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.
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.