The drawer. The seedy cobwebs of an old internal hard drive. The back of an old steamer trunk. These are all the places we send our old stories to live. They’re our starter novels. Our first attempt at a short story or a piece of flash fiction. Basically, they are the bike with the training wheels before we really learn to ride.
If you’ve been writing long enough you know what I mean. Personally, I have two manuscripts lovingly set aside. A paranormal romance (the first book I ever wrote) and a sci-fi/alternate history novel. I literally feel like I gave over a piece of my soul to develop both those books and I hope one day they will be published. I just know that time is not right now.
Do I think about them all the time? Yes. Do I wish I could get them published? Of course. But see, that’s the thing, most of us cherish those first pieces, but after a long string of rejection we’re forced to store them away. Yet even as we do, those characters, storylines and plots still speak to us. We move on and create something new. Maybe something we can sell. And still, those works speak to us. Urging us to dig them out of oblivion and work on them again – praying for a second chance. And yes, it’s very hard to let go.
Today, I’ve asked MarcyKate Connolly to share how she put aside a beloved novel to work on something new. Her thoughts resonate with me for so many reasons. Like her, I queried the heck out of a novel I loved without reaching that illustrious publishing finish line. It’s a hard pill to swallow, especially after you’ve poured your heart and soul into something you’re sure readers would love. But after reading MarcyKate’s words, I realized that one day there may be hope for that beloved “trunked” novel after all.
Moving On, But Not Giving Up
The tricky thing about any creative endeavor is that it is difficult at best to separate ourselves from the work we create. As writers, we spend years pouring our souls into our books. When it comes time to send our babies out into the world we often do so with a mix of trepidation and hope.
And then we get shot down. A lot.
Some lucky few secure representation or a book deal with that first novel. But most of us will eventually run out of agents and realize that this novel, however much we love it, is not “The One.” This isn’t an easy decision to make, and it is often downright heartbreaking. All that work and time, and it’s going to just sit on your shelf (or hard drive).
MONSTROUS was the 7th novel I wrote, and the 4th I queried. I set three manuscripts aside before I got to the one that garnered representation and a book deal. It never got easier–if anything, it got worse. You see, with each manuscript I got better and closer, and having to fold when you feel as though you’re so, so close, is nothing less than painful and depressing.
But sometimes it needs to be done. Success is built from the building blocks of our failures.
My first novel still haunts me. The plot, the characters, the fantasy world all still live in my brain. I wrote it in 2008 and early 2009, and queried pretty much every agent who might possibly look at fantasy. And every single one rejected it.
I spent countless hours revising and refining that book, but I just couldn’t quite get it right. The story in my head wasn’t translating onto the page in the way it needed to and eventually the feedback from agents made that very clear. It took about a year and half for me to realize it wasn’t going to be The One, but what finally made me feel OK about putting it aside was that I was certain it wasn’t the only story in me.
Fast forward to the 3rd book I queried. This was now the 4th novel I’d written. I’d finally figured out voice (my biggest hurdle in the first few books), and there was a ton of interest. I’d promised myself that this time I wouldn’t get my hopes up too high. I’d be realistic and I’d work on other projects. But when the requests kept rolling in, I couldn’t help it. I was so sure this book would be The One.
A year and well over 100 agents queried later, I came to the decision that I needed to set it aside. The first book I could chalk up to being a beginner, but this time it felt like real failure. I’d learned so much and yet still I just couldn’t get it right. Something was broken with it and despite all the kind (and often very contradictory) feedback I received from agents, I couldn’t put my finger on what it was.
At first, much denial ensued (I may have a bit of a stubborn streak…:P). I’d send off queries to every new or obscure agent I could find who wanted YA. And I still got requests…and more rejections.
Finally I did put it aside for real (with more than a few tears) and focused on my next project. I had started writing it while querying that 3rd book. I’d written it for me, because the main character charmed me from her very first words. But I was so heartsick from querying various books for 3+ years, that I wasn’t sure I would even bother sending out this next one. It was just for me, my weird little book that was probably far too strange and rule-breaking to make it either. Eventually, after revising obsessively for months, I decided to give it a go.
That book was MONSTROUS.
Here’s the thing. Putting aside a book you’ve spent months or years working on is never going to be easy. But it shouldn’t be confused with giving up.
Giving up means deleting every electronic copy and burning every print out. Giving up means you stop writing altogether.
Shelving on the other hand, leaves room for hope. So that book didn’t turn out right the first time. Maybe you weren’t ready to write that story yet. Maybe you just hadn’t developed your skill to the point where you could do it justice. Maybe you need some serious distance (I’m talking years here) to see the weak points more clearly. This was the case for my first novel and I’m hopeful that I’ll eventually be able to rewrite it from scratch.
Shelving also isn’t necessarily permanent. When you do find that right combination of book and agent, talk to your agent (ideally before you sign on the dotted line) about your other projects. If there’s a book you love and have polished within an inch of its life, but it just didn’t quite get there, maybe they’ll be willing to work with you on it. Now, I’m not saying you should throw every trunked book you’ve written at your shiny new agent, but if there’s one story you just can’t let go of, bring it up in The Call. There’s no guarantee you’ll be able to make the book publishable, but it won’t hurt to try. (*Disclaimer: this should go without saying, but if you do present your agent with a book that has been around the block and pitched to editors as well as agents, be sure to be honest and up front with said agent about its submission history.)
I’m lucky that my agent was willing to look at the project I set aside just before Monstrous as a possible next book, and I’m doubly lucky that she’s helped me identify where I was going wrong. I may still have to set aside again if I can’t fix it or if it doesn’t sell, but there’s hope, and sometimes that’s enough.
So if you have a project you love that you’ve almost queried out, take heart. And write another book.
MarcyKate Connolly is an author and arts administrator who lives in New England with her husband and pugs and writes weird little books. She’s also a coffee addict, voracious reader, and recurring commuter. She blogs about all those things and more at MarcyKate.com, and can often be found on Twitter. Her work is represented by Suzie Townsend of New Leaf Literary & Media, and her debut upper MG/Tween fantasy novel, MONSTROUS, will be published by HarperCollins Children’s Books.