I'm a big fan of "pushing through" and "getting it done." But, the reality is that, sometimes, novels can't be saved and burnout can happen to even the sturdiest of writers. I chatted with KT about this at Ad Astra, and was thrilled that she agreed to send me a post on the subject. Here's KT's story. I'm hoping I'll be adding more of these!
When I was young, I had goldfish. There is an entry in my grade one journal describing them: “Goldy is going to the vet today. He is not feeling well. He is swimming upside-down.”
Oh, sure, we can all laugh now. Adorably naïve young KT, not recognizing her fish was dead and that no amount of veterinary intervention was going to bring him back.
Well, I didn’t realize that my novel was dead either.
From its conception over a year prior, I had abandoned and un-abandoned Strix countless times. It was meant to be the prequel to Hapax: the story of the flood, the first magi. We were going to podcast it. A larger cast, better production—it was going to be awesome.
Except the book wasn’t working.
I didn’t know why, precisely. There were deep structural flaws in the plot and pacing; my characters weren’t gelling. I’d already done at least one from-scratch rewrite (as in, “I’m so, so, sorry, but this book doesn’t work. Try again”). Characters were added and cut. Entire cultures and storylines were shoehorned in and yanked back out. It turned from a novel to an anthology and back again. So many different permutations of the same story, with nothing to show for it.
It wasn’t writer’s block, because I wrote the 100,000-word Victorian Dark Fantasy in a two-month blaze…when I should have been writing Strix. Grief following my dad’s sudden death didn’t help, but I’d been having problems before.
The fatal sign: I kept pushing my deadlines back. I’ve never missed a deadline in my life.
The weight of expectation was crushing. I couldn’t let anyone down: not my publisher, not my friends, not my readers. But I could not in good conscience publish a book with which I was so deeply unhappy.
And I was unhappy. Furious with myself, drained and burnt out. Writing isn’t always pure joy and fluffy unicorns, but it shouldn’t feel like nightly self-flagellation either.
I still trudged onwards in sheer bloody-mindedness.
Finally, one night I gave up and admitted to myself that I was not fine. I had not been fine for months. I likely would never be fine.
What followed was one of the hardest emails I’ve ever had to write: the email to my editor, explaining that there would be no novel, that I could not be talked off the ledge, that I was giving up. That I had failed.
After all, you can write anything if you try hard enough, right? All it takes is the proper determination. Real writers don’t give up. So many people had placed their faith in me. How was that not enough?
But the moment I hit “send” on that email, something curious happened. Relief washed over me. I felt instantly lighter. I may or may not have started singing “Let it Go,” from Frozen.
It was absolutely the right decision.
See, if the book is not writeable, all the faith and determination in the world will not save you. Just like Goldy, my story was dead. Honestly, it had been dead for ages. I could pray and hope all I wanted, story-doctor it for eternity, tweak and rewrite until my fingers fell off. It would not do any good.
Sometimes, stories die. And in exactly the same way I mistook Goldy’s upside-down-swimming for indigestion, I had no idea how to recognize that.
Admitting defeat is hard. You know what’s harder? Chaining yourself to one story that will not let go. Real writers don’t give up…easily. Because I have a new theory. Perseverance is an important writing skill. Learning to distinguish swimming stories from belly-up ones is even more important.
Dead fish take up room in the tank. They pollute the water. Once you remove them, you can add new fish. Livelier ones. Similarly, dead novels take your time and energy, leave you too exhausted and miserable to write anything else. Since we’ve already established that neither dead fish nor dead novels can be revived, it’s a futile, pointless to spend your time. Dead goldfish stay dead.
A few words of caution:
Before flushing, you do want to make sure your goldfish and/or novel is actually dead. Hasty decisions don’t help anyone. Make sure that you’re not just experiencing fleeting angst. For me, I’d spent eighteen months writing five from-scratch versions of Strix. I was beyond miserable. It was a difficult, carefully-considered decision—but really, I’d known for a while.
Fish and novels deserve nice funerals. By which I mean, you do have to deal with the fallout. Thank beta readers for their time and efforts. Thank your friends and family for dealing with your panic attacks and distress (thank you, Erik Buchanan, for letting me sob in your kitchen at one in the morning). If you’ve got a publisher and/or editor, you’ll need to talk with them.
In hindsight, I was fortunate: everyone was understanding on all sides—and I hadn’t signed any contracts. In fact, I’d avoided signing until I knew for sure that I could finish this novel. As it turned out, that was probably a good move.
Take some time to mourn. It is hard. That “you-can-do-anything-if-you-just-try” narrative is pervasive and convincing. But honestly, there is a point when CPR stops being effective. It doesn’t mean that you are a failure. It doesn’t mean you didn’t try. It means this one died.
Enjoy that freedom. Enjoy working on projects you love. And remember—you were courageous enough to admit when something didn’t work.
Isn’t that better than hanging onto your dead fish?
KT Bryski is a Canadian author and podcaster. She made her podcasting and publishing debut with Hapax, an apocalyptic fantasy with Dragon Moon Press (2012) and she has stories in Black Treacle Horror Magazine, When the Hero Comes Home Vol. II (Dragon Moon Press, 2013) and Tales from the Archives Vol. III (Imagine That! Studios, 2014). Select playwriting credits include various scripts for Black Creek Pioneer Village and East o’ the Sun and West o’ the Moon: a Children’s Opera (Canadian Children’s Opera Company, 2014). KT also managesThe Black Creek Growler: the official blog of the Black Creek Historic Brewery. She is currently at work on her next novel while pursuing her MFA through the Stonecoast Creative Writing Programme at the University of Southern Maine. As you may have guessed, she also has a mild caffeine addiction. Visit her at www.ktbryski.com.