Unfinished Novels: When to Pull the Plug?

It’s one thing for a novice writer to abandon a novel. I have two unfinished works that will never see the light of day. It’s another for a writer of Michael Chabon’s prodigious talent to leave a novel unfinished. That was the case with Fountain City, which Chabon abandoned in 1992 after five years.

Chabon began writing Fountain City as a follow-up to his fine 1989 debut novel, The Mysteries of Pittsburgh. The story centered on an architect who dreamed of building the perfect baseball stadium. After five years, he gave up on the project and then reportedly wrote Wonder Boys in seven months.

As this article in The New York Times points out, Chabon is not alone. It may surprise you to learn that other writers who abandoned novels include Harper Lee, Truman Capote, John Updike, Jennifer Egan, and Saul Bellow, among other famous authors.

Chabon revealed his emotional state during the writing of Fountain City when he published the first four chapters with annotations in McSweeneys 36. “Often when I sat down to work,” he wrote in his introduction, “I would feel a cold hand take hold of something inside my belly and refuse to let go. It was the Hand of Dread. I ought to have heeded its grasp.”

He also wrote in the margins of Fountain City: “A book itself threatens to kill its author repeatedly during its composition.” It was a novel, he added, that he could feel “erasing me, breaking me down, burying me alive, drowning me, kicking me down the stairs.”

Chabon elaborated on his reasons for not finishing the novel in an interview with The Atlantic monthly.

One of the greatest benefits is that Fountain City allowed Chabon to write his next novel, Wonder Boys. “Well, it’s pretty hard to imagine that I could have written, or would have been moved to write Wonder Boys without having gone through Fountain City,” he said. “And I stole the greenhouse in that subsequent book clean out of FC. The only part of it I was ever able to salvage.”

Andromeda Romano-Lax discussed unfinished novels, citing her personal experiences among others, in this Huffington Post piece.

Between her first and second published novels, she wrote a different novel and several partial manuscripts. “They weren’t rejected by a publisher,” she wrote. “They didn’t get that far. My first agent—with my own harsh internal censor as Kevorkian accomplice—pulled the plug.”

Romano-Lax mentioned both Chabon’s futile novel and the tortuous experience of Mark Salzman, who was unable to finish his novel and wrote about it in a short book called, The Man in the Empty Boat.

How does a writer know when to abandon a novel in progress? The easy answer is when the writer has exhausted all efforts and the story still isn’t working. That’s not the whole answer. I suspect the real test is when the writer has poured every ounce of energy into the project and just doesn’t feel the passion. That’s the sure sign to give up: the writer lacks enthusiasm for the work. If the writer cannot get excited about a story, there’s no way the reader will.

How do you know when to pull the plug on a novel that’s not working?


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4 responses to “Unfinished Novels: When to Pull the Plug?

  1. Timely post, sir. I remember being very refreshed by reading that Tim O’ Brien had many unfinished stories– that he knew would stay unfinished.
    As to the question posed– how do I know when? The answer is, I don’ yet.

    • Mary,
      Thanks for your comment. I think the decision process differs for each writer as to when to pull the plug. I’m going through this now with my work in progress. It is just not working. The bottom line is if you have done all you can and still lack the passion for your project it may be time to let it go.

      Thanks again!

  2. Lawdy! I don’t wanna think about it – ungh ungh * thinks of new novel she’s writing anyway and breaks out in sweat* . . .

    Although, there is this really weird novel I began and haven’t finished because it’s going to be a beech to write and probably a beech to sell to my editor 😀 It’s too surreal, I think and I probably like the idea better than anyone else will – haw!

    • Kat,
      Thanks for your comments. Actually the reason I wrote this post is I’m seriously considering pulling the plug on my novella. I went through the first draft and there are too many scenes that are going to have to be rewritten or scrapped. I could do that because I now have a better idea of what the story is but the bigger problem is my main character. He is a rapper and social media guru and I just don’t have his voice right and I’m not sure how to fix that. The good news is that my NaNo novel is a highly marketable premise and I am anxious to work on that next. Ah, the life of a writer. Isn’t it great?

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