The best thing about self-publishing is that no one has to put a manuscript in the drawer because they couldn’t find a a publisher.
The worst thing about self-publishing is that no one has to put a manuscript in the drawer because they couldn’t find a publisher.
So… IN CASE YOU HAVEN’T HEARD, what with my relentless promotion and party planning, my first novel is coming out tomorrow!! Party in San Francisco on Friday!!
Only it’s not the first novel I’ve written.
Five years ago I started working on a different novel, an adult science-fiction novel. It had all the trademark qualities of a stereotypical first novel: It was way too ambitious, I bit off more than I could chew, I was wedded to all of the parts that weren’t working, and I was too stubborn to change them.
I sent out my queries and I received my share of rejections, along with a few manuscript requests. One agent in particular sent me some positive feedback and offered to take a look at a revision. But this agent’s advice finally drove home for me what I hadn’t wanted to admit up until that point:
The novel just wasn’t working.
I knew he was right about what needed to change, but I didn’t have any idea how to make the changes. I had been thinking about that manuscript too long and didn’t see how I’d to tackle the revision. I knew I could revise, but I just didn’t think it was going to work.
So I thought about just cutting my losses and experimenting with self-publishing. I could just put the manuscript out there and see what happens.
Only… around that same time, the germ of a new idea popped into my head: A kid trapped on a planet full of substitute teachers. I brainstormed around that, dashed off a few pages, and it felt like it was working. So I put the old manuscript in the drawer and ignored it and got to work on the new novel.
Six months later I was querying JACOB WONDERBAR AND THE COSMIC SPACE KAPOW. A few months after that I was deciding between publishers. And two years after that… well, that’s now. It’s coming out, with two more on the way.
I’M SO GLAD I PUT THAT FIRST MANUSCRIPT IN THE DRAWER.
Trust me when I say this: It’s hard putting a manuscript in the drawer. It’s a huge blow to the ego, it’s utterly painful to think back of all the time you spent writing that novel and dreaming about what would happen when you’re finished and admitting to yourself that you came up short.
But it’s not time wasted, and you didn’t come up short. The next novel you write is bound to be better. That time you spent writing that novel was an essential learning experience. I’m so glad that the first novel people will read with my name on it is JACOB WONDERBAR and not that other novel.
Now… not every novel belongs in the drawer, and I’m not trying to say here that everyone who can’t find a publisher should just give up and forego self-publishing. I really believe that self-publishing is awesome and am not trying to say that no publisher should = no book out there.
But especially when it’s a first novel, especially when you’re ready to get back on the horse and try again, especially when you have a new idea you’re excited about… there’s a lot to be said for just putting the first one in the drawer and trying again.
Now that plenty of time has passed, who knows, maybe someday I’ll try and tackle that novel again down the line.
I’m just glad I made that difficult decision and gave myself another first shot.
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Art: Pedro de Camprobín – Escritorio con arquilla y frutero
I likewise bit off more than I could chew with my first attempt at a novel. Then I refused to abandon the project, spending about 7 or 8 years playing with it.
I finally decided, painful as it was, it needed to be put away. At least for now. I've played with three different NaNoWriMo attempts at a story over the years and now I think I've finally got to where I've got a good enough story and am a good enough writer that this story might have a chance at being published.
Now if I could finish editing the darn thing faster!
I'm afraid I don't have much to contribute to the conversation, but I just wanna say wow. What you've said, Nathan, and what everybody else has added, makes me feel that I'm on the right track after all. Thanks so much for this post!
The Pen and Ink Blog says
Congratulations, Nathan. I can't wait to read the book.
Dumping those manuscripts in a drawer is a hard decision. I have a few there.
A long time ago (1967) when I was working at The Theatre Guild in New York, I was clearing an old file cabinet and way stuck in the back I found a stuck typewritten manuscript. I pulled it out and my eyes wanted to pop out of my head. The manuscript was "Stairs to the Roof" by Tennessee Williams. No one had ever heard of it. I asked permission to take it home and read it. It sounded nothing like else I'd ever read of his. It had God A and God B "laughing in the wings"
It was interesting to read, but I can see why it was never published. The Theatre Guild was planning to give it to their Yale Library collection. I guess they did cause I saw the manuscript at Wikipedia. Sometimes the drawer is the right decision.
I just wanted to say congrats – what a terrific achievement. I can't wait to read it.
K.L. Brady says
I wrote my first novel two years ago. I entered it into a contest. It lost. Twice. I queried it to literary agents (including our gracious blog host-no hard feelings!). Reject. Reject. Reject. I hired former editor from a major house to give me a manuscript review. While she enjoyed it, she told me to put it in a drawer and start my next book.
I understood. But didn't listen because I LOVED the story. And I believed in the story.
I self published.
Four months later I got an email from an executive editor at a publishing house saying she wanted to acquire my novel. A month later I had a literary agent. Six weeks later I had a two-book deal (with an option for a third) with a major publisher.
The book is now published and has changed little from the first version. Just got a pub date for the sequel.
Moral of the story. Sometimes, when you really really believe in your story, the only thing you need to stick in a drawer is negative thinking. Sometimes.
