Manuscripts are languishing on hard disks everywhere. I just know it. How do I know? Because I had two books that I “shelved” and took literally years to finally complete.
I know I’m not alone. A book is a big project, and if you put it aside, it becomes more and more difficult to pick up the longer you let it sit.
Newton’s First Law of Motion defines inertia as the tendency for an object in motion to remain in motion and an object at rest to stay at rest.
When you’re actively working on a book, you have your own creative momentum working to your advantage. However, when you set it aside, inertia sets in and you need some extra force to get it going again.
Picking up a project that you have set aside is more difficult than it may seem. You may have set aside your book because it “wasn’t working.” Maybe you got lost in the organization, got bogged down in research, or simply hit a roadblock that was too complicated to deal with at the time.
Understanding Your Fear
No matter why you stopped, once you stop working on a book, along with general inertia you may have fear going against you. Your fears may take a couple of slightly different forms.
1. Threshold paranoia. This term is one I made up years ago and is a term for being nervous about going someplace new or trying new things. The term comes from our dog Cami. In an article I wrote, “For the three years before we discovered that her behavior problems were because of a lack of thyroid hormones, Cami was one weird animal. She was very stressed about entering rooms and would lurk poised at doorways around the house staring in nervously. Eventually, she’d run in with a big furry flourish and proud look on her face, like she’d just done the most brave thing ever.”
When you stop working on a book, getting started again often seems like an overwhelmingly hard thing to do–almost like starting over. In your mind, the scope of work grows as fear sets in. What if the book really sucks?
I had this problem with my pet book Happy Hound. I had struggled with the outline and I set it aside for years because I thought the book wasn’t salvageable and was terrified that the book was terrible. It was an extreme case of threshold paranoia. The act of working on the book was nowhere near as awful as the prospect of doing it.
2. Emotional issues. If you were working on the book during a difficult time in your life, you may have subtle emotions keeping you from returning to it. My book Web Business Success had been edited by someone who I later realized had changed my voice to the point that the book no longer sounded like me. I was upset about it, but never said anything. After the person disappeared from my life, I realized I was also angry at her. The emotions stemming from that particular time in my life made returning to the book far more difficult.
Feeling the Fear and Doing It Anyway
In the War of Art, author Steven Pressfield describes the concept of “resistance.” He says,
“Resistance is experienced as fear; the degree of fear equates to the strength of Resistance. Therefore, the more fear we feel about a specific enterprise, the more certain we can be that that enterprise is important to us and to the growth of our soul. That’s why we feel so much Resistance. If it meant nothing to us, there’d be no Resistance.”
Resistance generally manifests itself as procrastination, distraction, and avoidance.
Some unfinished projects don’t bother you. Maybe you’ve moved on to other things or it’s not interesting any more. But my books were ones I really wanted to write. Every time I saw the files on my hard disk, I felt sad.
Even though I definitely felt a lot of resistance, I fought it. In my case, the solution was to tear apart the books, almost paragraph by paragraph. The act of tearing them up seemed to break down a lot of the walls and the fear.
Conceptually, it was kind of like a mechanic taking apart a car engine. I think cars are kind of magical. My husband on the other hand has taken apart a car engine and put the whole thing back together, so it’s not mysterious anymore.
In much the same way, by tearing apart my books and reassembling, I dealt with both threshold paranoia and my own emotions. It was extremely freeing and rewarding in the end.
If you are sad about a book that hasn’t seen the light of day in a while, I encourage you to face your fears. Have the courage to return to that book project that still has a hold on your heart.