When to Give Up on Your Novel
I gave up on Novel #1 after sending out 25 queries over a period of seven months. By the time I signed with my agent for Novel #2, I’d sent out 153 queries for a little over two years. What was the difference? Why did I give up on Novel #1 so easily, yet kept pursuing Novel #2 despite heaps of rejection? The decision to shelve Novel #1 (my passion project, my baby, as most first novels are) was actually not an easy one.
If you yourself are in Manuscript Limbo, here are some things to think about when trying to decide if you should chalk it up to a good experience and “trunk” your book, or buckle down for another round of revision:
1. Does your manuscript have forward momentum?
Are you receiving form rejections on your query, with no requests for additional pages? Or is there some sort of progress or interest that indicates your novel could go the distance? Examples are:
- Your query is garnering partial and/or full manuscript requests.
- You’re offered an R&R (revise and resubmit) from an agent or editor.
- You were chosen to participate in a contest: Pitch Madness, Sun vs. Snow, Pitch Wars, etc.
All of these are legitimate reasons to go back and look at your manuscript with a critical eye to see how it could be improved. For me, Novel #1 received requests and an R&R. Novel #2 received requests, multiple R&Rs, and was an Honorable Mention in Pitch Wars. It was clear that both novels were considered well-written and salable, so forward momentum alone was not a good enough reason to keep working on them; other tests were needed.
2. Are suggested edits true to your vision?
So often we’re desperate to justify the hundreds of hours we’ve already sunk into a project, that we’re willing to do whatever it takes to get an agent/get published. When faced with R&Rs for both novels, I followed author Ingrid Thoft’s advice:
“How do you decide which advice to incorporate into your writing and which to relegate to the ‘thanks, but no thanks’ folder? The most important factor, in my mind, is, does the advice make your work better? Does it improve the flow, the prose or the characters? Does it make things less confusing for the reader or heighten the suspense? Or does the advice just make it different?” (bolding mine)
For Novel #1, the agent wanted a different plot, wanted me to change the entire point of the story. Fearful of turning away such an opportunity, I gave her R&R a lot of thought, but in the end, decided I wasn’t going to destroy my vision for the book just to be published. The focus of the R&R for Novel #2 was an age group change (YA to MG), but the difference was that I truly felt that the agent’s feedback would make my story stronger, and so was happy to dive back into revision even though I knew it would be a lot of work. (It also helped that I received similar advice from multiple agents around the same time, and could draw a consensus.) During the four months I spent on the revision, I couldn’t believe just how natural the edits came and how perfect my novel felt as a MG, which was a sign that I was on the right track.
3. Do you still enjoy your story?
Bear with me as I put on my Captain Obvious cap for a second. Diving back into revision means you get to read your novel again — which could be exciting, or boring, or torture… Take off your blinders for a second, the ones that keep you pushing pushing pushing to make progress on your novel, and do a gut check. If the thought of reading your story one more time makes you want to go scrub the toilet (anything to avoid sitting in front of your computer), it’s time to trust your instincts and shelve your story. If, however, rereading your manuscript has you reveling in your inner Peter Pan (“Oh, the cleverness of me!”), then chances are you still possess the motivation to keep chugging away at this manuscript.
At the risk of sounding conceited, rereads of Novel #2 still had me chuckling at the witticisms, still made me emotional over the final confrontation, still pulled me along in the narrative and kept me entertained. I didn’t remember feeling that way with Novel #1, and that was how I knew to keep working on Novel #2, even after years of effort, even after my tenth draft.
4. Does it have you moving in the right direction in your career?
When I started writing seriously, my goal was to become a children’s book author. But after drafting Novel #1, it became apparent that it was not Young Adult (as I’d intended to write) but firmly Adult.
Novel #2 was definitely in children’s territory (though still not YA as I eventually discovered — much to my chagrin). The choice to shelve Novel #1 wasn’t as painful as it could have been because focusing on Novel #2 meant returning to my original goal.
5. Is your age group/genre still going strong?
Yes, it’s important to write from your heart and not just to satisfy the market, but it’s foolish to ignore the market altogether—this is a business, after all, and you need to know the market if you hope to get published.
The Publishers Weekly Children’s Bookshelf email is sent out semi-weekly (on Tuesdays and Thursdays) and contains a section called “Rights Report,” which details what books have sold, to whom and by whom. You can sign up for it (and other newsletters) here. Knowing what editors are acquiring right now (i.e. the books that will be on shelves in roughly a year or two) can help you determine if you’re hitting a trend or already missed the wagon.
If you’re contemplating a lengthy revision, it behooves you to consider the timeline of revision + querying + editing with an agent, to determine when you could actually feasibly go on submission with your novel. If you think publishing houses will be glutted with similar stories to yours, you might need to shelve your novel and wait for the next time that particular trend comes around.
That was the case for Novel #1. My subject matter was cropping up in books, movies, and TV shows while I was querying, so once I realized that my manuscript needed some major gutting and a new round of research, I knew that I would ultimately miss the trend. Whereas with Novel #2, I’m confident that my premise is unique, I haven’t seen anything like it coming out in the next several years, and yet I know that it’ll fit in nicely on the MG Fantasy shelf.
6. Do you have other projects you’re equally (or more) passionate about?
This one is tricky. Enthusiasm for another manuscript in rough draft form is preferable to enthusiasm for that new idea brewing in your head. This isn’t to say that a new idea can’t be just the ticket to keeping forward momentum in your career, only that you must be aware that something ethereal (and thus perfect) is always going to look more appealing than something tangible (that’s inherently flawed).
When I was weighing if I should keep querying Novel #1, I already had Novel #2 waiting in the wings, having written the rough draft the year before. The common industry advice to write something new while you’re querying/on submission is solid; it keeps you from feeling like your first manuscript is your One and Only Chance.
Especially if you’re pre-published, ask yourself: Am I okay with another novel being my debut?
If you do decide to abandon your manuscript, it’s important to reflect on all of the positives that came out of your experience. Maybe you stumbled upon a website during your research that’ll come in handy for a future novel. Maybe you discovered what words and phrases you overuse while drafting. Maybe line edits forced you to finally look up the rules surrounding tense changes. Acknowledging the strides you made will help take the sting out of shelving your novel. Remember that no writing is ever a waste of time if you learned something.