Amy Kinzer says
You said it perfectly "I gave myself another first shot". It's something we all have to think of. Is this the book I want to debut that will potentially guide where the rest of my career goes? I ask myself this when I query and I have a book in a drawer for this exact reason.
It's something we all have to think about. If it's not the best novel to represent the debut then perhaps it's best to wait.
Good luck with your book, I look forward to reading it.
Kristin Laughtin says
I put my second novel in the drawer even though I plan to query with my first one someday (after some minor revisions, I'm sure, and a check to make sure I like it as much as I remember, now that I've got a bit more experience under my belt). It was really hard at first, but I'm glad I did it, because it was weak and would have weighed me down professionally as well if I'd tried to sell it. But I learned a lot writing it, so I don't regard it as a waste. If someday I take it out and do an extensive rewrite of it, so much the better, but I won't regret it if I give it a permanent home in that drawer (OK, folder on my hard drive) because of the experience I gained. Books that don't work out can still help you level up.
It's definitely a valuable and painful lesson to learn about first novels.
They need to be put away into a deep dark dank corner until you feel comfortable enough and grounded enough with your writing that you can take it out again to see if its worth salvaging.
Same theory can be applied (in my case) to book #2, and book #3, until book #4 becomes the #1 that you should see to the very end, no matter what that end may be.
S.B. Stewart-Laing says
I put lots of time and energy into my first novel (granted, I wrote it quite young). In the end, I'm very glad I wrote it, because I learned a tremendous amount about the writing (and critiquing) process. However, I'm equally happy that I shelved it and completely switched genres to a project which "works" sooooo much better. But it definitely took me having a swing at literary fiction to realize that it's *not* my genre, and to find my true genre home.
Congratulations on your book coming out.
Sometimes too that one ms put back in the drawer,then taken out years later and revised with all you've learned in the meantime is published too as happened with my novel Streets on a Map.
My first attempt at a novel was a fantasy epic that had a beginning and end, but no way to get from point A to point B. Fortunately, I managed to put it in the drawer before I permanently damaged myself trying to make it work. Good advice.
Margaret Reyes Dempsey says
How about waiting 20 years before putting the manuscript into the drawer? That's how long it took me. That thing was like some over-coddled child. I kept working on it over the years and the latest version bears no resemblance to the first. They could have been two separate, but equally bad, books. Finally, I said enough is enough and started a new one, which I finished. That one didn't get accepted for publication, but the next one, The Benefactor, did. I have no regrets. I learned a lot from that first experience.
Good luck with the book. My copy is on the way. Can't wait to read it with my son.
DEMETRA BRODSKY says
Great post. You let us see your wounds. Very cool!
Joseph L. Selby says
This is a very good post.
Ruth A Casie says
I know exactly how you feel. I wrote my first novel and had no idea what to do with it when I finished it. I was naive enough to query without understanding or really knowing the edit/rewrite process. Ok, please stop laughing.
After a year of studying craft and making those edits I said it was time to put it under the bed, I write romance, under the bed is more appropriate than in a drawer).
A week later I got 'the call' from Angela James. Carina Press wanted to publish my historical time travel. My debut book comes out November 14.
I know the agony of rejection, the hard work of editing and rewriting, and also the wonderful feeling when you know deep down to your toes you got it right. And now I know the excitement and anticipation of being able to say I'm a published author.
Nathan, good wishes on Friday. May it be everything you hoped and dreamed it would be.
Linda Godfrey says
Most people don't expect to play in the Masters in their first game of golf. They know there is a learning curve. Yet writers will beat themselves up or quit writing altogether when their very first attempt at a novel doesn't make the big time.
I have two novels and a couple of bad screenplays in the drawer, a third novel being line-edited by my – squee – agent and a fourth novel coming up on the first draft finish line. I treasure my drawer. Everything in it was merely the start of my continuing education in fiction.
And I will admit that after one game of golf I never played again. If you suck AND it isn't fun, there are zillions of other things to do. I play Whack-a-Mole instead.
Nathan, congratulations! Here's my toast from afar. I can't wait to read your book.
Jenni Wiltz says
It's comforting to know so many others have had the same experience! I was sure my first novel was going to sell, but after several agents passed, I edited the crap out of it and then realized what I really needed to do was move on. Letting that first book go was one of the hardest things I've ever done!
Natalie Aguirre says
Congrats on your debut day. Enjoy it!
That's so interesting to learn this wasn't your first book. It's hard to know when the book goes in the drawer. I know I need to get mine done and start querying and put it away if necessary.
Some of us, even after we're published more than once, have several mss in the drawer 🙂
May you sell as many books and experience as much overall success as Amanda Hocking. May your writing be as good as the 99-cent self-published books by famous authors. If all that comes true, I think you'll be very happy. 🙂
wry wryter says
I loved my first novel so much I crawled in the drawer with it and did not write for a long time.
Thankfully the drawer opened from the inside and I got out, got up and got writing.
Congrats to you Nathan. Life is very sweet for you now.May it be…always.
