A Time to Kill…Your Novel

Brotherton Marcus

Guest Blogger: Marcus Brotherton

A new novelist needs to know when to kill a completed, unpublished manuscript. It’s fact: the death of your first few manuscripts is almost inevitable. Sure, exceptions exist. But there’s just too much to learn in this craft to be instantly brilliant.

Here’s my story.

In 2003 I wrote my first novel, Life With Baby. A New York agent repped it. It didn’t sell.

One down.

In 2005 I wrote Unstuck. Editors liked the dialogue and pacing but called the plot “unfixable.”

Two down.

In 2007 I wrote the first five chapters of GodBrawl. Everybody hated it.

Two and a half down.

In 2008-2011, after reading McKee’s Story, Swain’s Techniques of the Selling Writer, Snyder’s Save the Cat, and 12 other novel-writing technique books, I wrote a military thriller called All Home Alive.

Early readers loved it. My agent deemed it commercially viable. We submitted it to Penguin, my regular nonfiction publisher, who liked the writing, but not the subject. I sent it to an outside editor, the Simon Cowell of publishing, for an unbiased opinion. “If your lifeguard duties were as good as this book,” he said, “a lot of people would drown.”

Three down.

People say never give up. Submit your manuscript to 80 publishers and keep going until one bites. Actually, I’ve tried that. Here’s a wintery truth of this industry: persistence with submissions doesn’t always pay off.

It’s reassuring to peruse any great novelist’s Wikipedia page. Like, [woman with three names] wrote three unpublished books before [hipster title] was finally published. It stayed on the bestseller’s list for 15 years and won the Pulitzer.

Those first unpublished novels aren’t remembered anymore—not the works themselves, nor the agony and exhaustion involved in the throwing away process. They’re just a needful part of the experience.

Here are 3 reasons to put your novel in the drawer and press on with the next.

1. Your novel is good but not great.
In today’s publishing climate, you can’t write a mediocre novel and build a career anymore. You’ve got to be brilliant from the starting gate. For me, it’s reassuring to know that my fiction has been considered good—quite good—although not yet great. It lets me know I’m only a whisker away from success.

2. Your novel doesn’t sit well in your gut.
Confidence is tricky in the book world. You’ve got to learn how to handle rejection and criticism, yet still champion what you write. But soul-deep honesty is hard to ignore. If a book doesn’t sit well, you feel it.

3. You know you can do better.
After you write a manuscript, you know ten things to do better next time. You might be tired, but you’re convinced that, given time, a truly great book will emerge.

Consider your first attempts at fiction the high cost of education. Every manuscript killed means you’re one step closer to writing an excellent novel.

You can do this.

Just breathe. Pull up that blank page again, and keep writing.

 

How do YOU know when to kill a novel?

 

Marcus Brotherton is the bestselling author of more than 20 nonfiction books. He blogs at Men Who Lead Well.

 

 

  1. KeithTanya18 says:

    I had got a dream to begin my own commerce, nevertheless I didn’t have enough of money to do this. Thank God my fellow suggested to take the loan. Thence I used the car loan and realized my dream.

  2. V.V. Denman says:

    I find this post surprisingly encouraging. Just. Keep. Going.

    • Allison says:

      The sexual teniosn between the characters! I also like heroes who are dark and mysterious they behave cold and arrogant but they’re really vulnerable and hurt! I love how at the end, they become all loving and stuff! it makes it so much more exciting!I also like romance novels with a mystery edge or a major conflict that must be overcome!

  3. Great post! I just went through a “kill” stage with a novel I worked on for about four years. It came through better with each edition (It seriously changed about three times, so I technically wrote 3 first drafts of this thing). I knew it was time to kill it when the final version I wrote did WORSE in a contest than the one before it. I thought it would have done far better. It was very discouraging, but also so very helpful because I was able to stuff that sucker in a file called “Dead Novels” and forget about it. I was able to move on and start something fresh.

