On Abandoned Projects

by James Scott Bell

I keep all my writing stuff in a dedicated folder on my Mac. I worked really hard to come up with a clever name for this folder. I call it “Writing.”

It has many sub-folders in it, absolutely stuffed with half-completed books, stories, ideas, concepts, first lines, clips of news items, and so on.

The other day I traipsed through the folders to see what I was doing ten, fifteen, even twenty years ago. I found several abandoned projects, by which I mean novels I’d made pretty strong headway on yet never finished. Which caused me to reflect on why I might have set them aside.

One reason is that in those early years I was I was writing with reckless abandon. I was coming up with ideas, developing some of them but, for one reason or another, moving on to others. I’m sure you can relate.

So I came across a folder with a title I didn’t remember. In the folder was a document of 15k words, the start of a novel. In another doc in the folder were my notes on same. This project was twelve years old.

I opened the novel and started to read.

Wow, I’m really good! (I humbly thought). I mean, this thing took off like gangbusters. It was laying the foundation for one of those twisty, turny plots that would make Koontz happy and Coben proud.

It has a protagonist who keeps getting a recurring thought of two seemingly unconnected words: Gut bane. Obviously, this indicated a clue his memory wasn’t clear on. Just as obviously, somewhere deep in the plot, the connection would be revealed in time to solve the entire mystery!

I read on, loving myself more and more. At the end of the 15k, the last words written were: Gut bane.

I realized then I could not remember what they meant.

I quickly opened my notes. There I had laid out the basic premise and some notes on characters and scenes.

But not one word on the mystery phrase. Ack!

I did a Mac spotlight search for the phrase. It sent me right back to my abandoned novel-in-progress.

My wail of frustration reached the ears of my editor, the lovely Mrs. B.

“What on earth was that?” she asked.

“The sound of my million-copy bestseller circling the drain!” I said. I explained the situation.

“So why don’t you just make up something new for those words?” she said. She’s the practical one.

“It’s going to drive me nuts,” I said.

She smiled, and I know she was thinking, “You’re a writer, you’re already nuts.”

She is also the wise one.

I have put the Boys in the Basement to work, searching for the ephemeral synapse that holds the answer. But so far, bupkus.

So, note to self (and to you): Don’t ever leave a project without jotting down all the key plot points in that fertile imagination of yours. Even if you jump to something else, you may come back to this one, even years hence.

A few words about process. I’m a plotter, but when I’m in the creative mode, I let myself play. I have fits and starts in my writing folder. I still have a regular “creativity time” where I just let things rip. I play the Title game (make up titles and see what they spark), the First-Line game (boy, have I got some great ones…I just need the novels to go with them), and the old reliable What-if game.

But from now on, I’ll never stop on a project with a great twist without leaving myself a note on what the heck the great twist is!


So, do you have abandoned projects of various lengths? Can you remember why you abandon them? Do you plan to go back and restart any?

45 thoughts on “On Abandoned Projects

  1. One of the advantages to the romance market is that you go from query to partial, but the editors didn’t want you to write beyond that because they love to rewrite your whole plot. The rewriting plot isn’t a good thing, but that means that you don’t spend months finishing a novel they aren’t interested in. All my unfinished novels didn’t go past partials.

    My gut bane, right now, is cold-pressed sauerkraut. All the probiotics my sister insists are in that stuff do evil things to my gut. Hence, why it’s a bane.

  2. Gut bane sounds like something a werewolf would use maybe as an antidote to wolfbane.
    My goal for next year is to look at my works in progress and try to finish at least some of them.
    Good luck!
    Sometimes when I’m stuck I ask for a dream about it. I may or may not remember the dream but I always remember the answer.

  3. Abandoned writing projects litter my hard drive, too. Most lacked a strong premise intersecting my passions and the marketplace. Life impeded a few — candidates for restart. Thanks for the inspiration, Jim!

