Breaking Up is Hard to Do

Sometimes I wonder about becoming emotionally connected to our characters. On one hand, it’s helpful because I believe we write them with more intimacy, credibility—that’s how we make them come alive. On the other hand, it’s harder to get them into trouble, kill them off, or even, end the story. Often, characters become our friends, our moral support, our escape, and it’s not easy to let them go.

Finding the balance between an emotional connection and a business relationship is the key for successful authors. If we hope to write more than one book, or finish a story at all, we have to learn how to say goodbye to a story that moved us deeply enough we had to write it.

For years, I worked on one novel. Even when I put it aside to try another story, those characters from the first novel kept talking to me. Even when I thought I was finished writing it and I was querying it, those darn characters wouldn’t leave me alone. I could never truly finish it.

writing never ends

I have referred to this novel as my Bossy Novel. I had many half-begun stories, a few 50,000-word starter novels from NaNoWriMo, random story ideas and character sketches, but due to Ms. Bossy I had no drive or focus to finish them.

I was afraid putting my novel aside and committing to another project was the same as giving up on that first book. I didn’t want to let my characters down, so I kept fighting for them. I failed to understand that what I needed most was to get their story written.

The rest would fall into place when it was time.

Saying goodbye to characters, to their story, to the time we’ve spent writing about it all, is tough. Some books are harder to let go than others. Recurring characters in sequels sometimes help ease that pain. Writing something entirely new is another way to transition. Understanding the purpose of each book in your life can also help put everything into perspective.

This is what writers do. We lay stories down for audiences to read. If we are good at what we do, we get to do it again. And again. I doubt King or Chabon shed many goodbye tears after they’d written their skeighty-eighth book.

Job security is often a great painkiller.

I eventually made peace with Ms. Bossy. I will never give up on it, but I have a new understanding about this book. It’s one of many that I will write. Knowing that made it much easier to write The End.

Do you have trouble moving on from a book you’re writing?

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55 thoughts on “Breaking Up is Hard to Do

  1. I actually haven’t experienced this yet. I’m more than ready to move on when I’ve finished a novel (which is probably why writing a series hasn’t yet appealed to me). Must be that left-brain dominance of mine. :)

    • Sometimes, I wish I could be that writer who can move on efficiently because I would probably log in more projects in a shorter span of time. I do enjoy connecting with the characters and the story in a meaningful way, which is the reason it takes me so long to move on. So, I see the advantages and disadvantages. Maybe it wouldn’t be such a conundrum if I could add in more hours to the day?

  2. I have two early unfinished attempts that keep rearing their heads in my mind from time to time. This makes me think that maybe they were not total losses and sometime I will go back and try to fix them. For now, My current WIP has center stage until I write The End.

    • I agree that if a book keeps hounding you that it is meant to be written until the writer and the book in question are satisfied. For me, that was years of rewriting. But, I was also finding my voice and style, so I feel like each draft sculpted another angle of my writing self. Some people would look at it as time wasted, especially because it hasn’t really gone anywhere, but I believe I wouldn’t have been able to write (and finish) my second book without the work and time I put into the first book.

      I’m glad you aren’t totally ignoring the other books vying for your attention. :)

  3. I agree about the characters screaming for attention if I leave them alone for too long. My first NaNo project was a completely different story, new characters and setting. I even changed from my usual third-person narrative to a first-person and after the first scene I had completely forgotten about the other story.

    I do now have competing voices in my head demanding that I finish both stories!

    • I’m glad to know I’m not alone in this, Pete. And, I’m glad you were able to figure out your way to another book.

      Competing voices can be problematic. I am kind of facing this myself. Now that I have finished the fourth draft to my second book, I started thinking about my next project. I know this is a ways off because I still have the final draft to write, but I’m hoping I can get that done sometime in April. Then what? Which project should I pick? It’s probably going to come down to the noisiest, brattiest one. ;)

  4. You just may be on to something here Kate. I’m wondering if this is actually part of my hesitation to get on with final editing…I don’t want to say goodbye. You’ve given me food for thought, and for that I thank you!

    • Oh, Denise, I have soooo been there. I lost count of how many times I edited Ms. Bossy. While I think that particular project helped shape my writing style and voice, I also think I was too afraid to move on and try something new. Would I have as much fun with new characters? Would the storyline be interesting to write? Would it be good enough to pursue? It’s a tough battle, but I eventually told myself that there are lots of stories with lots of characters in my heart. They’re all waiting their turn, and I need to be fair to them. ;)

  5. I find certain characters live on ( in my imagination) well after I have finished a story and that I sometimes find myself wondering what they’re up to. So yes I suppose I do have trouble ‘letting go’ :-)

    • And, they have trouble letting go of you. :) Have you considered writing a sequel with those characters? They might be wanting the spotlight again!

  6. I feel as though I have countless characters living in some part of my head – they stay with me whether the story is finished or not. My first novel has been with me for years – it’s had lots of re-writes and has stayed dormant at times – but I can’t give up on it. I’ve started another in between, but I feel as though I have to see that one through – it’s now time to submit it but I’m already having more doubts about whether I still need to change things…so I guess that’s my bossy novel. I need to send it into the world for better or worse!

