Monday, April 4, 2011

Monday Motivation - Keep revising or shelve it?

Good decisions come from experience, and experience comes from bad decisions.  ~Author Unknown

Let's say you write a novel. You spend months, maybe even years, writing page after page after page. For the most part, it's fun. You love spending time with your characters. Once in a while, you wonder whether you can do it, whether you can really finish the thing, and some days you have to bribe yourself to simply open the document. But you keep telling yourself to just get the story down. Just write, even if it's bad and doesn't make sense, just keep writing.

So you do. Day after day after day, you write. And then one day, something wonderful happens. You finish that novel! HOORAY! 

After that, you let it rest, like you're supposed to. You spend time away from it so you can come back with fresh eyes and do what needs to be done - rip it to shreds (ha).

When you've done everything you know how to do, you then seek feedback from other writers. Because you know it's hard to see the forest for the trees.  They help you identify plot holes, flat characters, unrealistic dialogue, pacing problems - the list goes on and on.

There is a lot of work to be done. Suddenly, you have doubts. Big doubts. Will this story ever be good enough? Can you make it good enough? 

One of the hardest decisions writers have to make, I think, is deciding between continuing on with a work-in-progress or putting it away and starting over with something new.

When I wrote my first novel, a middle-grade, years ago, I revised it and then took it to a conference for feedback. I got mixed reviews on the first pages - some liked it, some didn't. One editor did ask me to send her the manuscript, which I did. She ended up rejecting it, as did a few agents I queried. 

I didn't exhaust my list of agents with that book. It only took a few rejections for me to know it was time to stick it away and try writing something else. How did I come to that conclusion? I think it was a combination of things, but I remember hearing editors and authors speak at the conference, and something resonated with me. Your story has to be one others will be *excited* to read. Your premise has to make someone sit up and say - oh, that sounds GOOD! And then, when they are excited, you have to be able to deliver in a big way. 

My first novel didn't have that. My second novel might have had it, but then there were plot problems. I took it into weird territory, and I could never figure out how to fix it. My third novel was better, but still... I just couldn't get things to come together quite right. 

I've always said, I don't view those early novels I wrote as a waste of time. I view them as my schooling. With each one, I learned things. And still today, when I write, I'm learning things. After all, there is a LOT to learn! 

I think these are the questions you should ask yourself as you evaluate whether to keep going with a manuscript:

1) Is your premise unique? 

2) Can you describe what your book is about in one sentence? What are people's reaction when you share that sentence with them? Be honest here.

3) Is there lots of tension in your story? Does your main character go through some difficult stuff? If not, are you up to the task of adding in tension? 

Donald Maass, literary agent, says this, in The Breakout Novelist (which I'll be reviewing here soon): "Beginning novelists tend to tell their stories in strict sequential order, following the protagonist through her every day from sunrise to sleep, over and over again, until the novel is completed. That can make for some dull reading. The essence of story is conflict. That principle is so well understood, so often espoused, and so universally taught, it is easily the underlying and fundamental component of plot. Why, then, do so many manuscripts ration out conflict the way water is rationed on a desert trek?"

4) Are your characters memorable? Do they have qualities about them that will make a reader remember them long after they've turned the last page? They can't just be characters we meet everyday in life. They need to be special somehow. A little bit extraordinary. 

If we look at Isabel in the middle-grade novel, It's Raining Cupcakes, at first glance, she may seem like just an ordinary girl. She doesn't always get along with her mom, like many girls. She is sometimes a little bit envious of her best friend, like many girls. She rides her bike, she collects turtles, she likes to bake. All ordinary things. But she has a dream. A *big* dream. And through the book, she chases that dream, and what makes it so hard is one of the biggest obstacles of Isabel getting her dream is her very own mother. I know lots of people don't like Isabel's mom. They don't like how Isabel takes on more than a 12-year-old girl should have to take on in regards to her mother. But you see, THAT IS THE POINT. That's what makes Isabel memorable - she keeps going in spite of her mother. And that's what makes the reader route for Isabel all the more.

5) And finally, is this a story you can see people getting excited about, and passing around to other people after they've read it? WHY will they be excited? If there is one element of the story you say - yes, this is exciting stuff, you need to make sure THAT element is the major element of the plot. Move things around so that exciting thing is pulling the reader through the story. 

If you go through these questions and you feel deflated after reading them, not energized, then it may be time to put the current manuscript away and start working on something new. If you choose to do this, please understand, it's okay! It doesn't make you a failure! I know I wouldn't have four published novels and three more on the way if I hadn't been brave enough to shelve projects that just weren't cutting it and start in on something new.

Writers write. They keep moving forward. Sometimes that will be in making a manuscript the best it will be. And other times, that will be starting fresh with a new manuscript and saying, "I can do better. I will do better this time."

Noah Lukeman, literary agent and author of The First Five Pages, says at the end of the book, "The ultimate message of this book, though, is not that you should strive for publication, but that you should become devoted to the craft of writing, for its own sake."

If you think of it that way, there really is no right or wrong in relation to the work-in-progress. Get quiet, listen to your gut, and do that. Our instincts usually aren't wrong.


  1. What a wonderful post. I've shelved manuscripts after about 5 rejections, because I just knew. I knew I needed to learn more. I knew it wouldn't make a strong enough debut novel. I just knew. And sometimes I just needed a few rejections to make it real.

  2. Laura, yes, I think sometimes it does take some rejections for us to look at our work in a different light. I know for me it was thinking hard about the fact that someone would be spending *thousands* of dollars to put this book on the shelf, and is it really worth *thousands of dollars*. That's when I was able to get more honest with myself.

  3. Thanks Lisa, a great insight. I can't seem to sum up my novel in one sentence. I'm gonna have to work on that one!

  4. Lisa, I'm so glad you didn't give up on your first novel. Believe me, I've read that book a million times because it was THAT good! Thanks for the questionnaire.

  5. Great post. I think we all have that honest inner voice in our head that tells us when something isn't working in our story. But we also have the voice of doubt and we have to learn how to differentiate between the two. There are some NYT best selling authors whose books were rejected eighty times by agents before getting representation and becoming hits. So I think there is a line between shelving and persevering.

  6. Thanks everyone.

    Yes, Anita, you are right - learning to differentiate those voices is hard, and takes time.

  7. I think this is great advice. My son wants to be a writer, and I plan on having him read it.

  8. Great post - I love how you say "are you up to the task of adding tension?" - so hard to know when to move on to the next project!