    It’s nice to know I’m not the only one who “wasted” time on a book that may never see the light of day… though with the lessons I learned in working on that one, the time wasn’t really wasted. 🙂

    Claire L. Fishback

  4. Thanks for a good, realistic look at what the journey to publication can sometimes look like. It’s painful to pour heart and soul into a manuscript and at the end know it isn’t good enough, but in life nothing improves without continuing education and practice.

    A word to Jill — Please, PLEASE don’t take Marcus literally and burn those five manuscripts. You may have accepted that they aren’t your best work, or aren’t publishable, but they represent a lot of your time and energy. They deserve to at least be archived as learning experiences. Bury them in a folder on your computer, or in a filing cabinet in the basement, or save them on a CD and hide it in a shoe box, but don’t destroy them. Some day you may wish to glean their gems (and I don’t doubt there are some), or an agent may ask about what else you’ve written that might have potential if re-worked — anything is possible, but not if you burn them and quit. Just bury them and try again.

  5. RJ says:

    Great advice. I just killed a manuscript I’ve been trying to “fix” for over a year. I’m a little slow but finally realized its not worth fixing.

  6. Thanks for the advice! I agree with you, this is absolutely great post.

  7. Hmmm…. I am the one who bucks the trend then. Can’t give up my first one completely. Instead am reinventing it, back to the drawing board, understanding characters better, fleshing out motivations, intend to atleast self-publish it. Not in the habit of giving up. So will at-least get it out there as a e-book and then move on.

  8. Melinda says:

    I’m on my second novel. The first will probably never see the light of day, but I went in knowing that it was a learning process and would probably be crap. I actually gave myself permission for it to BE crap. And…it is lol. I know it, no need to ask anyone else’s opinion. However, I’m still in love with the idea of it. So, I’m starting over. With the same germ of an idea. But without any of the stuff I wrote before. I won’t even look at it. And if, after imagining an entirely new story from that seed it still feels like crap to me, then it will die. Well, I’ll move on. I’ll bury it in a folder on my desktop :-). I’ll always have a fond place in my heart for my first, even if it’s horrible.

  9. CG Blake says:

    How do you know? If you are not 100 percent comfortable with your work, if there is a scintilla of doubt, it’s not ready. If it isn’t working in spite of countless rewrites, it’s time to chuck it and move on. Every failure is a stepping stone to success.

  10. Bret Draven says:

    While I understand the overall intent behind this posting, I cannot help but speculate that ninety percent of it is simply “flavor of the week?” It’s like witnesses on the scene of an accident… ten witnesses, ten different versions. Meaning, just because one agent doesn’t get an instant chubby over your literary masterpiece, doesn’t mean the next won’t!

    I personally believe that “brilliance” is not a determining factor in any capacity. I have been writing television series for quite some time, and much like the rest of us… I just keep shaking my head at the crap that makes it to the nine o’clock slot.

    Basically, you can scribe a mediocre series, and because your agent gets his drink on with some all important D-bag, your show will most likely receive the green-light. Conversely, if your representation doesn’t have the clout to get your work in front of the decision makers… you’re SOL! At the end of the day, representation is everything!

  11. Ilana Weiner says:

    SUCH AN AWESOME POST MARCUS! Okay I am going to cool with the cap locks since that is for crazy people who don’t understand the Internet. But thank you for your very sage advice. Good but not great? Check. Failed the gut check? Check. Know that I can do better. CHECK! I’m not quite ready to give up on the idea, but I am almost ready to ditch this first version of it. Thank you thank you thank you Marcus.

  12. Andrea says:

    Awesome post! This is a painful part of the writing process, but I guess after a while, it doesn’t hurt as much. Each of my “drawer novels” has taught me a lot. I think there is a difference between good and great and that’s the bridge that can be difficult to cross.

  13. Exceptions exist, Alisha. And I sincerely hope your novels fit into that category.

    A discouraging post? It’s not meant to be a downer. It’s meant to be a realistic post, at least for some.

    I wish you well.