  4. Oh yes, I have unfinished projects of various lengths from a 2 sentence blurb to several chapters. Why unfinished? I’m the Queen of Fits & Starts–mostly fits. LOL! Most of the time I include notes about where I was going with something, but yes, sometimes, I don’t leave adequate notes then years later I read it and say “Where was I even going with that?”

    In my current WIP, one day as I was writing, I was inspired with a two-word phrase to use as a clue in the mystery–two words the victim uttered right before he died that didn’t make sense to anyone else.

    I really like the phrase and I’ve tried a few scenarios that will explain the 2 word phrase in the big reveal but I haven’t hit on anything that rocks my world yet. Still working on it–not ready to give up on the idea yet.

    I really like your idea of having regular creativity time to just let ‘er rip and see what happens, without expectation. That would be a great way to start 2023.

  5. Maybe it’s because I started this writing gig late in life, maybe it’s because Mom made me clean my plate, maybe I’m anally linear, but I start a project, work on it until it’s finished, and then think about the next one. My “Writing Stuff” (I’m as creative as you are when it comes to naming things) folder is filled with projects and a current wip, but that’s it.

    Maybe Gut Bane is an anagram (although I couldn’t find a word using all 7 letters, but you’re the writer–you’d come up with an explanation). Or a password.

  6. I have one unfinished manuscript in my drawer. I’m not bad to start something and not finish it…I laugh as I think of a pink vest half finished on my needles from 25 years ago.

    But seriously, I usually do finish things. I reworked my first published novel for six years, and that other manuscript—the plot will show up in the third book of my current series…I don’t think I even have a folder with ideas…

    • Interesting, Patricia. You just call up for ideas when you need to start a project and ride that train to the end. As with Terry, that’s one way to go.

      I just have this nagging fear that if I don’t get a lot of ideas first, I’ll miss out on the best ones. The key is choosing which “best ones” to develop into actual projects.

  7. I tend to finish the projects I start, but I have a lot of scenes I’ve written that didn’t quite fit the story I was working on. Those are piling up in Scrivener.

    Maybe your protagonist can only recall a few letters of a phrase. How about “urbane orangutan?” 🙂

    Good luck on recalling the original meaning. You have me hooked on the story already!

  8. I can so relate to this, Jim. I have a number of abandoned projects. My first five novels are trunked. The stories for each just didn’t work. The fifth, The Hardscrabble was the first one I outlined, and did some revision on. It’s the one I think about going back to, a six-guns and sorceries novel set in a secondary world, as opposed to the weird western version of our own Old West which Reavis discussed yesterday. I last looked at it in late 2015.

    I also have various short stories and novel fragments, and two 20-25K word starts on a sequel to my novel Gremlin Night. Both times I ran out of steam in late Act II, and lost passion and interest. But also felt like the story wasn’t working. Perhaps I was overly critical, or perhaps my subconscious realized the jig was up before I’d reached the midpoint.

    Thanks for a very thought-provoking post this morning, Jim. Have a wonderful Sunday!

    • Dale, that “running out of steam in Act II” is a common experience. It sometimes manifests itself at the “30k wall.” (This is where I humbly suggest that having signpost scenes pre-planned is a live saver.)

      Hope you find some trunk magic…

  9. I sympathize with your frustration, Jim. When an idea like that invades my brain, I will lay awake at night until the neurons finally make the synapse. I think it is my determination to fight off dementia.

    I have two abandoned projects, one finished but unpublished, and one half written. Before I started on my “clean teen fantasy adventures” for my grandkids, I was writing thrillers. I finished and sold one to a small press, which went bankrupt. I managed to reclaim the copyright. The second book in that series was half written when I decided to switch to teen fiction, fantasy, and self-publish. I do plan to go back and rework the earlier two books when I end my current series, but don’t know when that will be.

    Two more ideas to get the synapses firing: Gut is German for good. Baine is Scottish (Gaelic) for woman. Good luck with the mystery.

    • Now you’ve got me thinking spies and all that Ken Follett stuff. A Scottish woman goes undercover in Germany during WWII…

      Great! Another concept to go in the pile! Thanks, pal.

