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Thursday, April 7

I Quit: When to Give Up on a Novel

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

When it is time to call it quits with your manuscript?

Unless you're one of the rare lucky ones to sell the first book you ever wrote, you'll have that moment when you wonder if it's time to shove your baby in the trunk. I've had mine twice, since I re-wrote and re-submitted my first novel. The first time I decided it wasn't time to give up and slaved away another year. The second time, I knew it was over.

The 50 rejections made it pretty clear that the novel had problems, but what really convinced me was the nagging feeling I had that the book wasn't bad, but it wasn't great either. Good wasn't going to cut it. It was hard to admit that I had a decently written novel with an overdone plot. But I knew. Oh, I knew.

So, how can you tell if it's time to throw in the towel?

First, be honest with yourself. Look at your work objectively. It's not your baby, it's a product you want to sell. Does it do what a professional, sellable novel does? It should:

1. Have a great, original idea. 

My first novel was doomed because it was just another fantasy novel with a prophecy and a chosen one. Even the best-written novel can't be saved by an idea that's been done to death. Fresh ideas can get you a long way. Lots of people can write well, but not everyone can come up with awesome ideas.

2. Be professionally written. 

Good, clean prose without typos. Wonderful word choice. Solid pacing. Strong conflicts. When you read your work aloud, does it sound like a professional novel? When someone else reads it to you, does it sound like a "real book" same as when they read a published author?

3. Be a great story. 

A great idea and clean prose won't cut it if all you're doing it relaying plot events. A good story grabs a reader and transports them to another world. It makes them care about the characters and the problems they're going through. Readers care about characters, they don't care as much about plots (though those are important, too).

If your book does all three, or is close to doing all three, then it might not be time to side it aside. But if it doesn't...

Here are some common issues I've found that often spell adios for a novel.

1. You have a premise novel, not a story.

You have a cool idea, and the entire novel is dedicated to telling readers about that cool idea. There's no solid protagonist with a problem, just a main character (or six) who goes from situation to situation (however exciting that may be) because you want to illustrate how cool this idea is.

2. The idea has been done to death.

If you can name two or more books off the top of your head that have similar plots, you might want to re-think your story. Ditto if movie plots come into your head. If the idea is close to a major blockbuster movie or bestselling novel, all you need is one. I know two doesn't seem like much, but if two books come that quickly, chances are there are a lot more out there.

3. It's inherently flawed and can't be fixed.

Spend years on any book, and you stop seeing the flaws. You know it so well that it feels right, even when it isn't. You have darlings you can't bear to kill, and subplots that no longer work due to fifteen revisions, but still make sense to you because you wrote them. You've added so much to make it "better" that it's all surface and no depth.

4. No one wants it.

If the novel has been rejected by everyone you sent it too, revising and sending it out yet again may not be the best use of your time. Writing one book doesn't make you a writer. Writing does, and if that book isn't working, write another. Your next will be better, because you've learned and grown as a writer by writing the first one. There's a reason many writers' debut novel is the third or fourth one they wrote.

Ultimately you need to trust your instincts and do what you feel is best for your book. But if you have that nagging "is it time to move on?" voice in your head, it might indeed be time to move on.

And you know what? There's nothing wrong with that. Not every book will work or sell. Besides, if you're going to be a career novelist, you planned on writing more than one book anyway, right? So what difference does it make if it's before or after you sell a first book? Eventually you'll be writing a book a year (or two), so you might as well start practicing now.

Have you ever given up on a novel?

Looking for tips on revising your novel? Check out my book Revising Your Novel: First Draft to Finished Draft, a series of self-guided workshops that help you revise your manuscript into a finished novel. Still working on your idea? Then try my just-released Planning Your Novel Workbook

A long-time fantasy reader, Janice Hardy always wondered about the darker side of healing. For her fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, she tapped into her own dark side to create a world where healing was dangerous, and those with the best intentions often made the worst choices. Her novels include The Shifter, Blue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. The Shifter, was chosen for the 2014 list of "Ten Books All Young Georgians Should Read" from the Georgia Center for the Book. It was also shortlisted for the Waterstones Children's Book Prize, and The Truman Award in 2011.

Janice is also the founder of Fiction University, a site dedicated to helping writers improve their craft. Her popular Foundations of Fiction series includes Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure, a self-guided workshop for planning or revising a novel, the companion Planning Your Novel Workbook, Revising Your Novel: First Draft to Finished Draft, and the upcoming Understanding Show Don't Tell (And Really Getting It).  

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  1. I've been wrestling with a completed novel and am trying to figure out what to do next with it. I'm so happy to have found this post. It spells things out so clearly!

  2. I'm so grateful to have the chance to benefit from your experience. This sounds like great advice; thanks!

  3. Thanks, Janice! I'll definitely be referring to this one often. I'll be better able to make some judgement calls as the WIP continues to unfold.

  4. 50 rejections?? You must have got petty irritated!! Ha???

    Persist-ency is the key right?? Thanks for all the advice!!

    with warm regards

  5. Thanks for sharing. Though I haven't even started querying my first novel, I am being realistice that it could not sell and I am planning something totally different.

  6. I accomplished all four of those problems with effortlessness ease in my first novel.

  7. Ada: Wonderful! Glad I pulled it from the archives :)

    Kathy: Most welcome. Always happy to help a fellow writer.

    Deborah: Anytime. Not every novel will go through this of course, but sometimes you do need to reevaluate one.

    All My Posts: It really is. To be honest, 50 is nothing. There are fewer fantasy agents out there so I didn't get nearly as many rejections as most folks. I know mainstream fictions authors who have gotten up to 200. That's persistence.

    Natalie: Wise move. If you prepare for what could happen, you're in much better shape if it does happen. It's also easier to handle and rejections.

    Sam: Hehe, as in "I did all four" or "I avoided all four?"

  8. Hi Janice. Interesting post, as always ;)

    I was thinking for the past two days to give up on the novel I'm writing. At least for now. The reason is that I don't like how it is developing. When one starts not liking his/her book for whatever reason, something is wrong or something will go wrong. :D

  9. IJ Vern, that's a great reason to stop. Sometimes idea don't pan out and if you're not feeling it, move on. Maybe it just needs some more time to simmer and the right fix will come to you later.