When to Let Go of a Manuscript

Feb 5, 2013

I did something fun this past Christmas. For those who've been around long enough, you might remember my previous manuscript, Devolutionaries. I worked on it for over a year, queried it for 8 months, and got some bites but ultimately nobody loved it quite enough.

Except my teenage brother. I emailed it to him, and he raved about it. Multiple times. Which, of course, made me feel all warm and fuzzy inside. So for Christmas, I uploaded the book to Lulu and had it printed out in book-form for him. (And,  let's not lie. For me too, because I still love the book. And yes, I got a little giddy when a book came in the mail with my name on it even though it was basically just an expensive print job.)

Farewell, lizard-alien-from-another-
dimension story! *not the
plot of my story.* (source)
I mentioned this to some online writing friends, and someone asked me if I loved it so much, and if others loved it so much, why did I let that one go?

This is a very tough question. But basically, it boils down to this: it simply wasn't my best work anymore. I'm not saying it was badly written. In fact, I picked it up about a year ago to decide if I wanted to go back to it, and I was quite proud of it. I couldn't necessarily pick out anything WRONG with it (though I'm sure crit partners could). But in the end, I left it in its virtual drawer.

Because I'd written another book in the meantime. A better book. In some subtle ways, I'd become a better writer, and no amount of fixing that old book would bring it up to caliber. It was kind of a bittersweet moment. You see, that book was where I really applied myself to the craft for the first time. I learned more through that book than any I've ever written. And it's still (in my opinion) a great story. But it had its time.

I've seen a lot of writers stick to one book. They rewrite it and revise it and edit it and start from scratch and rewrite it again for ten years. And you know what? That's okay. Because only you as a writer can decide if this work is the one that will take just a bit more push and hit that hot button. I have a friend who did that and, bam, the story found itself. But make sure to write other things in the meantime. Brandon Sanderson himself (yeah, I'm totally name-dropping like I'm the guy's best friend *no shame*) told all of us students to write something completely new for his class. (Which I initially ignored, and learned to rue the day, but that's another story...)

Writing something new is the best way to apply what you learned with the old. So, when do you let go of one and move on? There's no solid answer. It takes being honest with yourself. It takes crit partners willing to be honest with you. It takes working on something new and going back to see if you can truly make that story what it should be. And it takes a willingness to let go and play with a new story that has potential to be a million times better.

So, my friends, have you had a hard time letting go of a manuscript? How did you know it was time? Or did you go back to one and make it better? How did you know that one could get there?

18 comments:

Rosalyn said...

I've thought about this a lot. I wrote a lot as a kid (in high school and college) and then life got in the way and I didn't write much for 10 years (well, except for a dissertation, but that's a totally different kind of writing!). When I picked up writing again, Jenilyn warned me that my first novel might be a practice novel. I really resented her saying that at the time--I mean, I'd had lots of practice *before*--but I'm starting to understand that now. I'm just about ready to query this novel, and while I hope it takes, I also recognize that there's a (good) chance it won't. I've put everything I know into it--if it doesn't take, I'll just assume that this means I have more to learn. In the meantime, I just wrote chapter one for my shiny new project . . .

Anyway, this post is very timely for me, so thank you!

ilima said...

I have that one manuscript that I still really love but I don't know if I'll go back and revise it. Beta readers still ask me about it cause they loved it, but like you, I've moved on and written better books. Perhaps a rewrite will be in my future for that book, but if not, that's okay too.

Angie said...

I liked Devolutionaries. It was a good story.i'm glad that you are happy with your decision!

Gene Phillips said...

Excellent point. I have various early works that I wish I could find time to revise, but it may be just as well that I just keep working on current stuff instead.

--though I did revive an old character for a story submission. If the story were to generate some sort of fandom, I'd have to look at the old novel again...

Kami McArthur said...

Yeah, I think it depends on the writer and the story.

The other day I pulled out a short story I wrote two years ago. I feel like I did a good job on it and a lot of people in college thought I did too.

But when I pulled it out again, I realized that some of the dialogue was just going weird--I knew it was a little off the first time; I was experimenting with dialogue in that story. But when I was looking over it I was like "Meh...I don't know if I want to try to fix it." So I put it away again.

Maybe I'll fix it someday. Maybe I won't. I'm not going to right now because I have other projects going on.

Mary Mary said...

In many ways, I've had to let my first novel go to live on a shelf. This was the one I won all my awards with, the one I poured so much of a broken heart into, and the one I wanted to write as a trilogy. Alas, I have never had much luck with it with agents, mainly because it's too narrative.

But, I'm always moving forward. I revise one book and write another at the same time, because I can't stop all the stories in my head. Do I really want to finish that trilogy? Of course! But the time has never been right for it.

Angela Cothran said...

Sometimes you just have to tell yourself you aren't letting go, but just working on something new for a while. Then when you go back you can really see what is wrong :)

Michelle Merrill said...

I still hope to see that story surface for the public one day :) But I totally know what you mean. I've written a few books that might not ever get to a better point. And I've written others that I continue to revise because I can't drop the story yet. But I write to write and I love it. Hopefully one day I'll write for the public, but until my writing reaches that point, I'm going to keep writing and improving my craft :)

L said...

Sometimes your manuscript is like your baby. You love it unconditionally.

Jessie Humphries said...

I had to do that with two other books. The first, I didn't cry about letting go because it sucked so big time! But the second was much harder and I still think about it from time to time. But it just wasn't the genre I wanted to be in anymore. I could see myself taking characters from that second book and writing a contemporary story in that setting. That would be so way incredibly cool now that I think about it!

Madeline Jane said...

Fantastic post! I'm glad that you realized what had to be done. :) And it's true, too. It's like drawing a picture with crayons when you're three, and then try to fix it after you're done with art school. Sometimes it's best to let go.

Linda Jackson said...

Such a great post, Shallee. Since you asked, I'll tell you my story. I self-published a book in 2002. It did well. It is even on school reading lists. People want to know why I don't promote it anymore. In short, I think I'm a better writer than I was 12 years ago, so I basically want to put that story to rest. Now the present. I have a manuscript that I have been revising for 4 years. I have decided to start from scratch on it. I have written new material in the meantime, but I can't seem to let this story go. Funny thing is, I have decided to do what you did for your brother. If it doesn't sell this time, I will self-publish it for myself and a few others who might want to read it. Then I will let it go. :)

Jenilyn Collings said...

I think part of it is when you get to the point where you are changing things to make it different, but not necessarily better. To me, that's definitely a sign that it's time to move on.

Great post! Thanks. :)

Lynda R Young said...

Yep, I can totally understand this. I've let manuscripts go, and I'm okay with that.

Rachna Chhabria said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Rachna Chhabria said...

Shallee, I can totally understand this. I have let a manuscript go and I started another one. After these revisions, will start another one (dark and edgy this time)

Meredith said...

Ugh, it's always so hard to let go of a manuscript. But if I realize that it's not my best work, that makes it so much easier. Good luck with your new work!

Amy L. Sonnichsen said...

This is so good, Shallee. I've let three manuscripts go, but I don't think it's ever completely goodbye. They're all becoming reborn in my newer (better) books, with better writing and better hooks & plots. Not the same books at all, mind you, but I insert my favorite parts of the old books into the new ... and that's fun. No writing is ever wasted!

 
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