Behind the shed in my parents’ backyard, a cluster of purple coneflowers grows within a shelter of high grass. Despite their healthy blooms, I recently caught something gnawing at those flowers, and it wasn’t the usual rabbit (see picture at left). Tendrils of ivy have curled about the stalks and petals, blending with the greenery even as they wind tighter and strangle it.
I warned my father that he shouldn’t let those vines grow in his garden. “But they’re beautiful,” he protested.
“But they’re killing it,” I said.The same thing has happened in my writing life before, and may be affecting your work-in-progress as well. You dive into the new book you’ve been anticipating. Then you slow to a more contemplative pace, convincing yourself that you’re just flagging in energy because you’re getting a little familiar with the work.
Your writing seems fine until a temptation saunters into view. Usually a spicy new idea, a seed that you can imagine growing into a gorgeous tree. An irresistible plot twist, an incredible opening line. It starts to curl its vine around you. Ah, well, you think—I’ll just note that down and save it for the next book.
Then comes the stomach-sinking fact: you’re only halfway through the novel you were already working on. It isn’t picking up speed. It will be forever before you finish it and get to sink your pen into that inspired idea you just got. Writing this book starts to look like real work. But writing shouldn’t be this joyless and mechanical, should it?
The choice to abandon a book is tragic, and usually born of a misunderstanding. This is the way a writer’s relationship with a novel ebbs and flows over time:
1. An idea comes into view and you test whether you feel a connection to it.
2. You go through the initial infatuation when you can’t stop dreaming about the book.
3. Finally, after a long furious period of work, there’s a cooling-down of the fever you felt before. You begin to wonder whether the book was as good as you once thought.
Certain other real-life relationships might follow this pattern, but I’ll leave the explanations for that stuff to Steve Harvey and Dr. Phil. For a novel, this third stage is a critical point where a new project might tempt you to neglect your current work.
You have to realize that if you do jump ship and leap onto a new book, you will just repeat the same cycle of disillusionment that you endured with the first book. Even worse, you will suffer because you may have let go of your last project prematurely.
Your only choice to break this cycle: KILL the vines.
Hunt up the hedge clippers. Clip their stalks, mash up their leaves, and stomp on their corpses. In other words, narrow your attention as if your current book is the only one in the world, and work on it accordingly. It’s the sole way to give your old book a chance to catch its breath and regain your interest with its own surprises.
I have finished two hundred pages of a book before only to feel my love for it vanish. Instead of doing an autopsy and wondering what went wrong, I willed myself to keep writing and sculpting the book as if it were still just as important to me. By the novel’s end, my attachment to the book returned. When I finished it at last, I couldn’t believe I ever considered giving up on it.
Writers, do you have trouble being patient with your work sometimes? Readers, do you ever feel tempted to give up on a book and pick a new one because the former one slows down?
Anthony Otten has published stories in The Jabberwock Review, Valparaiso Fiction Review, and Wind. He has been a finalist for the Hargrove Editors' Prize in Fiction. Still: The Journal has published an excerpt from his novel. He lives in Kentucky.
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