A few weeks ago I encountered a woman online who was struggling with what to do with her manuscript. She’d been trying, unsuccessfully, to get this thing published for a good couple of decades. She’d signed with a small publisher a few years back, but the publisher allowed her contract to expire without ever publishing her book. She’d been querying it again, but so far she had no takers. I suggested, as gently as I could, that perhaps it might be time to move on to her next project, but she adamantly refused. This novel, an epic fantasy, was her life. The characters had been in her head for thirty-five years, she said, and it was this book, or nothing. Although this attitude is not uncommon, I nonetheless found it pretty counterproductive. To an extent, I get it: writing a whole novel takes an awful lot of time, energy, and effort, therefore, most of us don’t give up on our manuscripts easily, and rightly so. A completed, or near-completed manuscript represents potentially thousands of hours’ worth of work, and setting it aside might seem almost sacrilegious, disrespectful to your own work and to yourself. However, there are times when holding on too tightly to the wrong project can only hinder your progress as a writer.
Time is Up
While there is no magic number to tell you exactly how long is too long to spend on one manuscript, if it is taking you a decade to finish your first book, the problem may be with the book you are trying to write, and not with you as a writer. I know some people will point to the examples of literary greats who slaved over their manuscripts for years upon years, always adhering to their vision, and it is true, these exceptions exist. What is also true is that we have limited time on this earth, and spending decades on one book is not the best way to make our writerly dreams come true. Whether you write at a glacial pace, or you’ve re-written the same book seven times, consider calling “time” on your novel if you’ve been at it for years and it is still going nowhere. It is entirely possible that you’ve spent so much time on this concept that you’ve lost whatever it was that made you passionate about it in the first place, and you may need some fresh material to kick start your creativity. Consider shelving the project, and coming back to it later with fresh eyes.
You Don’t Like Your Own Work
If you’re bored by your own writing, if you have to force yourself to write, or if you know deep down the work has major fundamental flaws, then there is a chance that this manuscript is not the one. Whether or not the problem is fixable depends on how big an issue is. If your manuscript has structural issues that require a total re-write, then that can sometimes take as much time as writing the initial manuscript itself. I re-wrote a manuscript, changing the main point-of-view character, and the novel ended up being an entirely new story, but I had gotten to the point with my former manuscript that it was no longer enjoyable to write it, and it had become more of a grind than anything else. I decided to re-write, changing the basic structure of my book down to the very bones, and suddenly I was excited to write again. A rule of thumb is that if you’re bored by your story, your readers will be too. If you find your own story boring, either figure out where you’re going wrong, and fix it, or write something else.
The Reviews Are In
Finally, this bit of advice is something that no one wants to hear, but it needs to be said. While no one should ever give up on a manuscript after one instance of negative feedback, if the feedback is consistently negative on a manuscript that is already finished and polished, then it is possible that the manuscript is never going to work. It can be hard to admit to yourself that the manuscript that you love is a dud, but it happens. What you need to ask yourself is, are you going to continue polishing this turd, or do you move on? Sometimes, no matter how much you re-write, your book just does not have what it takes. Perhaps the premise is flawed, or the idea is cliched, or the characters are just aren’t believable. Sure, you can re-write, but how many times can you truly re-write the same story, and are the re-writes actually helping? Consider that you could re-write the same book five times, but you could also write five new books in nearly the same span of time. If you’ve given your novel a fair shot, you’ve re-written, you’ve revised, and still, the feedback is not great, then there is no harm in setting aside your project and working on something new.
The Starter Novel
Consider the possibility that your novel may be your starter novel. Statistically, most writers are not successful on their first try. Often, we need to write a whole book before we become really familiar with story structure, characterization, pacing, and all of the important aspects of novel writing that are hard to learn without experiencing them directly. While no one goes into the writing process thinking that their book may be a starter novel, and there are always exceptions, if you’re hitting the point where for whatever reason, you’re starting to think this book may not be your debut novel, I think it is good to keep the concept of the starter novel in mind. Just because your first book doesn’t work out, that doesn’t mean you’ll never succeed as a writer, and it doesn’t mean your time you spent writing this book was wasted. In fact, your starter novel might have been the very book you needed to write to turn you from a mediocre writer, to a great one.