    • Your response to Alisa made me giggle. My husband claims to be a “realist” as well, particularly when he thinks I’ve got my head in the clouds, which is pretty much all the time…

      I actually read your guest post yesterday, and it unsettled me. I was thisclose to responding, but then decided to sleep on it. Now here I am no closer to a well-worded and insightful response than yesterday, but here goes:

      The idealist in me says never give up. Never. Never ever ever. If you believe in what you’ve got, for the love of god, hold onto it and shout it to the world. Rejection is a part of the business. Just as you say that so many writers who have novels that never saw the light of day before they hit it big, there are just as many writers who were told their stuff sucked but carried on anyway and became successful with those “rejected” manuscripts.

      Does that mean you should ignore criticism? Or course not. Use it. Learn from it. Own it. Make your novel better. Every novel can be made better.

      The thing is, all writers — ALL of us — are plagued with self-doubt, whether we’re newbies or seasoned published authors. It’s a part of what we do. Who we are. And to tell us when it’s time to kill our novel is, I worry, giving us permission to give into our deepest fears instead of fighting them.

      In my heart of hearts, I don’t think there is EVER a time to kill a novel. Put it on the back burner, sure. Save it for another day to edit? Why not. Self-publish? Give it a try. Use parts of it in other creative works? You bet. But don’t stick it into a drawer and forget about it. That, to me, would be the death not only of a novel, but also of a piece of the novelist.

  14. Alisha says:

    Well, I’m glad so many people have had time in their lives to write numerous novels that ended up kicking the bucket before they hit on the one that felt “right”. I personally don’t have that kind of time. The novels I’ve written– as a non-published writer– have taken me years and still sit right in my gut. Life happens, for sure. It’s certainly happened to me. But I plug away at these babies because I believe in their ability to grow into successful works. I believe they are going to go somewhere. I appreciate the commenter who said her first novels went right out there and did well. I am not sure I buy the idea that the majority of first novels have little chance of seeing the light of day. That is VERY discouraging to a person like me, who dreams of being a published author and who hasn’t had the time in her life to write a bunch of duds. I will never believe my first works are duds. EVER. God has performed too many miracles and blessings in the process of their conception and birth to view them as a learning process and tuck them away like bad little children. Sorry if I sound bitter, but I find this post terribly discouraging.

  15. Cathy says:

    ZOMG this blog has SO MANY comments anyone would think that it was run by someone involved in the industry or even a literary agent. I’ve just read the one immediately above this and now I’m looking for a sharp knife, to use on myself, obvs. Aged 44 I am no novels down and have killed nothing literary or otherwise. I feel sure, absolutely convinced, that the time for me to kill my first novel will come when I’ve written it. AND NOT ONE SECOND BEFORE THEN.

    Cathy
    PS I’m just jealous in case you hadn’t realised.

  16. I’m just eighteen, and already I’ve had three previous novels that I’ve decided to kill. My first novel was basically a fan fiction gone haywire (it was a sequel to Lord of the Rings, but I made up so much new stuff that it was basically a new fantasy world) which I wrote about 300 pages on, then realized I had learned as much as I could from it and it was time to turn to something publishable.

    My next novel was a co-written mystery which I finished about a year and a half ago. The story took two years to write, so by the time we were done, my co-author and I realized that the story would need major overhauls in plot, character and writing to make it publishable. We haven’t totally given up, but if we ever resurrect it, it’ll be a completely different novel.

    My most recent (and first finished solo novel) was last year’s NaNoWriMo. I loved it while I was writing it, I loved it for months afterwards…. and then I just stopped. I still think that certain elements are great, but now that I see all the problems with it, I don’t anticipate ever getting it published. It was great experience and a wonderful confidence booster to actually finish something, but I’ve abandoned that, too.

    My current novel is a YA dystopia that I’ve been working on since May. It’s 85K now, which means that I’m virtually done. If I wasn’t in University it would be finished right now. Since I’m still in the writing process I’m probably pretty biased, but I honestly feel like this is the one that might land me an agent, and, ultimately, a publishing contract. I’ve learned so much from my past three novels and I’ve spent the past two years learning about the publishing process, so maybe now I finally have the writing and the knowledge that it’ll take to make it in the writing world.

