How Do You Know When to Give Up?

Monday, November 16, 2020


I have one young adult manuscript I’ve spent years working on, and finally published on the free digital platform Wattpad last year. I also entered the first 20 pages in a book adaptation contest almost a year ago. After having been turned down by numerous literary agents, I thought the book, which is told from the point of view of a young man who has taken his own life, might have potential as an adapted work. 

After a long weekend spent editing and writing magazine copy for my day job, I received my feedback from the contest in my inbox last night. It was not good, and probably was the last thing I needed to read when I was already under a great deal of stress.

This is the second time I’ve submitted my story to a contest and was basically told it isn’t marketable. The person in charge of writing my critique called the premise of the book “bizarre,” and also said the following: 

It covers quite heavy subject matter—molestation, depression, suicide—and yet the intended audience for this seems to be in the YA range, given the young(ish) age of all the main characters. These are subjects that are generally not covered in films/TV shows intended for younger audiences, adding yet another complication to the potential marketplace success of this piece. 

I was a little confused because I read a lot of YA, and from what I can tell, dark sells. Also, plenty of YA novels feature characters that are 17-18 years old. These are themes that are covered in young adult novels, and have also been in adaptations (mostly on streaming services, I’ve noticed). So this led me to wonder if it is simply time to give up on this book (which was inspired by a real-life event that happened when I was in high school). Maybe it’s my writing and delivery that aren’t marketable. 

I’m not going to lie and say I suck at writing. I have enough confidence in myself to know that there are specific things I can write well, such as podcast scripts, flash fiction and magazine articles. But maybe young adult fiction is where I need to hang up my hat. The other thing I could possibly do is go through one last round of professional editing and then self publish it. I’m creating an audience with “Missing in the Carolinas,” and I’m pretty sure the listeners of the podcast don’t mind dark themes. It’s hard to know, but it’s something to think about. It’s hard not to feel depressed about critical feedback, no matter where it comes from. I mentioned earlier in this post that I've received comments that the book wasn't marketable. I also received positive feedback once from an artist grant application that the characters were very well developed and the committee thought I would be able to finish the book successfully without the grant. No wonder I'm confused!

I have another YA novel I wrote a few years ago during NaNoWriMo that may have more potential, so I’ll also consider working more on that one in the future instead. I still have dreams of being a YA novelist, so I’m not sure I’m ready to give up on that just yet. 

Renee Roberson is an award-winning freelance writer and magazine editor who also hosts a true crime podcast called "Missing in the Carolinas." Learn more at


Jeanine DeHoney said...

Renee, I can understand your confusion and frustration. Your subject matter is important though, because so many young adults have unfortunately gone through and are still going through these same situations. There is a real need for a novel such as yours. I hope you don't give up on your dream of publishing this novel or other novels in the YA genre. Your voice about these issues needs to be heard and I'm sure if you keep submitting your novel(s) will find a home.

Joanne said...

Renee, I empathize with your confusion and frustration. I guess if it were my project I'd get back in touch with my "why" and see if it is still important, and let that determine your course forward. As for not being marketable, I'm surprised. These publishers / agents seem not to know about the book The Lovely Bones, a story told in the voice of a 14-year-old girl who was kidnapped and murdered. It's by Alice Sebold--maybe you're familiar with it? There's an interview with her by Charlie Rose at this link if you want to check it out:

Nicole Pyles said...

Renee I know exactly how you feel! There are quite a few short stories I've been trying to publish and I'm not getting any success on them. I'm so frustrated! I absolutely see a market for your book though. A lot dark fiction speaks directly to what people are going through! It's hard to say what is best to do, but I think if there is a yearning in your heart to keep going with this book, I say don't give up!

Cathy C. Hall said...

Sometimes feedback is just wrong, Renee. The YA market is full of ALL those dark subjects. Just take a look over at Goodreads to find the YA books that are favorites of that age group. You won't find much sweetness and light. :-)

But there may be something else in your manuscript that's somehow not connecting. Or there may be nothing at all. Meanwhile, you're building a great fan base with your podcast so self-publishing may be the way to go.

