Friday, April 12, 2013

Keep it in your Pants

Or drawer. Or hard drive. Under the mattress at your great aunt Tilly’s house. WHEREVER your old manuscripts are (of course that's what this post is about! What did you think?!), for the love of coffee, if you’re waffling over whether to write something new or raise the dead…KEEP them there.

I’m not saying there’s no possible way they’ll sell, or that they aren’t any good. Timing plays a large factor in when things are picked up in publishing, and sure, the timing on an old manuscript may not have been ideal and now it is (i.e., your NA five years ago vs. NA now). And many authors are seeing success with self publishing novels that don’t get picked up.

But if I have a client who says, “Oh hey, you know, I’m not quite sure what I’ll work on next, and I haven’t done anything new, but I have these short stories I did when I was twelve – want to take a look at those?”

I think: No. No, I really do not.

I will probably say, “Sure.”

I mean, I won’t just discount the possibility that an old dusty manuscript a client wants to send to me just needs some polishing and voila! Again, see the comment on timing above. But how many stories do you hear of where the author touts, “Oh, I had this just sitting around for years, and all of a sudden, I thought, why not, I’ll send this off and see what happens!”

Not many. Because many times these manuscripts are what I would call “starter manuscripts”; the drafts written to hone and perfect your craft. It is highly unlikely a manuscript from five years ago is going to be as good as anything new you could write. Not even speaking just to craft and style; speaking also to marketability and dated references. The audience you were writing to is also aged, and a new one moving in; is that new audience going to like what the old did?

There are far, far better things ahead than any we leave behind. -C.S. Lewis

So. If you MUST take them out again and want to contemplate sending them off into the big wide world (I know it’s tempting) PLEASE re-read them ALL THE WAY THROUGH FIRST. Then decide what you want to do. Is it REALLY the next best foot forward you can present? REALLY a victim of poor timing/market glutting that should and could be revived, either traditionally or via self-publishing? Or is it a starter manuscript you’re desperately trying to fill a gap of writer’s block with?

The truth is, one of the hardest things a writer has to think about is having tomes of unpublished drafts and works that just…won’t ever go anywhere.  But guess what: it doesn’t make you a bad writer – it makes you a career writer. A writer who writes…just for the love of writing, whether published or not.

And that’s the kind of writer I want to work with.

You can't start the next chapter of your life if you keep re-reading your last one. -Michael McMillan


  1. I think this goes for initial querying, too. I've tucked away a manuscript that didn't get much interest, and I'm now pushing something new. It's hard to resist wanting to go back and give the old one just "another touch-up" and try to query it again. I keep reminding myself, it's on the shelf for a reason. It was a great practice novel. I have better stories to tell, and I won't get to tell them if I spend all my time endlessly rewriting a novel I drafted years ago.

    Great post, and great advice!

  2. This is a great post and I love it. Though I do have one question. What about short stories that you wouldn't dream of submitting in their current state, but might rewrite into novel form because you thought the premise was marketable?

    1. See Dawn's post below; taking and reworking a fabulous idea can totally pay off!

    2. That's what I thought too! Awesome, thanks!

  3. This is an urge I can quite honestly say I've never had... I always have far more ideas for new stories than I could possibly write, so once something is done and dusted, I'm quite happy to slide it away and move on to something new.

  4. Excellent post. Most of the time when I've heard authors talk about finding publishable work out of trunk novels it isn't they just sold the old novels. Instead they took some of the ideas from said novels and rewrote the books entirely, sometimes combining a few in order to make a new novel. Not just dust off and send out, which is a big reason why they worked out.

  5. Great post! I love what you said at the end about writing for the love of writing. I agree. I think the only way to grow and expand is to keep practicing. After all, that's what real writing is all about; mastering the art of the written word.

  6. Oh, you said it! Writers can't NOT write. What a thoughtful post, you've once again given me a lot to think about. :)

  7. Thanks for the words of wisdom. The idea of a practice novel is frustrating for so many authors, because it seems like two (or four or ten) years wasted. Still, those years are vital to honing craft.

    I'm curious about the agent side. How often do you all get manuscripts that you can't sell and have to slide away in a drawer, and then how often do they get revived? When you take on an author, is it common for the first book to do so-so or not get picked up at all but you have more success with the second book?