    So, all that to say that for me, I just know when the novel isn’t good enough. Finish it, step back, give it some time. Start working on something else. If your shiny new project doesn’t make you totally forget about your old story, then maybe it’s worth bringing out. 🙂

  17. Paula says:

    My first novel was accepted by the first publisher to whom I sent it, with a contract for two more. It CAN happen!
    Life intervened and I didn’t write any novels for almost 25 years. Started again a few years ago, and it happened again – new novel submitted and accepted, admittedly by small publisher. Second novel due for publication next Feb, and third one recently submitted (fingers crossed).
    Okay, I know I’ll never be in the NY Times bestseller list, but I am happy to be published.
    First novels CAN succeed, if you work at them hard enough, and choose the right publisher.

  18. The writers who are taking the time to self-educate in some way (whether through books, conferences, or whatever) are the ones who are going to know when it’s time to kill a manuscript, because they will grow beyond where they were when they wrote their first novels.

    It’s a little like looking of a picture of yourself when you were in your early teens. You cringe. Did I really look like that? Ew! Boy, am I glad that I’ve changed.

    : )

  19. I think before I kill it, I would at least self publish it.

  20. I admire your perseverance. As a new writer, I don’t know that I would have the endurance to last as long as you did. I’m still working on my first mystery novel so I haven’t reached the killing stage yet, and I can’t say that I’m eager to get there! Wow, growth hurts, huh?

  21. Great line … “I’m glad I wrote them (now).”

    Having that hindsight perspective is extremely valuable, I’d say.

    Tough when you’re in the middle, but all the work is valuable to the process. Thanks.

  22. Charise says:

    I have two that are RIP status. I loved the premise of my first and have incorporated some into my current WIP but it’s virtually unrecognizable because I’ve learned so much. I had so many thoughts of someone finding those someday that they have been ERASED from existence. But those early attempts are crucial for knowing you can finish a book and practicing the lessons the craft books give. I’m glad I wrote them (now).

  23. While I still quite like my first manuscript (which has been revised many times and which I still hope to query with), I had to kill my second and third. My outlines were more ambitious than I expected and the plots became a tangled mess with too much time between subplots; there was just too much going on. However, it was a valuable lesson about how much plot and how many big/cool ideas can comfortably fit in one book. The ones you kill can still teach you a lot. I do like manuscript #4 though, so I’ll have something ready to go–written when I knew a whole lot more about what I was doing!–if #1 doesn’t pan out.

    (And really, #1 means the first one I ever finished because I didn’t kill it halfway through, so it’s not really the first thing I wrote.)

  24. I have interred four novels (two complete, one written and then completely rewritten) on the hard drive of my computer, and they’ll probably never be resurrected. However, in addition to the experience and practice of writing them, I’ve occasionally been able to use ideas or scenes from them in subsequent (successful) novels.
    It’s a tough job to euthanize a novel, but writers have to do it. As for knowing when to do it, I suppose it’s like a giraffe. I can’t describe it, but you’ll know it when you see it.

  25. Leah says:

    So, what are everyone’s thoughts on the whole self-publishing route, then? What if you still feel really good about it, but can’t get an agent/publisher…why not self-publish and see what happens?

    Or is that pitifully ignoring the truth?

    (I’m not there yet, but I am wondering…which is better?)

  26. Thank you Marcus for your sharing your experience as well as your honesty. This is a valuable post. Never forget you landed an agent with your first novel. That, in itself, is a great accomplishment. Off to tweet your post. 🙂

  27. Voni Harris says:

    It’s so hard to know when “it”–whatever “it” is–is in there, and you’re just pulling it out, versus editing the thing to death, and it needs to be put out of its misery.

    Thought-provoking!

    Blessings,
    Voni

  28. Jill says:

    Uncanny. I decided this morning to incinerate all five novels I’ve written, even the two I still feel attached to. Time to move on–either stop writing altogether, or start something new.

  29. There is so much wisdom in these comments today. Thank you all. We’re in this together.

    I love Deepam’s line, “I’m not sure whether to lament this post or praise its truth.”