I'd say, use your energy on the stuff you really care about. And don't let the naysayers (to put it politely) get you down. :-)

Angela Mackintosh said...

Renee ~ You know that feedback is wrong! Um, hello, we've been interviewing YA authors on this subject for years! Example: Writing About Sensitive Topics for Young Adults: Interview with Ellen Hopkins, Cheryl Rainfield, and Jay Asher - these authors wrote bestselling YA novels on topics like suicide, drug abuse, cutting, prostitution, sexual abuse, etc, and some of them were also made into films/TV shows.

I would take "bizarre" as a compliment. There is an audience for every type of writing, and I personally look for dark, weird, surreal, raw, traumatic storylines to help understand my own life. More and more I'm feeling the need to greenlight my own projects. You greenlighted "Missing in the Carolinas," and have an audience. You could greenlight your novel and self pub or indie pub. I know rejection sucks, but it just means that the market wasn't the right fit. I truly believe that. There are people that need your book, Renee! In our next ezine issue, we interview a bestselling YA author who received over 200 rejections.

Renee Roberson said...

Thanks everyone for all the encouraging words and sage advice!

Jeanine--You are right in that someone needs to advocate for people battling depression and the other issues tackled in the book. I also feel strongly that there is such a stigma surrounding young men telling their stories and seeking treatment--that is something I feel so strongly about. This book was inspired by a real-life event that happened while I was in high school that has always stayed with me.

Joanne--I did read "The Lovely Bones" back when it first came out and it haunted me. I'll go back and listen to that interview you shared, but I seem to remember there being a lot of confusion surrounding which genre to originally place the book in. It did well as literary mainstream/fiction even though it had a 14-year-old protagonist, so I've wondered if I should shift gears in the positioning of my book.

Nicole--It is frustrating when you feel strongly about a piece of work and then get conflicting, feedback, isn't it? You've had some great results persisting, though!

Cathy--Yeah, I didn't understand that part of the feedback. The YA genre is almost nothing but dark and while "13 Reasons Why" was controversial and now a banned book in some places, Netflix didn't seem to have a problem adapting it. I was thinking about that project specifically when entering this contest. But showing it to another professional editor may help me decide if I need to market it in different genre or add something else to it. It's hard to get/receive feedback on just the first 20 pages of a project, I know.

Angela--The bizarre comment made me laugh. I did also get this piece of feedback: "The central storyline of this manuscript is certainly a unique one—and for that, the author deserves a heap of credit." LOL! I do think there are times we need to produce our own work, like you suggested, and this may be one of them. My other YA seems like it would have more a commercial appeal, while "Between" could just be meant for an indie focus. Thanks for always having my back! Looking forward to that e-zine issue!

Margo Dill said...

I've read this manuscript or at least a version of it and I also don't think that you are off the mark for YA. Ellen Hopkins who has been mentioned here is dark and banned. I don't think your book is that dark--I mean it's serious and full of emotion but you handle it sensistively. I do think some books don't make it past the gatekeepers but readers love them. So don't give up!

Sue Bradford Edwards said...

I'm not asking you to "out" the person who gave this feedback, but ask yourself this. Is this person as YA novelist/editor? If so, do they only produce "bubble gum"? Not that I'm panning the sweet and snappy. It fills a need. But this sounds to me like someone who hasn't read much YA. I know you loved the book One of Us Is Lying. Dark and deals with similar topics to your book. And yet, it was published. As YA.

I'm not saying don't self publish but if you have had less than 50 rejections, there's no reason to stop submitting it.

Do it. Do it now.


Sioux Roslawski said...

Renee--I'm sorry I'm so late making a comment. I think I commented in my sleep/dreams.

That is crazy feedback. Kids love dark stuff. They live dark stuff. The dark stuff helps them navigate their own dark lives.

Let it roll off you, and don't give up.

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