    • Indeed, that’s your bossy novel. ;) Stories like that are well worth the struggle because no matter how many times I have worked on mine I never got bored with it. I also believe that I grew a lot as a writer by working on it from so many angles. But, I think a book will take up all our time in the world if we let it. We will never write the perfect book, so editing and restructuring can only take us so far before we’re really spinning our wheels.

      When you’re ready, you will come to a confident decision about your book. I guess what helps to keep in mind is that we’ll never be 100% fully satisfied with our book, but as long as we know we wrote the best book we could, then that is good enough. Good luck, Andrea.

  7. I have this with forum based RPGs.
    I know it’s not quite the same (!) but when I play with the other people on the forum we’re still telling stories. We’re still falling for our characters and doing terrible things to them and then making it up.

    One thread I played turned into a three year epic that ended only because there was simply nothing else we could force out of that storyline. So… we took the characters and immediately started a sequel that went on for another two years! Mental.
    I tried to kill of my character in that sequel, because I knew I couldn’t get away from him if I didn’t and the woman I was playing with sent me a desperate email absolutely pleading that I do no such thing. So I didn’t. o.O Michael Garran lives on!

    I still think of those stories and get a little twist in my stomach for those characters. They bled, cried, fought and went through so much just because we couldn’t get enough of them.

    So yes… I understand very well.
    It hasn’t happened with a novel yet, but it’s only a matter of time, I’m sure.

    Heh, in fact, one of the novels I have lined up for the future is the back story of one of my RPG characters. Because I love her so, so, so much! And her tale needs to be written. So yes… maybe that when, when I start, will be the one I can’t let go of.

    • I am not surprised this type of thing happens in all kinds of writing. I had to laugh at your comment about the woman who emailed you to not kill off that character. We know we’ve done a good job with the characters when someone else wants them to be recurring. Keep up the good work!

      • That character… I have plans for him now. She was so adamant that he not die… I remember it so well. I guess I’ll just have to do something with him to ensure he’s immortalised somewhere. I have to admit, he was LOTS of fun to play. ;-)

  8. I have several characters that have been screaming at me for two years to get them out of a pickle because I’ve just left them hanging :( Once the RUC is finished I must get back to them and apologize :D

    • Something to look forward to! Leaving characters in the middle of a story is tough to deal with. I guess I have that problem with some of my 50,000-word NaNos and other unfinished work. While they don’t demand my attention like Ms. Bossy did, they have left little warning notes for me upon occasion. ;)

  9. Um, I think it will be no surprise to you that my answer to your questions is—yes. ;) I think it’s okay for me to stick with them because no new projects are jumping to mind. Of course, I could simply be fooling myself. But we’ll find out when I finish the rebuilds and hear the beta feedback. If these versions still don’t pass muster, then I think the characters and I will have to face the fact that I can’t get their stories right for an audience in this world. And I would feel worse than when I shelved the stories last year—because I love those characters and don’t want to let them down.

    • This may pain you to read this – but I think that if you love the characters that much, then you have every reason in the world to rewrite and rewrite until you nail it. Whether it’s 4 versions or 44 versions, a writer should feel like she can keep at it until the cows come home.

      I feel comfortable saying this because I have lost count of how many times I rewrote Spark. Yet, with each version I got closer to the heart of the story. I don’t know if I nailed it yet, but I am a lot happier with the current version than I was even a year ago. And, it was a year ago that I told myself I couldn’t do it anymore. Obviously, I changed my mind.

  10. I’ve got a novel that’s pretty much finished start to end, problem is a lot of the writing from back then is not up to scratch. I love the characters and the story but major repairs are needed on it. I’ll pick it up every few months and tinker with it in between other projects, but refuse to give up on it.

    • I think our early novels are the most challenging. We love the story and the characters, but our writing, as you say, isn’t up to scratch. Definitely keep at it because the more you write the better you write. :)

  11. I’ve got one that haunts me. it’s there when I look over my shoulder, alhtough I’ve gotten really good at facing forward. But it’s still there. I can hear it breathing.

  12. Yes! I’ve been rewriting or tinkering for too long. Still, after all that, I’m amazed at how much needs to be cut. Then I end up adding new things in and have to go through the whole thing all over again. I think I’d like to part with these characters by now though. Hopefully that means it’s getting closer. :) That’s great that you’re nearing the end of yours!

    • I wish there was a more concrete way of knowing when we have written the final draft. That would make things a heckuva lot easier. I think if you’re feeling ready to part with your characters then you are approaching the finish line. I know that, for me, it was easier to justify moving on when I had another project in my head that was fairly demanding. So, maybe if you start thinking about a new story that might move things along faster. Good luck!

      • Thanks! I’ll have to give that a try. Every once in a while I think I should at least go back to doing some short stories. I’ve just been so obsessed with the novel that I haven’t even looked at those.

      • Even if you tell yourself to put it aside for a determined length of time (6 weeks, 3 months, whatever suits you), that will also make you feel less like you are abandoning it.