I suppose the trick is telling whether you should self-publish or stick your MS in the drawer if it fails to sell. My plan, should querying fail, is to leave my MS for a few months and come back it with fresh eyes and make a final decision then. Some of the self-publishing stories above are very heartening, and people can always self-publish under a pen name if they are worried about the effect on future works.
Hmm..thanks Nathan , this is exactly where I'm at at the moment so..yeah..
Wishing you every success for Jacob Wonderbar , whilst
meanwhile , somewhere in Outer Space , the Planets are aligning . Did you plan that Nathan ?
I spent 14 years off an on working on a novel that now sits in the proverbial drawer. Time well spent. I learned so much and now that I'm finally starting to understand how to put a story together I find that the writing part is much easier and things are falling together. I think the manuscript-in-a-drawer is kind of like the writer's badge of honor. Congrats on your big day tomorrow!
Matthew MacNish says
But what if you're only going to ever have one idea worthy of a novel/series of novels?
I probably sound like I'm joking, and I do love a good sarcastic blog comment, but I'm actually serious here.
My own position is that I will keep working on this one story idea, until it's worthy, because I'm not sure I'll ever have any others.
I'm probably just being paranoid.
Michele Shaw says
Nathan, this post came at the right time for me. It's almost eerie, because I'm wrestling with the idea of putting my novel in a drawer. It's more painful than I could have ever imagined. I'm still not sure. It's confusing because I've gotten close with it and some great feedback, yet I feel as though I'm running in place. I'm glad you moved on and hit your stride with Jacob. Congratulations!
Thanks for sharing this, Nathan. I have one novel in a projected four-book series written and awaiting revision, and the second book stuck in limbo in my computer because I lost momentum with it. I also have a light fantasy/comedy/romance NaNo concoction I haven't looked at since I wrote the last word. All of these babies need my attention, but they've been languishing in the virtual drawers of my writing world. It's good to know that's not always a bad decision. Perhaps that time away from each other was what they and my brain needed.
Terin Tashi Miller says
Nathan: I absolutely agree.
What I have done since roughly 1978 is write about a novel a year. Of those novels, I've resorted to self-publishing two. The two strongest, or the two that agents and editors most liked but felt wouldn't sell enough to be worth their while.
My most recent one in fact is a revision of a novel that a publisher liked but suggested I revise. I revised per his suggestions, resulting in the book now out. He, meanwhile, grew big and had other priorities and writers who were making him big and bringing in money.
Both books got far enough in the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award contest to merit my publishing them at no cost to me. Meaning any sales are profit. I'm not getting rich off them by any means. But that never, really, was my intention.
My intention was to have my best work read, and hopefully enjoyed, or gleaned from, by others.
That drawer, like time and memory, is a great editor. And the Amazon contest is a great opportunity to join the "slush pile," but be read, and maybe published by a traditional publisher, or at least critiqued by reviewers and agents and writers and publishers. I recomend it for anyone who has a novel in the drawer they think does work, but haven't found anyone who agrees with them.
Again, to me there is a distinction to be made between, say, great or even good writing, and writing that strikes a chord or puts dollar signs in the eyes of publishers and agents. Which isn't to suggest great writing won't sell. Only that writing that sells is the first priority of traditional publishing.
Looking forward to the Space Kapow.
Terin Tashi Miller says
Oh. And of those novels, the first few were written for and because of my first agent; the last few were written for my second agent–the book I have out now having, in an earlier version, attracted that agent.
I'm working on what's turned into a third book in the same vein, with the same main narrator/character, completing what I never set out to be a trilogy set in India.
I'm torn between putting this latest one in a drawer and working on other things; looking for an agent again and trying to publish it traditionally, and wanting to get it out soon so as to make the trilogy complete.
Such are the dilemmas of the writer or wannabe.
Especially when the agent I decided I wanted to read it quit the business and has a novel of his own coming out…:)
Matthew MacNish says
Congrats on breaking the internet, Jake. Impressive.
Nancy Lauzon says
My first completed manuscript is still in the drawer and shall remain there forever, along with the second in the series (completed), and third in the series (partial). They are very early examples of my writing before I knew what I was doing, so I cringe when I read them now. But I cut my teeth on those novels, and although I would never publish them, I consider them dues paid.
Number four manscript ended up being my first published novel, whoo hoo. Then I went off the rails a bit. Number five was completed but written for the market – it was a medical romance, and I was a nurse. The publisher was looking for medicals, so I figured I could toss one out, but I hated every minute of writing the novel, and it showed in the work. Lesson learned? Never write to the market. Write what's in your heart.
Number six and seven were written from the heart, and were also published.
I've often toyed with the idea of dusting a few off and revising, but I think they're better off where no one can read them. 🙂
Cynthia Leitich Smith says
I've written multiple drafts of four novels that I decided not to shop.
The first because it simply wasn't good enough and never would be. I wasn't ready, and the story would never be worth the fight.
The second because the idea wasn't special enough.
The third because the concept was remarkable, but, though I'd grown, I still wasn't yet ready as a writer to tell that one. In the next couple of years–over a decade later–I'll get back to it.
The fourth because the market had shifted, and I wanted my career to go in a new direction.
Great post, very timely. Have a great celebration for your new book!