Is this manuscript dead?
If you’re a querying writer and you’ve been out in the trenches for a while, chances are you’ve asked yourself that question.
A few weeks ago, I was at a meet up of local Arizona YA writers, put together by the always amazing Amy Trueblood. The conversation turned, as it often does, to the fact that there is so much rejection in publishing – and that during the querying phase, rejection can feel pretty brutal.
I’ve talked a lot on this blog about my first novel, a YA mystery I revised and queried and revised for more than two years. It didn’t get me an agent and didn’t sell. Thinking of that, I told the group, “If I had a time machine, I would go back and shelve that manuscript way sooner. I would have queried it a year. Then I would have moved on. I think the key is to always be thinking about your next project.” I said this with a lot of authority, as if this is what every writer ought to do.
But is it?
My wonderful writer friend, Susan Gray Foster, was sitting next to me and she was shaking her head. She wasn’t so convinced that I was dishing out great advice. And it got me to thinking.
In many ways, Susan and I have had very similar experiences. We connected initially through Brenda Drake’s Pitch Wars contest in 2014 and then realized we live in the same city. We both went through the process of revising and revising and entering contest after contest with our manuscripts.
Then I quit.
I came to feel that the problems in my manuscript were largely unfixable, that I queried and been rejected by most agents that I would want to represent me and that I would have a better shot with a new manuscript.
Susan kept going.
After working through several months of mentoring via Pitch Wars, Susan continued to revise and landed an agent the following summer. Susan is now represented by Caitlin Blasdell of Liza Dawson Associates. Over on her blog, she’s got a breakdown of her book’s stats, which includes the fact that she has 72 different drafts saved on her computer.
Susan is a stick-with-it-success story and I’m a writer for whom things only started to go right when I ditched my first MS and moved on. We’re offering two different perspectives on one question.
Should you put that MS in a drawer?
Kelly says: Probably
For the sake of this discussion, I’m going to assume you’ve been out there for a while. You’ve sent at least 50 queries. Maybe you’ve tried a few online contests. You’ve got great CP’s and they’ve given you their best feedback. You’ve been revising and revising. If you haven’t done those things, go no further because it isn’t the right time to move on. This is especially true, if you’ve struggled to get or maintain relationships with high quality critique partners. If you don’t have a handful of strong writer friends willing to give you helpful, constructive critiques, try to deal with that before doing anything else.
If you have done these things, it might be time to shelve that manuscript. Here, in my opinion, are some signs that it’s the right time to move on.
- Agents are consistently responding to queries saying, “I couldn’t connect with…” and you’re not sure how to address the issue they mention.
- Agents are saying, “Send me your next project.”
- You have queried and been rejected by most of the agents you’d like to see represent you.
- You know there is a problem but aren’t sure how to resolve it.
- Your MS deals with a subject matter or topic that you know to be a very tough sell in the current publishing climate.
- You’ve considered but ruled out self publishing.
In my case, I had two big picture problems. My CP’s, and even a couple agents, told me that I had serious pacing issues around the 100-page mark. That’s where I would typically lose readers. I tried making a lot of changes to resolve this, but in many ways, my novel’s overall concept lent itself to a slowdown in the middle. Plus, I can now see that my draft contained some over utilized elements and tropes.
If you do decide to shelve that manuscript, please do not give up. Move on to your next big idea. Keep going and writing and drafting. A lot of writers, like me, don’t sell their first book. For some people, it’s their second or third or fourth book that gets them an agent and a deal.
Also, take heart in the fact that your idea or MS might not stay in the drawer forever. One of my favorite writers, Christa Desir, recently sold her book FOUR LETTER WORD and tweeted that the book was based on her first idea, that she’d had 19 years ago, and that it had been revised dozens of times on its path to publication. Trends can be cyclical. Inspiration can strike at any time. I’m still really hopeful that, at some point, I’ll figure out how to address problems with my first book and revise it.
Susan says: Not So Fast
Like Kelly explained, my knee-jerk reaction to the question of whether it might be time to shelve a manuscript is different than hers. However, at second glance, maybe Kelly and I have even more in common than we thought, and maybe my answer is not so different after all.
