Yes, this is a long post. I feel like breaking the rules today.
Sometimes it's hard to know what's okay to blog about and what isn't. This is one of those posts that treads the line. During a conversation with a fellow writer a couple of months ago he asked me how I knew when to let go of each of my novels. At the time he was facing some difficult decisions with his own novel, and I could tell he needed some words of encouragement, but at the same time he didn't want those words to be sugarcoated. After sending my message (this was all via email) his reply included a comment that I should talk about this topic on my blog so that others might benefit.
It's one of those topics that is just so personal to our individual writing careers, though, and every person has a different experience. But the more I thought about it, the more I realized that this is just the type of post that I had in mind when I started this blog three years ago. Conservative behavior never got me anywhere in life. It's always when I risk making a detrimental move that things begin to happen. So here goes.
Right now I'm working on my fifth completed novel, and I'd tried (and failed) to get the four others before it published. But each of them had its own journey, although every path led to the same place. The proverbial trunk. The public admittance that I have that many unpublished novels is, in itself, a risky statement. Sure, other authors have publicly admitted that they wrote many, many manuscripts before getting one published.
But have you ever noticed that they don't do so until they DO have a book deal? For those of us who are still floating in publishing limbo-- not quite amateurs, but no solid credentials to call ourselves professionals yet-- if we say how many unpublished manuscripts we have lying about our writing cave, it comes off as an admittance, not of our hard work and determination, but of our incompetence.
There I said it. Because I doubt anyone else will publicly own up to that viewpoint. Most will, in fact, deny it even exists-- but those who do so the loudest are usually the worst offenders. (Why? Because they have a hard time keeping quiet about anything. They likely don't even realize how often their words hurt people they've never even met or heard of.) There is a discrimination against unpublished writers, even among our circle of support. It's subtle, subtle enough to roll off your back, but it's there.
I'm not going to dwell on this prejudice, though. That isn't the point of this post, but it is part of the internal journey we all must take on our path to publication. Not only do you have to convince yourself that you are good enough, but you must continually hide your insecurities so that no one else doubts your abilities.
The first book is the hardest to let go. It is usually written with gusto, the kind of blind passion you wish you still had when you get around to book five. The problem is, passion is only part of the equation. The other part is skill, and skill has to be learned and perfected through trial and error and YEARS of practice.
You can write a lot of pages inside of years. I've completed five novels inside of the past four years. In those same four years I also completed countless short stories and novellas, three of which have been published... and I've started even more that will likely never be finished.
This is another thing that is risky to admit in a public venue before you've become a published novelist, another thing that's not really okay to spread around until you have the tangible support of a publishing house behind your name. But this is normal for anyone who pursues creative work. In the beginning you will have abandoned more work than you complete. It's part of the learning curve.
You will get to a point where you realize both how far you've come, and far you have left to go. And, human nature being what it is, you will focus on the negative part of that realization more often than the positive part. This is the point where most writers give up. Logic gets the better of them.
Somewhere between finishing your first novel and the crossroads mentioned above, you will try (and likely fail) to get a novel published. I thought my first novel was amazing, but I understood it was in no shape for publication. I spent over a year trying to rewrite it, while working on other projects. I sent out one query letter for it, just because I was curious about how that whole process worked. I expected a form rejection and that's exactly what I got.
It wasn't until I completed my second novel that I really got tough with myself about my first baby. And trunked it. The reason I did so was not because I was giving up on that novel, though. In fact, I still have plans to resurrect it (someday). Because the problem with my first novel, as I suppose is the case for most writers at the beginning, is that my full scope of ideas for the story surpassed my own abilities to convey them.
In other words, I was ahead of myself. I hadn't yet learned how to plot and write a publishable novel. All I had was a fantasy that I'd transferred from my head to my hard drive. When I realized this, letting go of it was easy.
I'd been writing professionally for over a year by this time, and had recently started up this blog. What I mean by professionally is that I was writing with a goal toward publication, not just as a hobby. I was taking it as seriously as I would a career in any other field. So when I finished my second novel, around the same time I had my first short story published (which was a nice boost of positive energy), I went full steam ahead in my pursuit of a literary agent.
I got feedback on the novel and worked on revisions. I wrote a query letter and revised that, too. After about four months of revising my tail off, I took the plunge and started sending out batches of query letters for, what I hoped would be, my debut novel.
Letting go of novel #2 was a little more cut and dry than novel #1, but it was still difficult. After 50 queries and not a single request, I told myself this wasn't The One. This was about the same time that I'd started on novel #3.
And that's part of the key here, too. Always always always have something in-progress.
Looking back, the lack of interest in my second novel was actually the result of a combination of failures, and my own inexperience. The story wasn't marketable as a debut. I know that now. It was written better than the one before it, but not as good as it could have been. I know that now. And basically, I'd just written it for my own catharsis. I know that now.
This is where I need to stop for a moment and talk a little about catharsis. Writing, whether it be fiction or nonfiction, is an effective form of therapy. Psychologists often encourage patients to keep a journal to help sort out their feelings. Because it works. For example, a year ago my husband's doctor gave him a homework assignment to write a letter to the babies we'd lost through miscarriage, to help him release his anger and sorrow in a healthy format.
So those of us who spend a good deal of time writing are going to, perhaps without realizing it at the time, write stories that are essentially just self-therapy. There is nothing wrong with this. And if you do it at a time when your skill can help you shape the elements into a well-crafted story, then these therapy stories can even be published.
But not if you write them before your writing skill matches your need for an outlet. And that's what happened with my second novel. It was extremely therapeutic for me to write it, but I should have left it at that and moved on.
