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When to Put the Baby (Your Book) to Bed

Hi all! Stacey here with my buddy and fellow PubCrawler Stephanie Garber. There comes a time in every writer’s life when the manuscript you spent months, sometimes years, honing will need to be shelved. Gulp. Let’s discuss when it’s time to put the baby to bed. 

For every book I’ve written, there are at least two that will never see the light of day. Even with three books under my belt, not everything that shoots from my pen sparkles. I recently decided not to pursue a manuscript for which I had already written 30,000 words. It was hard, especially after having spent six months researching for it. And it won’t be the last time that happens.

Stacey's Shelf of Lost Dreams (shelved manuscripts)

Stacey’s Shelf of Lost Dreams (shelved manuscripts)

So, how do you know when it’s time to give up on your masterpiece, your precious, your baby?

First, it’s not a baby. While yes, your manuscript can rob you of sleep and make you gain weight even though you’re only eating cucumbers, you don’t have to change its diapers. And as it gets older, it doesn’t ask you for a cell phone until one day you give in and then they drop it down the toilet. *Deep breath.*

Think of every story you write as class you’ve taken on how to make your manuscript stronger. All manuscripts teach us something. One of the early manuscripts I trashed was an underwater fantasy. Among other problems, I had forgotten to explain why everyone could breathe underwater. I had also started with the dreaded prologue, and while prologues can work, this one didn’t. The point is, there were a zillion things wrong with it, which meant, there were a zillion lessons I learned from writing it.

Here are seven questions to ask yourself when deciding when to let your manuscript go.

1) Have you queried this manuscript to everyone and their second cousin? If the answer is yes, and you haven’t gotten any nibbles, it’s time to take a hard look at whether it’s them, or it’s you. Agents can reject for myriad reasons. Popular reasons for passing include: an idea is not fresh, lacks stakes, or is just poorly executed. Take an honest look at your work. Do any of the common reasons for rejection apply to your book? If so, consider how much work it will take to fix, and if you feel like there is no way you could possibly drag that bag of fix bricks across the finish line, then drop it now.

2) Is the attraction purely conceptual? When you’ve yet to sell a book, it can be tempting to obsess over the wish lists of agents and editors and come up with a concept because you think it will sell. Most of us have done this, and it’s not a bad thing, but sometimes it can produce manuscripts that sound shiny in a pitch, but lack any real heart. The best stories are often the ones that only you can write, i.e., the ones that reflect something you’ve personally struggled with.

3) Are you a beginning writer? There are very few authors whose first book makes it into the publishing mill. If this is your first story, and your response from your readers or the industry is lackluster, consider that it may be the one you ‘cut your teeth on’ and let it go. The first book I wrote was a mashup of every nursery rhyme I knew, and I’m not actually sure there was even a plot. That’s the book that taught me I should have a plot. *Bong!* <—the sound of the reject gong.

4) Is the story no longer your raison d’être? I have to admit that the books I loved the most were the ones I felt passionate about writing. I think of them as boyfriends. If you’re not into your boo(k), then he’s not into you, and maybe it’s better to let go now before the ankle biters (sequels) come along and eventually throw your cell phone into the toilet and this all could’ve been avoided if you and the boo(k) had just split up when you knew it wasn’t working.

5) Have you written the book you want to read or the story you wanted to write? It’s easy to imagine these are the same things, but sometimes the stories we need to write are not necessarily the stories people want to read. So take a close look at what you’ve written and think about whether or not it’s a story you would enjoy reading. If they answer is no, you may want to think about putting in a drawer, or revising it into a book that you would enjoy reading.

6) Did you write a book whose subject is no longer in vogue? Vampires, Dystopian, Sick Lit, all ‘done’ for now. We suggest saving it for when these trends return (as they will—Vampires, please come back!). Never think of work as wasted; only as ‘waiting’ for its turn in the spotlight.

7) Did you write a book that is similar to something already out there? We wouldn’t shelve this just yet, because sometimes, a popular book can provoke interest in similar books. For example, The Night Circus spawned a number of stories that used the same device of two dueling magicians, which are doing exceedingly well despite the similarity. Ask yourself, is your book exactly similar or are there ways in which you can distinguish your story (e.g., unique elements or story angles). If so, you may consider keeping!

One final note. Just because you’ve shelved a book doesn’t mean you can’t cannibalize from it. My favorite outfit in college featured a long blue skirt with a sharkbite hem and a matching top with silver buttons. It was the coolest outfit ever. But after a few years, it no longer looked in vogue, so I had to retire it. However, I ended up taking off the buttons and using them on another outfit. I also used the blue fabric on several sewing projects so the dress lived on, so to speak.

It’s the same way with shelving a book. You can still take scenes from the old book and use them in your new books. I personally love doing this, because you’ve already done the legwork, and all that is required is some retrofitting.

Now it’s your turn. In the comments, tell us the moment you knew it was time to let a manuscript go.