For one thing, the novel that I persisted with for a long, LONG time and ultimately signed my agent with, was not my first. Secondly, during the time I worked at revising this manuscript, I stepped away twice to draft other manuscripts—to give myself a break and gain fresh perspective. However, I can honestly say that I never once seriously entertained the idea of giving up on this manuscript. Why? I love it. I believe in it. I want this story out in the world, and I am determined to make it the best it can be to get it out there.
Some of the issues I’ve tackled (and hopefully conquered) throughout my numerous revisions include: Voice, wrong opening, insta-love, love interest flat/not fleshed out, mushy middle, lagging pace, repetitiveness, main character too passive, antagonist not believable, ending anti-climactic, main character needs more fleshing out/character arc, believability of the central conceit. To summarize, if there’s an issue a manuscript can have, mine has probably had it and I have worked to fix it, learning enough to earn a degree or two along the way, if anyone were keeping track or offering degrees for such a thing. Yet, for all those drafts, for all the critiques and rounds of revision, I don’t think anyone who read my first draft along with the most current draft would think it was a different story. The heart of it is still there. Revisions have made that heart bigger and stronger and deeper.
Here are some reasons to stick with a manuscript and keep working:
- You LOVE what’s at the heart of your manuscript and are determined to do the work it takes to get it right.
- The premise is strong and generates a positive response. (However there may also be ways to put a unique spin on a weaker premise and make it more powerful.)
- You’re receiving constructive feedback and have ideas about how to improve your manuscript.
Sometimes one will see advice floating around on the internet about when it’s time to give up on a manuscript and move on. In fact, as I was completing the revisions I made after Pitch Wars, just as I was preparing to query, an agent I admire (who is also a writer) posted something that amounted to shaking her head and sighing over writers who keep trying and trying with the same manuscript for many years. And, yes, that filled me with doubt and fear. But guess what? Each writer and each story is unique; each journey is unique; each writer has their own pace (Mine is slow!), so I truly believe that only the writer can make the decision about whether or not it’s time to trunk a manuscript. If the heart of your manuscript is strong, and if you are willing to put in more time and effort, if you are determined to work until your manuscript is the very best it can be, I believe you have a good chance of succeeding.
Yes, it can be a mistake to keep working and working at a manuscript that is fundamentally flawed. It can also be a mistake to keep chasing after a shiny new idea rather than putting in the extra effort needed to push an existing manuscript over the top. To quote Ross Perot: “Most people give up just when they’re about to achieve success. They quit on the one yard line. They give up at the last minute of the game one foot from a winning touchdown.”
Regardless of whether you decide to throw in the towel or move forward with revisions, there are a few things you can do to ensure your efforts are as successful as possible.
The #keepgoing checklist:
- Read, read, read – as much as you can but especially in your own category and genre.
- Find and treasure strong, honest critique partners.
- Seek out support. Connect with other writers either online or in person.
- Use your available resources. They don’t call us starving artists for nothing, but if you can afford craft books or conferences, go for it. Otherwise, make the most of free options like craft related blogs, critique contests, the library,
- Seek out feedback from professionals, such as agents (keeping in mind that even professional opinions are subjective).
- Contests can be a great way to test out the strength of your pitch and/or opening pages and to obtain professional feedback.
- Take a break and work on something else. The fresh perspective is invaluable.
- As you revise, periodically ask yourself, “Am I making it better? Or am I just making it different?”
- Make a “love list.” One of our favorite YA authors, Stephanie Perkins, does this. (Check it out HERE.) It can help remind you of what you love about your manuscript, and inspire you to make it the best it can be.
- When you’re ready to query, do so in small batches. That way you can monitor the response you get and adjust your strategy (or continue revising) if necessary, and you avoid burning through all the appropriate agents. (However, if you’ve revised both your manuscript and your query significantly and it’s been at least six months, it’s okay to re-query agents.)
- Keep learning and working to improve your craft. Always.