It wasn't until I finished my third novel that I saw a noticeable improvement in my abilities and my process. No surprise then that this is the novel that got the most interest from agents. Which is why this one was extremely difficult to let go.
I'm not going to get into exact numbers, but I had so many requests from agents to read this manuscript that I honestly had no doubt it would be my debut. I thought, Wow. Finally. All my hard work has paid off.
But that was 2 years ago. I'm still an unpublished novelist. That novel has been trunked. So what happened? Basically I got a lot of "almost but not quite" rejections. The ones that start off like, "You're an excellent writer, BUT..."
Those kinds of rejections have a way of making your brain ache. The emotional side of you says, "They think you're a good writer! Keep submitting! You'll find someone who loves it!" While the logical side of you says, "But but but BUT. Focus on the buts. This one isn't The One."
After so many buts, I painfully withdrew that manuscript as well. I kept that one on the query-go-round longer than the ones before it, and with good reason. People were reading it. But this book was a really good lesson in learning when to let go.
It was about this time that my blog had started gaining more popularity, I was getting offers to write for other blogs, and I'd finally sucked it up and joined the Twitterverse. My circle of support became magnanimous. I saw a lot more of what was going on in the lives of other writers. I followed their journeys. I kept writing (by now I was balls deep in novel #4, aka The Problem Child). I had my third story published. I still had hope.
Something else happened during the course of writing The Problem Child that I've never admitted to anyone, ever. I zeroed in on debut novelists. These authors had agents and book deals with major publishers and they all had their own stories of how they got to that point. Their debut novels were published, and I read them.
And some of them... I didn't think were that great. (entirely my own opinion)
They weren't horrible, no, but I'd seen just as many unpublished manuscripts from fellow writers that were just as good, if not better, and they couldn't get any interest in them. And I had a lot of interest in novel #3, but not enough for anyone to offer me a contract. So I analyzed the situations, as well as I could from an outside viewpoint. Surely someone thought these books were worth the time, effort, and money to publish. But why?
What most of them boiled down to was concept. A debut novel-- okay, any novel, but especially a debut-- has to have, above all else, a stellar concept. That's what gets people's attention. I had that with novel #3, but my writing (even though many claimed it was great) and plot construction weren't up to par yet. I know that now, looking back on it. I still had a lot to learn.
The thing is, with that particular novel, I probably could have had it published if I'd been bullheaded and kept submitting it. But I'm glad now that I didn't. I don't want people to read my debut and be disappointed with the quality of it. You can get a book published if you really really want to-- sub it to everyone you can find until someone says yes-- but is that all that you want? Just to get something published? Or do you want your debut novel to be the very best that it can be? Are you willing to admit that you're not ready, even if you've been writing for so long that you feel you're due?
Unfortunately, this milestone revelation of mine came at a time when I was writing another catharsis novel, one that didn't have a stellar concept. In the back of my head I knew this. I had this constant nagging feeling that the book wasn't going to go anywhere once I finished it, but at the same time, I had an even stronger nagging feeling that I'd never forgive myself if I didn't finish it.
This resulted in a 10-month long struggle, just to finish the first draft (for me that's ridiculously long to work on a first draft, but everyone is different so don't feel bad if 10 months is normal for you). I went through numerous rewrites before I even typed THE END. I had doubt after doubt after doubt. But I also had people read it who said it was the best thing I'd written so far.
And you know what? It was the best thing I'd written. I still think it is. But that doesn't mean it had to be published. I'm very proud of how that novel turned out. I don't regret one minute of the year I worked on it. However, I wasn't at all surprised that when I started to send out queries for that novel, no one wanted it.
Because of this, my view towards the rejections I received was so... refreshing. It was almost a relief to see them. I think, deep down, I didn't really want that novel to be published, but at the same time I wanted to hear that it was good.
Risky for me to admit that, I know. It makes me come off a bit conceited. But it's the truth. We work very hard on our stories-- it's perfectly normal to want some kind of affirmation of your worth from an objective standpoint.
A few agents were nice enough to comply by giving me personalized rejections when they didn't have to. All I'd sent was a query letter and the first 5-10 pages. They could have said no and I would have accepted it. But thanks to the ones who didn't. They gave me encouragement because they saw something in my work that was special, even if they knew it wasn't something they could sell.
Letting go of novel #4 was the easiest yet, despite how long and hard I struggled with writing it. I sent out less than 30 queries. Maybe it was even less than 20, I don't remember exact numbers. But I wouldn't say I gave up on it too quickly. I would say that I took everything I'd learned from my prior experiences and applied it to this experience, and made an informed decision. A confident decision.
It happened so quickly, in fact, that I'd pulled #4 off the market before I'd even started writing #5. I had other projects going on in between, of course, but they were not my next novel. So once I started on #5 I was able to focus all my energy on just that.
And that brings us to now. Novel #5 is undergoing its first round of revisions and beta reader feedback. Will I have to let this one go, too? My hope is always that I don't. But I never know for sure what will happen until... it happens. Part of being an author in today's publishing world is mastering the ability to adapt whenever necessary.
The bottom line is, every novel has its own journey, even novels written by the same person. They can be likened to children in that way. Children who have the same parents and grow up in the same household have a lot of similarities, but they are also unique individuals with their own unique ups and downs, and they need to be treated as such.
When to let go of your novels is something only you can decide. Others will certainly help you along the decision-making process, but the conclusions made are yours alone. And now, before this blog post becomes novel #6, it's time for me to shut up and open the floor to you all.
For those of you who have written multiple unpublished manuscripts, whether you have something published now or not, what has been your experience with learning when to let go?