How to REALLY Know When to Shelf a Manuscript

There are all kinds of opinions floating around as to when a writer should shelf a manuscript. Before we get into that, let’s make sure we’re all talking about the same thing when we say we’ll shelf a manuscript. For me, and for the purpose of this post, to shelf a manuscript means you’ll stop working on it and move on to something else. This doesn’t mean you’ll delete the work from your computer. It doesn’t mean you’ll burn your last copy. And it doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll never go back to that manuscript. You’re simply taking a break from it (be it temporary or permanent) and starting something new. It could also mean you’re putting one project away to work on one you’ve had sitting for a while. But how do you know when it’s time to shelf a manuscript?

Some people believe you should shelf your manuscript when:

-you’ve gotten over 100 rejections and only received form rejections. This probably means something major is off with the story and any revision you’ve done hasn’t fixed the issue, or the story is too similar to what’s already in the market and wouldn’t stand out. If you query a handful of agents and make changes to your MS based off their feedback, then query a handful of other agents and receive more personal feedback, it might be an indication you’re getting closer. Should you still shelf the MS? Maybe. It depends how long you’ve been querying, how many agents have seen the work, and whether or not you’re ready. Personalized rejections from agents is still rejection. At some point, you will have to either break through and win someone over or move on to a new project.

-you’ve been revising the same MS for more than a year. Obviously, there’s a difference between a full-time writer who’s been revising her MS for more than a year and a writer who can only squeeze a little time in here and there to work on revisions. But, at some point, you’re going to feel more than the normal “when will my revisions be over” stage. Sometimes, if a writer works on the same project for too long, she loses the passion she once felt for it and that shows in the writing. Taking a break from the story to work on a new one can help bring that spark back into the author’s work.

-you’re stuck in revision mode. Perfectionists can get stall in revisions because nothing is ever good enough. I believe a perfectionist could polish the story to death and accidentally remove its magic. Yes, it might be technically correct, but if the passion is gone and the voice no longer shines, the story still won’t sell. And some writers stay in revision mode because fear keeps them there. They’re afraid of rejection, afraid of success, and afraid of change. So, they stick with what they know because it’s safe. That’s fine as long as you weren’t hoping to get published some day. In order for that to happen, you must take risks and eventually stop revising. If it makes you feel better, many agents will make you revise before you submit to publishers and most publishers will make you revise too. See? Revisions are never really over, so you might as well move on.

– you’re tired of it. The characters no longer talk to you. The plot isn’t calling to you. And you’ve lost the love and passion you once had for the story.

Don’t feel obligated to finish a story, unless you’re under contract and have a deadline. Then you have to suck it up unless you can work something out with your publisher. Sorry. But, for those who have the freedom to shelf their manuscript and start something new, do it. When the time is right. For you. This is your journey. It won’t be the same as your best friend’s journey. It won’t resemble your role model’s journey. In fact, it probably won’t look like anybody else’s journey because it’s yours.

That’s not to say you shouldn’t listen to the above-mentioned reasons why you should shelf your manuscript. It means you should keep those things in mind, but only shelf it when you’re ready.

When did you know you had to shelf a manuscript? Did you go back to it? Do you plan on working on it again later? How has putting that manuscript aside helped your writing?

This will be my last post until October 20. See you then.

Lynnette Labelle
2015 Daphne du Maurier Finalist

This entry was posted in Blog and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to How to REALLY Know When to Shelf a Manuscript

  1. M.C. Vaughan says:

    I have a 350-page supernatural/adventure/romance novel lurking on my hard drive. (Think ‘A Discovery of Witches’ meets ‘Indiana Jones’ meets ‘The Thornbirds.’) It needs much love and revision. But I knew it was time to put it down and work on something else when a contemporary romance idea bodyslammed my brain and demanded I work on it. So, I’m striking while that iron is hot.

  2. Lynnette Labelle says:

    M.C. Vaughan: I’m so glad you did. (For those who don’t know, I’m M.C.’s mentor for #pitchwars, and I LOVE, LOVE, LOVE her story!!!)

    Lynnette Labelle
    2015 Daphne du Maurier Finalist

Comments are closed.