    Yes–that gets to the heart of the matter, the agony and exhaustion involved in the process, the uncertainty, the hope … those are emotions in the process that are real and true and don’t die easily.

    And I love the fight exhibited in some of the posts today. The kick … the “I didn’t quit on this, I kept going” –either on the novel or the process.

    So, thanks. Good stuff, fellow writers.

  30. Appreciate this advice today. It’s true, I have four in my own personal slush pile. One I’m rewriting, but the others are doomed to stay put. I think you have to write a couple to get the feel and pace and rhythm of writing a novel…and even then, we still have so much to learn! Thanks for this post!

  31. Donna Pyle says:

    Marcus, GREAT words of wisdom from someone who’s walked that path. Thanks!

  32. Else says:

    When I realize it’s a polemic.

    My politics (which are probably the exact opposite of most of the people who post here) tend to get into my novels. If they’re guiding the action, it’s time to pull the plug.

    And whatever your politics, religion, philosophy, whatever– if you’re writing because you want to “show” the reader something, it’s time to pull the plug.

    My novels have been selling for years, but… well, the advantage to that is you learn to recognize a lot sooner when things aren’t working.

  33. Lisa Fender says:

    My first novel only made it to chapter 10 and has been in the drawer ever since, I knew it wasn’t in me to write a mystery novel. I waited a few months and then came up with the idea for the novel I am working on now and I know in my heart and mind that it’s a great story and am plugging away to make it fantastic! I have worked on it for 2 yrs but it is another world I am creating, along with a language and so far I have been told it’s awesome. I will continue to re-write until I know it’s ready for a prof. editor and submit. This is truly my baby and if no one wants to publish it, I will do it myself. I know it’s an awesome story!

  34. Wendy says:

    Four for me. I wonder if all of those characters chill out together in some novel junkyard somewhere in the depths of my gray matter. Still think of them from time to time—the characters who went before and paved the way for the ones who’ll make it. #2 is a brilliant point.
    ~ Wendy

  35. Sounds like the pancake rule: The first few out of the pan, ugly – but edible, by the fifth, bring on the maple syrup.  Great post!

  36. Deepam Wadds says:

    I’m not sure whether to lament this or praise its truth. After more than three years laboring over a beloved manuscript, I have to say I don’t want to believe this. But I’m with you on the learning curve aspect – how writing a first book is all about the lessons learned. I am already seeing how much I’ve learned as I launch into novel number two. As one friend said, “Maybe you won’t have to write so many drafts with this one.” Here’s hoping!

  37. Julie Garmon says:

    Great post. Love your honesty. Helps me know I’ve done the right thing with novel number one and number two–working hard on number three.

  38. Peter DeHaan says:

    Instead of killing these novels, I wonder if they merely need to be put on ice of several years to possibly be resurrected and reworked later on in one’s career.

  39. Rick Barry says:

    This is realistic and balanced. Although I have a couple published books, I also have a couple “practice novels” that I never show to anyone.

  40. I almost did not write my first novel. The story meant so much to me I thought I’d better save it until later. But it was the story on my heart and mind and so I wrote it. And the first draft, written with the help of Writers Digest School (correspondence course– that’s how long ago it was.)went fast. Instructor says “Send it out.” (I knew better)

    I am glad I did not go with my first instinct to wait. Because if I hadn’t loved the story and the characters I would not have edited and re-edited and rewrote it –took characters out, put them back in, learned to be mean to my characters—Yes she does have to lose her job. Maybe even get kicked out of the house–. Paid freelance editors and revised again. This is my education. We all get our education one way or another. This is my way.

    I am on my third novel and still learning. I hope I never quit learning.

  41. Timothy Fish says:

    I can see #1 and #2, but when it comes to #3, I would reword it as “You know you can’t do better.” As the saying goes, pride goes before a fall. I’ve seen so many authors who are convinced they are putting out their best work, but it is terrible. The best authors are always learning and seeking to improve. As they put one book to bed, they’re already thinking about the next one and how they can make it better than the one before.

