I might have one book coming out this fall, but I have four sitting in the drawer behind it. You could say I’m a pro at shelving manuscripts.
Sometimes it’s easy to decide to shelve a manuscript and move on. But sometimes it’s hard.
Manuscript #3? The novel I love so dearly and queried 120+ times?
That one was hard to shelve.
(Manuscript #4? Queried twenty-ish times and shelved with nary a backwards glance.)
I’ve thought a lot about how to figure out why a manuscript isn’t getting picked up by agents and/or editors. I’ve come up with five reasons. There are probably more.
Quality of the writing. For strangers to pick up our meaning, writers have to deploy words, sentences, and paragraphs clearly. For beginning writers, this can be tough, partially because new writers haven’t had as much practice turning ideas into words that then convey ideas. It’s also difficult because new writers may not have developed the self-editing skills to fix their own prose. (Everyone writes bad copy. Experienced writers just know how to fix it.) If you suspect this is your issue (or even if you don’t), join a writing group. See how many line edits you get. See how often people tell you they don’t understand the meaning of a sentence. Happily, this problem is pretty easy to fix, albeit labor intensive.
Not connecting with the characters. Agents and editors often reject manuscripts with the vague explanation of, “I just wasn’t connecting with your characters.” What a frustrating response for a writer who loves her characters with all her heart! How can someone not connect with them? Well. In my experience, connection falters for two reasons: the character doesn’t clearly want something, and/or the reader doesn’t know enough about the character’s personality and motivations to care about what the character wants. Balancing those two aspects, particularly at the beginning of a draft, is hard. You’ve just got to keep working on it, and sending the opening to new readers to see how they react. Examine the books you love and pick apart why it is that you love those characters. Especially in the opening chapters.
There’s not enough tension. A reader can get vested in the characters, but then the plot falters. Novels so often succumb to the dreaded “saggy middle” — when the promise of the initial premise has worn off, and the characters have reverted to passivity. Chances are, events are simply happening to the characters. A good plot will use obstacles plus the character’s desire (need) to overcome those obstacles to build tension. If you think this might be your problem, read some craft books (I love Benjamin Percy’s Thrill Me for this particular issue), examine some plot structures, and see what you can do to retroactively structure the plot.
The concept itself isn’t catchy or unique or of-the-moment. This is a hard one, but unfortunately, I suspect it’s pretty common. I’ve mentored Pitch Wars for the past three years, and each year I’ve seen stories that are well-written and pretty interesting, but don’t make me sit up and gasp and say, “I have to read this now!” One way to judge this for yourself is to see what happens when you give a one-sentence description of your novel to friends and family. Do they politely raise their eyebrows and say, “Oh, that sounds cool,” or do they do that gasp thing? This one was hard for me! Manuscript #2 was definitely a polite nod, and so was #3, no matter how much I loved it. If this is the case, maybe you can find the cool part of your premise and sharpen it. Also, this is the category where luck factors in. Some writers are just going to hit the zeitgeist. There is nothing you can do about whether or not that’s you. Don’t chase trends.
The world isn’t ready. I hesitate to include this reason because, for so many of us, this will be the explanation we’ll want to rely on. The world isn’t ready for my genius, we’ll tell ourselves. But in reality, our manuscripts are more likely suffering from one or more of the previous problems. So before you decide this is your situation, give a hard look at those suggestions above. Still, for a small number of writers, this really is what’s happening. One of my all-time favorite books, A Place of Greater Safety by Hilary Mantel, was rejected countless times when Mantel first submitted it to editors in the late 1970s. She got rejection notices saying that the editors weren’t interested in historical romances — which her novel of the French Revolution most definitely is not. But that’s all editors at that time could imagine historical fiction could be. So Mantel wrote other books and she waited. She finally published that one in 1992, when the world was ready for gritty and political historical fiction. If this is your manuscript? Well, here’s hoping the world catches up.
You’ve gone through this list, you’ve examined your manuscript, you’ve fixed all the problems you think you can fix, and you’re still getting rejections. Now what?
When do you decide to put it away?
I can’t answer that for you. I can only say you have to listen to your heart. Here are the questions to ask it:
If I’m looking to go the traditional route, are there still agents left whom I haven’t queried who are interested in this type of story? (If you’ve queried everyone under the sun, and you really want an agent, the book has probably reached the end of the road. At least for now. If not, consider pausing and revising, then dive in again.)
Do I still love this story? (If not, shelve it. If you do, think what else you can try. Small press? Self-publishing?)
Do I still have the energy to fight for this story? (If not, shelve it. That’s ok!)
Am I more interested in writing something new? (If so, then go for it! Life is made in the moment. Do what makes you happy.)
Do I even still enjoy writing? (If you’re doing this writing thing because you’re determined to have some sort of external validation, but not because you love the process, you’re going to be miserable. If you still enjoy writing, fabulous! Keep at it, whether with this or another manuscript.)
And if you shelve your manuscript … then what?
Then, congratulate yourself. You wrote a book. (Or ten.) And if you continue to write books and attempt to get them published, you are in the process of developing a thick skin. You’re learning to handle rejection, to examine your work critically and separate it from yourself, and you’re learning there are some things you can’t control.
That thick skin? You’ll need it. When you do eventually get published.
And remember, no one defines success except you. No one. Be gentle with yourselves, beautiful creative people.