How do you know when it is time to shelve a completed MS?
Congratulations on finishing a manuscript! Ninety percent of aspiring novelists never make it to this stage in the process. (I made that figure up, but it sounds correct to me.) Now, you’ve got this pile of words and nowhere to go with it. This is a difficult question to answer because I feel like I need more information to give you good advice. Therefore, I’ll give you a few different situations and hope that one of them fits your scenario, a kind of flow-chart for whether you should do battle for your story or surrender it.
Sitch 1: You know your story’s not working as it is, but you don’t know why.
Here, you could employ the services of a good content editor or assemble a critique group to go over it in a roundtable discussion with the goal of telling you why it’s not working. Tell them to be tough with you and take your lumps gracefully because it’s a big investment of time and energy for anyone to try and figure out why a story isn’t working.
Most things can be fixed in revision, but not all. If at the end of this process, you feel your story is salvageable without changing your original intent, then the rewrite process begins. You may find you need a couple of months away from the story in order to come back to it fresh. You may also decide that trying to fit your existing manuscript into your revisioning is more work than it’s worth. That’s okay too. Sometimes, starting from scratch is easier than trying to “fix” a manuscript. It sounds scary but know that all of those beautiful descriptions and lines of witty dialogue will be available to be cut and pasted into the new story if it makes sense.
Sitch 2: Your story is working, but nobody wants to publish it.
By “nobody,” do you mean mainstream publishing? If so, don’t take it personally. They are so gosh-darned picky these days. All they want are guaranteed, instantaneous bestsellers, right? Where does that leave the rest of us? Luckily, this day and age, we have options.
There is a plethora of small and independent publishers out there who might want your story. Part of your job is researching who might be interested in your particular genre and theme. Also, submitting an excerpt from your story to relevant publications, either online or in print, is a good way to build up your reputation.
If mainstream doesn’t want it, and the indie pub route doesn’t appeal to you, then there is always self-publishing. Our corporate overlord, Amazon, has made it easier than ever for writers to self-publish their works via Kindle Direct Publishing and Kindle Create (the paperback affiliate that supplies the service CreateSpace formerly did). I recently went through this process (pulling out my hair during the formatting bit), and at the end, had a swell-looking paperback, a Kindle e-book that gives me 70% royalties, and a spot in the Kindle Unlimited subscription program where you get paid according to how many people read your book (and how many pages). Profits remain to be seen, and you’re going to want to make sure you have a good proofreader and cover designer to make your product the best it can be, but it can be done! To be clear, I’m not saying this is the best or most advantageous way to go; I’m simply saying this is an alternative to shelving it.
Sitch 3: Your story is not working, you know it, and what it would take to fix it would completely destroy what you set out to do, and you would end up hating the story and yourself by the end of it.
Then, yes, you need to shelve it. But don’t lose heart. I’ve had to shelve projects before and characters have a way of coming back to you, 10x stronger. This may not be the right story for you to work on now but shelving it doesn’t mean abandoning it forever. More like the story is away on vacation, and the two of you will be reunited when the time is right. That’s why you’d better back your stuff up. You never know when you’re going to want to go back to a former project and breathe new life into it.
For those of us who can’t travel to conferences/afford to go on MFA courses, what would you recommend is a good expenditure for aspiring writers to invest in their craft?
I feel you. Conferences are expensive, and the results vary. The only thing you can be assured of, is spending ton of money. But that doesn’t mean you can’t become a better writer. Here are a few non-expensive ways to better your craft:
Hit up the library.
There are a ton of books on the craft of writing. Writers LOVE to write about their craft and many of them have done so. Google search “best books on writing fiction,” and the usual suspects will turn up. I also recommend scouring the web for some great writing resources. Here are a few of my favs:
This site is a great resource for plotting and learning to create Beat Sheets, which is what screenwriters use to write screenplays and can be translated to novel writing as well.
Alexandra has great tools for writers on plotting their novels and a lot of free downloads as well.
Kristen has a great blog that is part therapy, part craft. She covers everything you could imagine regarding not only the craft of writing, but also the route to publication. She’s also very funny.
Also known as Fiction University, Janice has been around the block, so to speak, and often features literary agents and editors on her blog, so the information is always current.
Writer/Editor James Scott Bell has a ton of resources on his site and has written or contributed to more than a dozen books devoted to the craft of writing.
But books and websites can’t replace the expertise and feedback of real, live people, so I would also encourage you to…
Make writer friends.
Facebook is a great way to meet other writers and join groups particular to your genre. One of my groups was instrumental in helping me navigate the self-publishing process. And there are often people looking to trade critiques and get/give feedback on projects. Once you find a good critique partner, hold onto them for dear life. And if you find someone you just don’t jive with, let them go. Life’s too short to deal with people who don’t understand what you’re trying to accomplish as an artist.
Form a critique group.
Building on the above, you might want to consider having a regular meet-up, either in person or online for you and your writer friends so that you guys can have ongoing discussions about each other’s’ projects. The consistency, accountability and relationship-building of these types of groups can be instrumental to you as a writer, not only in improving upon your craft, but also in navigating the highs and lows of publishing.
The most important thing is to not lose heart. Most of us writers are struggling (read: broke), so we are always looking to lend a hand.
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Laura Lascarso is the author of several young and new adult novels including THE BRAVEST THING, which won a 2017 Rainbow Award for best gay contemporary romance and COUNTING BACKWARDS, which won a 2012 Florida Book Award gold medal for young adult literature. If you have a burning question about writing or publishing, please tweet @lauralascarso and include the tag #dearlaura
Learn more at www.lauralascarso.com