Q: When is it time to drop your manuscript and move on?

Wednesday, April 10, 2013
One thing that makes publishing an e-zine issue worthwhile is the feedback we get from readers. We often receive compliments, thank yous, and success stories related to the markets or advice in an issue. On occasion, we receive a question related to the topic of the e-zine issue that we did not cover.

After reading WOW’s latest e-zine issue on Revision & Self-Editing, Janet C. wrote in with a question that we felt deserved more exploration. Her question is below, along with some great answers from some of WOW's experts with varying viewpoints. We’d love it if you shared your opinion at the end of this post as well.

As a writer, how do you make the decision you’re beating a dead horse rather than being persistent by revising and resending your manuscript to yet another agent or publisher? It’s your baby. You love it. Your beta readers continue to love it (for whatever good that does you!). But at some point, you have to come to terms with the concept that it might not be good enough writing to publish. I know, I know; there are a lot of bad manuscripts out there that sell. But I’m talking about people like me who won’t settle for less than awesome. Where is that line and how does a writer know how to find it, drop your manuscript, and move on?
~ Janet C.


Allena Tapia writes:

A few things:
  1. She should consider taking the manuscript to a writer’s conference and pay the extra money for a one-on-one. At said meeting, she should insist on honest, bare-bones feedback.
  2. Stephen King. Stephen King. Stephen King. Anytime I hear this question, all I can think of is the forty-odd times he’d been rejected (thirty for Carrie alone!).
  3. In the absence of time and money for #1, above, she may want to find a (new) writer’s group. Perhaps her current compadres are now too close to the manuscript, too.
  4. Has there been any feedback from agents? Anything at all—“Good, but not for us,” etc? Those few phrases should definitely weigh in, too.
[Allena's upcoming class: How to Become a Paid Book Reviewer]


Devon Ellington writes:

One of my classes, “The Graveyard of Abandoned Projects,” actually deals with something similar to this—how do you know when it’s not working and when to put it away?

First of all, make sure you’re dealing with a finished draft because unfinished projects drain creative energy. So, even if you’re having second thoughts, finish the latest revision. If this is a piece you’ve been working on for a long time, you’re probably sick of it.

Put it away for about two months.

Very important: During those two months, work on something new. Or several somethings new, if you work in both long and short formats. If all you do is sit around without writing, you’ll just spin. Keep writing. Every day. Even (especially) on the days you don’t feel like it. Apply what you learned from the process of writing the book to the new piece.

Re-read it, with fresh eyes, as though someone else wrote it. How does it feel when you read it? Is it something you’d buy in a bookstore? Or does something feel off? Have you learned anything in the interim—working on another project—that helps get this one in perspective? What can you apply?

Look at any notes you received from places you submitted, or from your trusted readers. Do they all like the same things? Dislike the same things?

Research the market. Is there anything out there that is similar? How is it doing? How does your piece stand apart from it? Is it before its time? Have similar books in the arena peaked? Does yours stand out enough to re-invigorate interest?

I agree with everything Allena said, especially about getting some one-on-one feedback at a conference or from an agent/editor/mentor meeting. Some editors will let you submit just the first three chapters for intensive line editing/critique, and, if you’re self-motivated, you can take those comments and apply them to the overall book.

Do you still love the piece? That is the litmus test. If you can’t see your way to living with it any longer, continuing to revise, and then live with it through the production process and the marketing once the book goes out—put it aside. Keep working on things. Maybe in a few years, you’ll come back to it and get re-energized. Maybe it was your training wheels book. Maybe you needed to write this to explore characters and/or themes that you want to take in a different direction in another book, but you wouldn’t have been able to do so without this one.

Remember, nothing is ever wasted. Everything is a foundation to something else. Finish the draft, even if you then decide to shelve it indefinitely. If you leave a partially finished draft around, it will hurt you when you try to move on to other projects.

The knowledge of when to keep working and when to put something away is, ultimately, in your gut. Your heart will take you on a complicated route, as will your head. What is your gut response when you handle the manuscript? Learn how to separate head, heart, and gut responses—and go with your gut.

[More from Devon in Issue 55: The Layered Edit]


Cathy C. Hall writes:

As I’m currently dealing with a similar situation, I’ve given this “beating a dead horse” subject quite a bit of thought lately—ahem.

So, I’m thinking that this is a manuscript that has received feedback from agents/publishers? If the feedback’s been positive (a personal response rather than a form response, a request to see more pages, or even a positive critique at a conference) then I think it’s likely that the manuscript has potential. What might be keeping the manuscript from breaking out is concept. It could be fine writing, great voice, wonderful technique—but lacking in original concept. I think Devon mentioned something about a manuscript being different enough. If an agent/publisher is going to make money from your writing, it has to be writing that will sell. Agent Jill Corcoran mentioned this point at a conference I recently attended. That a fantastic concept with great writing and luck will help you sell your book. (Notice, she said fantastic concept and luck—that’s how hard it is!) But you have to star with concept. Do your homework, look at comparative titles, and before you do any more rewriting or revision, determine whether the concept is fantastic enough to warrant more of your time and energy.

Hope that helps! (And P.S. I read Save the Cat—it’s a screenwriting book that Corcoran recommended—so that I could figure out concept once and for all. It was hugely helpful!)


Kathy Higgs-Coulthard writes:

It is very hard to put away a novel that you have invested so much in. I should know. I have two novels that I have set aside as “trunk novels” to borrow Stephen King’s term. I have three more that I am still revising and another one I just started. I have learned so much from each of these. When I wrote them and revised them tirelessly, I felt they each were The One. Now, with more experience writing, I feel like each was a stone in the path to publication. I had to walk that way to learn what I have learned. I still may publish them someday, but meanwhile, I’ve developed a feel for when I cannot improve a novel without growing more as a writer.

[More from Kathy in Issue 55: Help! I've Frankenmonstered My Manuscript]


So, there you have it! Four of WOW’s experts chimed in with their opinions. What about yours? How do you make the decision that you're beating a dead horse? When is it time to drop your manuscript and move on?


Sioux Roslawski said...

It was interesting to read several writers' answers. Thanks for posting the different perspectives.

Unknown said...

I agree-- good to read different perspectives on this question. My guess is it comes down to some soul-searching and a heart quest to determine the answer for yourself. (Says the girl with a dead MS on her computer.)

Marcia Peterson said...

A helpful, round table discussion!I love that writers can come to WOW for real answers/feedback from women in the writing trenches.

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