It's not just when you’re giving yourself permission to start a new book, either. You have to say goodbye to old ghosts of drafts of the manuscript, too, if you’re hoping to make it better. This is one (but not the only) reason that I tell people to put something aside and start on a new book. Especially when you’ve spent years and years working on a manuscript (or if it’s something you spend your childhood fantasizing about), you can’t see it clearly or objectively. Parts you loved at one point in your life may not work at all compared to other more modern books that are being sold today. And some writers end up contorting themselves so desperately to save this piece of that piece of a project that they are better off letting it go completely and starting something new.
I have a couple of drafts of published novels where I find it difficult to remember which is the “real” version that readers get to. There are characters in my head in books that got written out for good reasons, but somehow they still live in my brain.
Here’s the reality: Sometimes as a writer, you have to say goodbye to a character or a direction the book is headed in because you’re going to make it 1% better. Only 1%, and it takes a lot of work, sometimes months or years of revision to get the rest of the book back to the point that it was at before you started revising. That can feel terrifying. It’s worse for so long, and only 1% better. But I guarantee you, that 1% could well be the difference between being published and not being published.
I just read a manuscript by a friend that seemed this close to being ready for publication. But my friend had bravely done almost a complete rewrite with her villain because the original version was just a bit confusing. The new draft was better. Maybe only 1% better, but definitely better. It was worth doing for just that much improvement. I promise you it is.
On the other hand, sometimes people recommend drastic changes to your novel that don’t really help it. Sometimes those people are agents or editors. And you have to try out the possibility that they are right. This can feel like a waste of time. Let me say from an author who’s been in it for longer than you have: it’s not a waste of time. You will learn things about yourself and about your book that you need to know to keep going. Maybe you will give up on the book. If that happens, it’s for the best. I swear it to you. It’s painful to hear, but some books aren’t right and can never be made right. But you have to keep trying until it’s absolutely clear it can’t be fixed.
If you need to say goodbye to the old ghosts of your novels, let me suggest a couple of things:
- Keep all your drafts. I am not joking when I say that a local university will one day contact you to ask for anything you have on hand, for future posterity doing research.
- You can print out a copy and burn it and say a few words in a kind of funeral.
- If it’s a character you need to say goodbye to, write a few words about what the rest of that character’s life might have been like, if a different version of their universe had unfolded. Give them a good death. And move on.
- Make a little cheat sheet of ideas, lines, or any bits of the book you really love and want to use again. If you’re ever at a loose end for new ideas, go back to this list. You will be surprised to see how you are able to resurrect old things and make them new again.
- Make a list of reasons you are making this drastic change to come back to when the going gets tough and you begin to doubt your choice.