Monday, October 29, 2018

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 those thoughts twice with just one manuscript, and 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.


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

How can you tell if it's time to throw in the towel on your manuscript?

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 compelling and original idea

My first novel was doomed because it was just another fantasy novel with a prophecy and a chosen one and way too many point of view characters. 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, since lots of people can write well, but not everyone can come up with awesome (and sellable) ideas.

(Here's more on knowing if your idea is worth writing)

2. Be professionally written

You're looking for 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? It doesn't have to be perfect, but it does need to be comparable to the work on the bookstore shelves.

(Here's more on how mistakes in a manuscript can hurt it)

3. Tell a great story

A great idea and clean prose won't cut it if all you're doing is relaying plot events of what happened. A good story grabs readers and transports them to other worlds. It makes them care about the characters and the problems they're going through.

(Here's more on the difference between story and plot) 

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 reasons to give up on 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.

Can you save it? The upside of a premise novel, however, is that if you can figure out the actual plot, it's often salvageable.

(Here's more on exploring an idea vs. solving a problem)

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 or ideas, 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 to mind, chances are there are a lot more out there.

Can you save it? These are some of the hardest manuscripts to set aside, because they're often good novels, just not sellable novels. If you can find a fresh twist to it, you might be able to save it. Plus, in today's publishing world, there's always indie publishing if a traditional publisher passes.

(Here's more on putting a fresh spin on an old idea)

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

Once you've spent years on a book, you stop seeing its 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.

Can you save it?  If the idea is sound, and you can pinpoint a solid core conflict, and you're willing to start fresh and rewrite it, a flawed book can be saved. But starting over is key here--inherent flaws in an existing manuscript are nearly impossible to fix if you use the same text.

(Here's more on salvaging flawed manuscripts)

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 so many debut novels are the third or fourth book those writers wrote.

Can you save it?  Probably not. It might be the idea, or the writing, or any number of reasons, but if no one is interested, there's a reason why. If you know the reason, and are able to revise it, then maybe you can save it, but often it's better to write something new.

Novels in the Indie Publishing Era

Back when I originally wrote this article (2011), indie publishing was still getting its feet under it. A lot has changed since then, and a novel that doesn't attract the eye of a traditional publisher is not a lost cause anymore. However...each writer has to decide if the manuscript was rejected for a good reason or not before deciding to go indie. Some books are good and can do well on their own, others were rejected because they weren't ready. If your goal is to be traditionally published one day, consider carefully before indie publishing work that could hurt your chances later.

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. Sometimes a book that doesn't work now will work later after you've developed your skill, or the market has changed.

Besides, if you're going to be a career novelist, you planned on writing more than one book anyway, right? What difference does it make if it's before or after you sell that first book? Eventually you'll be writing a book a year (or more), so you might as well start practicing now.

Have you ever given up on a novel? Have you ever saved a novel you once gave up on?

Need help revising? Get all three Fixing Your Revision Problems books in one omnibus!

This book contains Fixing Your Character & Point-of-View Problems, Fixing Your Plot & Story Structure Problems, and Fixing Your Setting & Description Problems--PLUS a BONUS workshop: How to Salvage Half-Finished Manuscripts.

A strong story has many parts, and when one breaks down, the whole book can fail. Make sure your story is the best it can be to keep your readers hooked.

With clear and easy-to-understand examples, Revising Your Novel: First Draft to Finished Draft Omnibus offers eleven self-guided workshops that target the common issues that make readers stop reading. It will help you:
  • Flesh out weak characters and build strong character arcs
  • Find the right amount of backstory to enhance, not bog down, your story
  • Create unpredictable plots that keep readers guessing
  • Develop compelling hooks to build tension in every scene
  • Determine the right way to include information without infodumping
  • Fix awkward stage direction and unclear character actions
Revising Your Novel: First Draft to Finished Draft Omnibus starts every workshop with an analysis and offers multiple revision options in each area. You choose the options that best fit your writing process. This easy-to-follow guide will help you revise your manuscript and craft a strong finished draft that will keep readers hooked. 

Available in paperback and ebook formats.

Janice Hardy is the award-winning author of the teen fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, including 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.

She also writes the Grace Harper urban fantasy series for adults under the name, J.T. Hardy.

When she's not writing novels, she's teaching other writers how to improve their craft. She's the founder of Fiction University and has written multiple books on writing.
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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.

  10. The original first novel for my series is one of these. I have attempted no less than five (five!!) full re-writes to fix glaring problems; I love the story, but eventually you have to move on. The story isn't dead! It's still part of the history of my world. No writing is ever wasted.

    1. So true. Hopefully you'll finally find that missing piece that will make that story work one day.

  11. Letting go completely on "my baby" and yet I know I should.

  12. I had to do that last year. Scrapped a novel I slaved on, just to realize it was all premise and no plot. Still love the characters, who are likely to appear in another work...

    1. Or you'll find the plot one day. I do have a free at-home workshop here on the site that could help with that:

  13. This was a very useful read. You covered all the bases.

    Rather than one novel, I wrote three and all got rejected. I suppose I'll give up on being a novel writer at all. Maybe try a different brand of writing (maybe blogs) and see if I can find what works.

    1. Well, I wrote more than that before I sold my first, so don't give up too soon if that's your dream. But if you're still looking for your niche, trying something new is a good idea.

      Publishing is hard work and takes time. Most writers get rejected hundreds of times before their first sale.