  13. Moving on to a different book, bah, that’s child’s play. I CAN’T STAY ON ONE BOOK, DAMMIT!!!!!!!! RAHHH!!!! Well I can now, but it took me about five years. I started with one story and ended with 25. All I wanted to do was write the one story.

    To this day, I have 38 story ideas in total. I do have my favorites and some of those stories will not have endings. I’m not even going to fight it.

    One story in particular has over 15 main characters. I created so many, because I wanted to kill main characters and make my readers cry buckets of tears. The problem was, for every 3 characters I created, one latched on to my frickin leg. The leg latching thing makes it a little harder to kill that character, so I don’t. I just create a few more and KILL THEM instead. Moohooo hahaha. Yeah, makes for a big ass long story.

    • Holy cats, BBK, 38 story ideas?! That’s awesome. It really is. There was a time when I was knee-deep in Ms. Bossy that I worried I wouldn’t have any other stories to tell. This could be one reason why it took me a long time to move on and try another project. I finally took on NaNoWriMo and realized I could tell another story. It was quite freeing.

      I have a hard time killing off characters, too. They didn’t even have to be main characters. Just characters that meant something special. I think your solution is intriguing. Adding in more characters to take the bullet instead. Brilliant.

      I feel that for those of us writers who have trouble staying with or even moving on from one book are going through a process. And we can’t ignore that process. I know for me personally, I developed my writing style and voice in that time. By staying with one story, it was easier to sculpt and shape my style/voice.

      The fact you have so many stories with potential is promising. I can’t wait to read them all. :)

  14. I’m not sure if I’m in that situation now, with my current WIP. Part of me feels I’ve work so hard on it and spent so many hours that I can’t stop now. I haven’t reached the best telling of the story. But part of me feels like I’m not sure I can ever get there.

    With each pass it gets better (I think) and it has helped me improve (I hope) but I’m not sure if I’ll ever get to the point where I can either say, “It’s ready” or “It will never be ready, move on.”

    I guess because I’m not sure, I have to keep working on it.

    • Arlene, I don’t know if writers are ever 100% sure when they finish their stories. I still think about Ms. Bossy even though I haven’t worked on it in almost a year. That is a really long time to step away from a book that once demanded so much of my attention. But, I found another story that insisted on being told now. That is really what allowed me to switch gears. Without that other project, I bet Ms. Bossy would continue to harass me.

      That being said, even if we’re not 100% sure, I think we need to pay close attention to the little telltale clues. That sense of uncertainty starts to fade and we tinker with fewer and fewer parts. A big clue to me was when my editing amounted to nothing more than switching words around and playing with sentence structure. I was leaving the plot alone, leaving the characters alone. So, I knew there wasn’t anything more substantial I could do to it, unless I wanted to change the storyline in some way. When I asked myself to choose between changing the major plot for Ms. Bossy or to work on another book, my energy immediately hightailed it to the new book. I felt excited to start something new, and that was the kicker.

  15. Yes, Carolyn, in “Keeping Watch” was a very addictive character to me. I allowed her into my head and the writing was easy, smooth, and flowing. However, the ending kept moving a bit farther. She wrote the ending more than me and she chose what happened. I am not certain I could have done the ending on my own the way it was. I kind of fell in love with her in the sense the she became someone I enjoyed having around; she was comfortable in her own rough and tumble way. Now that the story is done, I am proud of it and of her. It couldn’t have been done as well any other way.

  16. I have seen you commenting on Carolyn a lot lately, and I’m glad to hear that you’re happy with her and the story. I like how you say that you enjoyed having her around — I totally get that. In fact, dare I say that our characters can be more enjoyable than some real-life people? ;)

  17. I totally know what you mean, doll! Since there was a dramatic ending to Beneath the Satin Gloves, that was a tough goodbye for me. I really loved Alina and have considered a sequel, maybe down the road. My second I was more at peace with. Now on my third, with being away from my characters while the editor works her magic, I am missing my gals. Can’t wait to see them again in a few weeks to heal their wounds from the edits!

    • Maybe it does get easier with the more books we write and finish. And I think you’re right about how we end books — sometimes we unconsciously end things with a possible link to a future story. Not exactly a sequel, but just another story angle to the characters and their lives. So, we very well may be blessed with seeing Alina again! :)

  18. As for writers, so for readers, I believe. I find leaving characters behind as a reader very difficult, and that’s probably why I loved reading series, when I was younger. They become your friends – so how much more for the writer! But I guess we all have to say goodbye eventually. I saw this on Twitter earlier today – you may appreciate it as I did :) :

    “The road to hell is paved with works-in-progress. ~ Philip Roth #quotes
    FINISH WHAT YOU START.”

    • That is an awesome quote, and it’s a good one to keep in mind. I think you’re right about how readers can feel depressed at the end of a book. I know I have. I’d rather have that deep connection to a story when all is said and done. As a writer, I need to appreciate that at least I did a good job developing meaningful characters. Thanks for a great comment, Alarna!

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  20. It’s been said that we read every book through the one book that marked us the most: reading each character as a version of that one proto-character, etc. And reading this post, I wonder if writers don’t write every book through the one book that marked them the most, the one “Bossy” book that just won’t quit!

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