your story on the backburner temporarily or for the foreseeable future, you may feel it's best despite how tough it is.
It's not always easy to know if that's what you should do, but there are a few signs that can help you determine whether or not it's time to break up with your book.
As a quick note, I'm looking at this from a writing-specific standpoint. External matters like medical situations, day jobs, and family obligations are all valid reasons to hit the pause button on a WIP or stop working on it altogether. For the purposes of this post, however, I'm focusing on things that feel more in the writer's control and not the result of life finding a way to get in the way.
Also, please remember that there is nothing wrong with choosing to shelve a story. The feelings that accompany the decision can be rough to withstand and take so much time to work through, but it's something a lot of writers face. It's not just you.
Shelving a story does not make you a failure.
That all said, on with the post!
To Hell And Back
Readers may not know how much work goes into a book before it hits the shelves. For every word that is published, chances are there were a hundred deleted along the way.
In my experience, editing tends to be a much longer process than writing and far more challenging. Instead of following the story wherever it leads and exploring, you have to be stricter with yourself. You spend a lot of time criticising your writing because identifying the flaws in your story is the only way to improve them.
Candidly speaking, it's soul-sucking and draining some days, but vital all the same.
Nevertheless, writers persist. When all goes well, they might surprise themselves with the final outcome being better than they could have imagined at the jump (and cringing at everything that came before).
It's not all sunshine and matte blue Scooby-Doo fruit snacks, though.
We can end up editing in circles, coming back to the same problems again and again, unable to resolve them. Try as we might, we cannot bring the story to its best self.
Setting your WIP aside and coming back to it later can help some. There's a reason it's one of the recommended steps to take after you've finished a draft. Fresh eyes see clearly.
Trying to edit a piece of writing when you're upset and frustrated makes the whole process that much harder or even unbearable. Most of us start writing for fun and the sheer joy it brings. When that sentiment fades into bitter, miserable odium, it can put one's love of writing in jeopardy.
Been there, done that.
When you've edited a story to Hell and back it still isn't remotely close to where you want it to be, stepping away for a little time (or longer) gives you the opportunity to reassess the work and determine what to do next.
I personally suggest putting an edited-to-Hell-and-back WIP aside for at least a couple of weeks before taking another look at it and deciding whether to officially shelve it or not.
Pursuing Other Interests
I'm a writer who likes to juggle projects. 2023 is the first year in a while I've attempted to keep myself to one histrom WIP and the blog as opposed to bouncing between a brand-new first draft, editing an older WIP in addition to creating posts for the blog.
Other writers stick to one project and one alone. But 2018 was the first time since starting my first attempt at a novel in c. 2010 that I willingly put that project aside for an extended period aside. Why?
Bound to the Heart. As I've mentioned fairly often, Bound to the Heart started out as part of a research project for a travel course in my senior year of college.
I dropped nearly everything that wasn't my friends, my radio show, my part-time job, or something directly affecting my GPA to pour everything I could into this first draft.
Including the novel I had been working on for years.
Shelving it at the time was the right call. For one thing, it was going to be impossible to work on two novels at that point in my life. I didn't have to write a thesis for my undergrad, but I sort of consider Bound to the Heart to be comparable to one.
But it also let me play around with something new and let me pursue interests I had beyond the dynamics between servants and the upper-class families employing them and the complexities of inheritances and love triangles and miscommunication conflict cliches...
In retrospect, it was a hot mess.
Bound to the Heart was the first new fiction endeavor I had taken on in the approximately eight years since I was a freshman in high school, excluding short stories for the courses I was enrolled in. It reminded me of how much fun writing can be. It was the refresh I needed—a feeling I chased in subsequent years.
Of course, this is an example of shifting gears because new priorities arise, but simply wanting to work on something different because you just want a change of pace or you have a shiny new idea you cannot dismiss is perfectly fine, too.
When the story you're working on so diligently starts to weigh you down, you might not even realize it. Setting it aside and trying something different reinvigorates your creativity. If you go back to it, all those new ideas come with you.
And if it stays on the shelf, the energy carries forward into future ventures.
Trusting Your Gut
Writers are creatures quite often driven by gut instinct. While we may know the rules, we break them when we think that will work better for us. Our drafts deviate from outlines.
We make things up as we go.
Trusting my gut as a writer is something I am continuing to work on. Going with the flow has improved my storytelling significantly and helped reestablish my love of writing. It's been wonderful.
But your gut also tells you when something isn't right for you. While you may not know what or how to explain it, you know something is off.
Wondering if you need to shelve your book might be enough of a sign in itself.
It's not a question that usually comes to mind without provocation, maybe seemingly out of nowhere. You may be able to just brush it off and carry on, or it may hit you like a freaking ton of bricks. That sense of something not working may have been in the back of your mind for a while or newly emerging.
If you're thinking about shelving your book, don't do it straight away. It can be a passing notion just as easily as it can be a major indication that something needs to be addressed. Consider what isn't working for your story and if it's something you can tackle at this moment in time with the skills you have. You may just need a fresh perspective after a short break, or it might be that you need to read up on certain craft elements.
Shelving a novel, after all, doesn't mean it's put away for good. Heck, I refer to my shelved WIP as my shelved-for-now story because I might come back to it some day down the road. Who knows?
Maybe your gut will also tell you when to return to the story you've shelved.
My feelings about shelving a WIP may not be common. Writers tend to equate it with throwing in the towel and being defeated. That's something I've struggled with in the past. I shamed myself and felt so guilty about "giving up" on the project for a number of reasons. Mama didn't raise a quitter and all that.
It's something I wasn't willing to admit to until the tail-end of 2022 even though the last time I worked on it seriously would have been around early 2021. Even now, I still feel twinges of guilt and hesitate to bring it up.
The thing is, retreating isn't always running away from something. It can be running towards something even better. Since parting ways with that one project, I've been able to grow so much more as a storyteller. There's been self-discovery and reshaping of the way I write. After all, I'm not who I was at 14, and I doubt I would have figured out who I am as a writer now if I hadn't given myself permission to move on from who I was as a writer then.
And more importantly, it's strengthened my passion for writing.
Writers consistently rise from the ashes of scrapped words and murdered darlings. And that includes shelving an entire novel.