  42. otin says:

    I’m not sure when to kill a novel, but my novel is surely killing me! haha

  43. Sherri says:

    Oh my goodness, I just posted about this today. I have always had a skill for writing in the professional/business world. That does not necessarily translate into success and/or skill with fiction writing. I am learning to be teachable and patient, and learning that what I thought was a really great story (it is!) might not have been told in the most skillful way (it was not!). God is also pulling me to strive for excellence in what I do. I have dedicated whatever I write to him and pray that he uses it to his glory. In that case, shouldn’t I offer him the absolute best? Yes, I think so. That means letting go of what I thought was good and working hard for something so much better. Thank you for a great post!

    • Yes! That is why we re-write. To present the story in a more understandable way. We know the story, but we cannot always show the story properly in our first attempts.

  44. Janet Bettag says:

    This may actually be encouraging news to one of my writerly friends who has penned 5 novels and 2 screenplayc, but has never even attempted to find an agent or approach a publisher. Maybe she has all of her rejects out of her system and will hit big if she ever gets the nerve to actully jump into the publishing process.

    Although I’ve spent most of my adult life writing in other formats, I have yet to give birth to my first novel. Carrying on the life cycle analogy, I’m due to deliver soon with NaNoWriMo seving as my midwife.

    Learning to accept rejection is just part of being a writer. I think it’s key to understand that we’re not likely to produce the Great American Novel the first time out. But that’s true, really, of any profession. Edison tried numerous times before he produced a successful light bulb.

    I find your story quite encouraging. Thanks for sharing it with us.

  45. Jackie Ley says:

    Terrific post, Marcus – realistic but encouraging. I’m writing my fourth novel – two are in a drawer for good reasons. The third I still have high hopes for but I’m now well into my fourth. If the third doesn’t get there, it’ll be a natural progression to switch to marketing the fourth. I think it’s important never to stop forging ahead with the next project. ‘Killing your baby’ isn’t such a big deal when you’re busy giving birth to the next one!

  46. Lyn Sofras says:

    This made interesting but sad reading. What you had to go through was a painful learning curve, I suppose. It’s made me consider an early ‘abortion’ as I’m not sure I’m tough enough to take that much rejection.

  47. Killed a novel after I pictured it on a bookshelf among other book. I asked myself honestly, “Would I buy this book?”.
    My answer was no. It didn’t stand out. It’s sad, but I believe it’s for the best.

  48. Great post, Marcus, and so true! I have three that will never see the light of day. And for good reason. 🙂

  49. marion says:

    Well, Marcus, my first is going to be a blockbuster! So There!

    Thanks for a healthy dose of realism–& optimism.

  50. Keli Gwyn says:

    Great post, Marcus, with a dose of truth that, although hard to take, can help us understand that sometimes we have to let a story go.

    I wrote five so-so historical romances, one lousy contemporary romance, and rewrote one of those historicals three times before my awesome agent sold my debut novel. Four of those other stories will remain in the dark recesses of my hard drive. One might be worth rewriting. But none were a waste of time. I learned a great deal from the process of writing them.

  51. I agree with this advice, even though I’m in the ‘killing’ phase of the deal. My first novel had so many people (betas) interested, but one hated it. I had worked to death on it for three years. To me, that was way too long to spend on one project. I started a fresh book, completely different premise, utilizing all I’d learned from my mistakes. WOW, what a difference. I know I still have a lot to learn, but I also know that a writer unwilling to throw their work away may not, deep down, think they have it in them to conjure up anything good again. which, to me, is a sign that they (I) are not ready.

    Good post.

  52. Tirzah says:

    Sometimes you’ve got to to kill your babies (novels).

    🙂

    Tirz

  53. Jennette says:

    This is exactly what I’ve been thinking…when do I “kill” this novel and move on? I think after it’s been rejected by agents and editors, that I’ve researched and targeted, it probably time to shelve it. But the first time novelist needs to get it out there and receive feedback in order to improve their craft. Otherwise we’ll work it to death and still feel it’s not good enough. Only time will tell as we keep writing, rewriting and improving.

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