14 Responses to When to Put the Baby (Your Book) to Bed

  1. Marc Vun Kannon Aug 22 2016 at 8:32 am #

    So far that’s never happened. With the exception of my fourth novel, I’ve had everything I wrote at least contracted for, and all but one of those got published. Not, however, by a ‘Big Five’ publisher. My work is too unusual, it took me forever to figure out a technique to even describe it. My work got published by a start-up small press that didn’t know better, and then they took me on faith.

    • Stacey Aug 22 2016 at 7:47 pm #

      Ah, 🍔 🍔🍔 for you, and thank you for sharing this. It’s good to know it ‘happens’ for some, and it sounds like your work found appropriate homes!

      • Marc Vun Kannon Aug 23 2016 at 6:38 am #

        Unfortunately that publisher is pretty much out of the game, so I’m forced to either self-publish or see if I can actually write a query letter that works. I think I have, but I had to step away from some of the standard query advice to do it. (https://authorguy.wordpress.com/2016/08/20/abandon-the-reveal/) Here’s hoping I can make it in the real world.
        I was looking around the Manuscript Wish List, by the way, and found at least one agent who had several of you Pub Crawlers on his ‘want to find’ list.

  2. Mandy Aug 22 2016 at 11:20 am #

    This piece is spot on. I wrote four novels before the one that garnered me an agent (and then book deal). I also agree that the material we put away in a drawer, on a shelf or on the hard drive is never lost. When my next book sold earlier this year, the publisher wanted to know if I had anything else with a similar voice. My agent pitched the very first book I wrote (seven years ago) and it sold. The concept was still sound. It just needed rewriting. I’m happy that I have seven years of experience to bring to that revision — and that a manuscript I’ve always loved now has a second chance.

    • Stacey Aug 22 2016 at 7:48 pm #

      What an amazing story, Mandy! Thank you for sharing that. It seems cliche but practice does make perfect!

  3. Laurie Aug 22 2016 at 5:32 pm #

    I have queried my recent mss to more than a dozen agents, and plan to do another dozen or so more before I put this baby to bed, however contrary to what I’m hearing/reading as of late, I have yet to receive any kind of response from an agent other than a routine “this is not a good fit for me at this time.” Only one agent gave me any kind of feedback, and that was based on just the first three chapters. She said “the execution wasn’t what I had hoped it would be.” Which left me scratching my head. Does anyone know what that means? And do unsolicited queries usually receive some kind of feedback? I hadn’t thought so, but several articles, emails, and blogposts in the last two weeks have led me to question my assumption. Am I wrong? Am I not querying the right kind of agents? On questions 2-4 and 6-7, I can honestly answer “No.” And on #5, I wrote the book I wanted to read. Obviously, if I continue to not get a nibble from agents, I will eventually have to put aside the book, but I was curious if it’s custom to receive *some* kind of feedback from agents as opposed to the nondescript rejection letter.
    Thanks for any light you can shed on this.

    • Stacey Aug 22 2016 at 7:57 pm #

      As a general rule of thumb, it used to be that agents rarely provided feedback. With the advent of email queries, this has changed a bit, with some agents having more ‘time’ to respond personally. I would say that manuscripts that get a lot of personal feedback are piquing interest and that’s a great thing, but I wouldn’t take not getting a lot of personal feedback as a death knell. Problems with ‘execution’ is a nice way of saying you didn’t write it well enough, which is the only way I know how to put it. It’s frustrating, but remember that’s only one person’s opinion.

      How many beta reads have you put this one through? Is the MS spit shined and unique? Just a few things to consider as you continue your agent quest with this MS. Good luck with it!

  4. lisa ciarfella Aug 23 2016 at 1:04 am #

    Great post here. Good, solid words of wisdom!

    • Stacey Aug 23 2016 at 1:57 am #

      Thank you so much, Lisa!

  5. Kalpana Aug 23 2016 at 5:21 am #

    Makes a lot of sense. I haven’t sent my boo(K) out to everyone I could think of yet. I guess that’s the first step. Loved reading your blog. Thank you.

  6. TM Hayes Aug 23 2016 at 11:04 am #

    I’m ready to retire my first MS, I kept getting the ” not for me, but encourage you to query widely,” so I took the advice and had a couple of partial and full requests, but ultimately no further interest. It’s a little sad to put it away, but I’m already working on my second novel, and I like the idea of potentially using bits and pieces of it in the future. Thanks for this post, it was great!

  7. Mandy Aug 23 2016 at 2:21 pm #

    I’d also like to note that writers tend to have different definitions of “querying widely.” I met one author who gave up after querying just 10 agents. The book that landed me an agent was rejected by 45 other agents. During that time, I continued to get feedback on the book and revise. Online contests like Pitch Madness are a great way to get feedback from both writers and agents.

  8. Kristen Steele Aug 30 2016 at 2:51 pm #

    Number 4 is a big one. Writing a book is hard work. If your heart really isn’t in it anymore it might be better to let it go. But certainly don’t think of it as wasted time. Every writing project helps make the next one a little bit better.

    • Stacey Aug 31 2016 at 1:57 am #

      Absolutely Kristen. It is SO HARD and no one understands like a writer.

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