  10. This is very meta. You’re literally your protagonist, haunted by two significant words which you know are important but have no clue what they mean. I smell an artsy, post-modernist novel of 1200 pages. I’d buy it!

      • My thoughts exactly. I’m actually reading Pynchon now because I’m a practitioner of the “read widely” advice. I love changing pace and the crazy prose, if nothing else, reminds me we’re free as writers to take some risks. It also makes my return to crisp pulp prose even crispier and refreshing.

  11. Like Terry, I didn’t try this writing gig until the second half of my life. I have zero unfinished projects. Maybe that because as an Indie writing, I can publish whatever I want and I have a good friends who helps me when my imagination fails. I think also that with the ability to write prequels, novellas, and short stories that there is no reason to set aside hard won prose. I write on the lean side and I’m a pantser so I try not to waste any words.

  12. Whew!

    Glad I’m not the only one in this august body who has a folder called Writing . . . only mine’s called Writing Stuff. Same thing.

    Half-finished; a cool title with zip under said title; ideas needing a plot and a few characters; first lines; even last lines.

    Here’s the last line of my 2nd novel, hopefully to be released next year:

    She’d become a butterfly, soaring on the breeze with beautiful broken wings.

    Happy Sunday all . . .

  13. Unfortunately, I have several. Last year, I even found a 30K-word WIP. The story wasn’t bad, either. A little bizarre maybe, more bizarre than I’d write today, but Koontz would be proud. Alas, like you, I have no idea what certain clues mean. If only we had the forethought to scribble a note to our future self, eh?

    • Exactly, Sue.

      Scrivener has a great feature I use all the time now. You can stick a comment next to something you’ve written that could be a clue or lead to something but you’re not sure what. So you jot your ideas right there in the comment, which doesn’t show in the text. You can look at these comments all at once or individually in the inspector. It’s a fantastic way of memorializing what you were thinking when you wrote that part.

  14. The only reason my folder isn’t called writing is that there was already a folder on my first computer called “my books” which I hijacked.

    Most of my projects are abandoned. In my newbie writer phase, I would start writing before I could develp any kind of premise let alone a strong one. Those will never be resurrected. My last couple suffer from weak endings. The ending I came up with at first just don’t fit. They will probably get another look.

    Thanks for the thought provoking post.

  15. Ha! I can relate. The other day I was cleaning out an old external drive and happened upon notes for a romantic suspense I was working on oh, maybe 20 years ago. Won’t reveal the title because I still love it and might try again. But the first chapter was just cringe-awful. The notes for the plot were what-the…? Haven’t a clue what this book was supposed to be about. But I had put in big bold caps:



  16. This made me smile, Jim! And I love reading everybody’s responses to this.

    It all made me remember when, after Indie took off, I came across a proposal for a story that was the only one my traditional editor ever rejected. (To her credit, gently) I’d never forgotten it, even after 20 years. I decided there had to be a reason I still remembered it, so I grabbed some late night hours and wrote it. I doubt it’s exactly like I’d first envisioned (although thankfully no gut bane moment!) but I still loved it. And it triggered four other books, until I had a five-book series, which I put out Indie almost two years ago. With no promotion (which I suck at…) except announcing it, the series did very well on debut, and is still making a bit of money every month. So there, editor! 🙂

    Now I need to go peruse my “Ideas” file again, haven’t in a while.

  17. Yes, poison is another possibility, or an obscure Westphalian religious celebration. I can see “gut bane” as an item on Nathan’s menu. Gutes Benehmen is German for good behavior. Gutbane is a musician in Ghana and also a worldofnerdcraft character. “Butt gain” might be an indicator that dieting is in order. GUT, the acronym stands for “Grand Unified Theory,” so GUT bane might stand for contrarian hypotheses. But GUT can also stand for Genitourinary Tract. GUT Bane might call for treatment with any number of antibiotics.

    Denied for too many attempts X 7, so changing name to Bolivar Paskoodnik.

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