Lately, I’ve seen a handful of people asking the same question: How do you know when your story isn’t meant to published? When is it time to give up on querying that one particular manuscript, put it away, and move on to something else?
I’ve seen different answers. Some people say it’s after a particular number of queries, and some say if you’ve gotten the same lackluster feedback from several different critique partners, well, then, it might be time to put the old thing away.
But here’s my controversial advice, if you want to take it: Never, ever give up on your manuscript. Yes, that sounds naïve. I know there are countless stories of authors who have that first manuscript hiding under the bed (or in a secret computer file)–the one they thought was amazing, until they realized it was actually terrible. But, here’s what I think: if you’ve written it, it isn’t worthless. It’s not. Don’t give up on it. Maybe you need to step away from it for a while–months, even years–but don’t give up.
To throw out my own personal anecdote: the original version of the manuscript that ended up getting me an agent was awful. Worse than awful, actually–it was boring. Like the amateur that I was, I tested the query waters, and I got some requests, and a little bit of positive feedback, but no offers. In a fit of frustration, I decided I was done with the whole thing. Not just done with my story, but done with writing in general. Clearly these rejections were proof that I didn’t have what it took to be a professional writer. Even though I’d wanted to write books for as long as I could remember, those rejections really got to me on a personal level (rejections can do that–they have that special way of reinforcing the self-doubt that many of us writers feel anyway).
So, I put away my story, and I moved on with other non-writerly things. For a little while it was fine, and I thought: this is right. I wasn’t meant to be a writer, after all. But then the story started coming back to me. I found myself thinking about the characters I’d abandoned like they were real people, real friends that I missed desperately. While I was doing non-writerly things, I started thinking about my story again, about ways to twist up the plot (if I was going to sit down and give it another shot, which I wasn’t). I started asking all of those what if? questions. What if there were more obstacles? More secrets? A villain who could be redeemed–or not? What if, what if, what if?
Those were the questions I needed to ask in order to make my story work. When I finally gave in and got back to it, I found that I knew my characters better than ever before due to all of the time I’d spent with them in my mind. The words came tumbling onto the page, the plot came together. And lo and behold, when I finished my manuscript for the second time, it was everything I hoped it would be. Good enough to snag that agent I’d been wanting so desperately. Good enough to get an offer from a publishing house.
So, I say: Never give up on that dream manuscript. Put it aside, start another, or do something completely different for a while. But don’t be afraid to go back. That manuscript will be waiting for you, and this time, you might know exactly what to do with it.