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.
Order JACOB WONDERBAR today at:
- Amazon (hardcover)!
- Amazon (Kindle)!
- Barnes & Noble (hardcover)!
- Barnes & Noble (Nook)!
Need help with your book? I’m available for manuscript edits, query critiques, and coaching!
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Art: Pedro de Camprobín – Escritorio con arquilla y frutero
Heather Kelly says
I'm so glad to know that a seasoned veteran of the writing world struggles with the same things as starting out writers. I'm trying to decide whether novel #2 fits inside the drawer with novel #1. Happily novel #3 is going smashingly. 🙂
Stephanie McGee says
It's such a hard choice to make, but sometimes those old projects are doing nothing but weighing you down. I have a couple that are like that. One I'd love to be able to revise, but like you and your first novel, I have no idea yet how to revise it to make it better. I think I need more time away from it, more books under my writing belt.
Yay for book birthdays!
James Scott Bell says
Many people say, I have a novel inside me, and that's usually a good place to keep it. But if they actually write it, it shows they may have what it takes. It's a great learning experience. Usually not publishable. But as you say, not wasted, either.
Putting something away for a while is always a good idea, even if it's your 50th book. You just can't see anything for what it is until you give it time to rest. And when you look back, you might be pleasantly surprised, or embarrassed, or a little of both, but you'll have a better understanding of what you should do with it. Leave it in the drawer? Chuck it? Or work on it some more and take it out into the world.
The Book Phantom says
Wow, this was timely. I've been wrestling with the "put it in the drawer decision" for a while. Thanks – now I know letting go and moving on doesn't equal failure – I'm making room for that new and better idea lurking in the old brainfolds.
Congrats on the release of your novel, Nathan. You deserve it.
My first novel landed an agent, but didn't sell. It went in the drawer while I waffled on whether or not to try Smashwords. I figured it just wasn't good enough, so why embarrass myself? On to other things. However, that novel just won 3rd place in a contest, so now I'm looking at my options again.
Definitely a hard decision, whether or not to give up on a novel.
Beverly Diehl says
The first novel that I queried, that I was sure was wonderful looked very different after two years in the drawer. At that point, I was able to see countless flaws I'd missed.
No writing is wasted, even if it never sees the light of day, any more than an athlete who lifts weights or runs sprints is "wasting" her time. It all helps build those writing chops.
It took me five years to complete my first novel. But after it got rejected all over agent land I had to put it away. It just wasn't very good. I started two more novels that fizzled, and then finally finished the fourth novel two years later. I'm querying that one now.
My drawer is getting full, so I'm hoping this one gets to stay out. Otherwise, self-published word here I come. 🙂
Barbara Kloss says
I'm so glad to see that even you do this. I have one of those drawers. I call it the hibernation "drawer" (ie a cryptically named folder on my desktop). And when it comes out, I see how fat and ugly it really is.
Two years ago for NANOWRIMO I started a book. A book that had been in my head for a long time. It's on the shelf at the moment. I haven't finished it yet, but I will. Part of the way through I realized that I wasn't where I needed to be to write it. The book was deeper, more thoughtful. And in a strange way, I loved it too much. So I started another. This one is lighter and more fun. I'm in the place I need to be writing it. Hopefully when I finish this one, I can go back to the first one. I don't like to think of it as failure, rather a pause button.
D. U. Okonkwo says
I wrote so many books years ago that went into draws. Most of them were YA books. You have to know what's not working and move on. It's hard to do but you do learn from them.
Mr. D says
The more you do something the better you get. And I would bet that you could still save that first manuscript. You just don't quit on it. Fix it!
Thanks for sharing, Nathan. Awesome that JACOB WUNDERBAR comes out tomorrow!
And yes, I agree about the novel in the drawer. One day you might be ready to tackle it again and it will come out just the it should.
Meanwhile I look forward to Jacob and his adventures!
Way to go, mr Bransford! 🙂
Thanks. I've got one I've been thinking about putting in the drawer. It's been on my mind for a couple of weeks now.
Natalie Whipple says
Sometimes you have 1 novel in the drawer, or, like me, you have around 9 or so. And I'm still happy they're all tucked in there, and not running around embarrassing me. Not that the ideas were bad—but my execution certainly was. It just took me a really long time to learn.
Ahh….the sweet taste of reasonableness and common sense, how long I've thirsted for your subtle flavour amidst the rougher, potent liquours of stirring optimism and tubthumping…..=0)
I cut out the middle man and just line my printer up so the paper falls straight into an open drawer. Saves having to hole-punch the damn things.
WV – Ilist: An Apple Catalogue
I had a very similar experience. I bit off more than I could chew with a YA fantasy. I worked on it for 2 years. I never queried it because I instinctively knew it was not ready, and finally I put it in a drawer and started on a middle-grade fantasy. I started querying agents six months later and just received an offer of rep from an agent.
Maybe one day I'll return to that first book, but I am so glad I put it in a drawer!
Mark Terry says
I am being very, very picky about what I choose to self-publish as an e-book, going with more recent manuscripts that I think were good enough to get published, but didn't, for a variety of reasons, find a home.
First, a caveat – I am a traditionally published novelist as well and I make my living as a freelance writer. I've got the chops.
That doesn't mean my early crap should see the light of day.
Even one of my more recent manuscripts I had some doubts about, although I have since rewritten it (for about the 4th time) and will self-publish it in a couple months once I clear the mindspace around my June 7 launch of THE VALLEY OF SHADOWS, my next traditionally published novel.
I think it's worth noting that what you put out there becomes part of your brand and you would prefer your brand be "well-written books" as much as whatever other values might be attached to them.
Chris Phillips says
I've been in a similar situation. I will eventually revamp my first MS, but I'm glad I moved on quickly enough.
Melissa Sarno says
I'm so glad I read this post because I put a manuscript in a drawer about a month ago and it was a really difficult decision and I'm STILL upset about it. BUT, I'm 100X more excited about my 'second' novel (halfway through the 1st draft! yay!) So we'll see how it goes. Congrats on the release of Jacob Wonderbar! So exciting.
I have had a very similar experience. Worked on the same project for so so so long. I worked so long on it that I stopped reading books, all I did was focused 100% on this crappy MS. Finally one day I had an epiphany, I hated my book, so I just decided to stop working on it. I am very glad I did, I've learned to love writing again. And now I actually have spare time to read books again!
Cathy Yardley says
Thanks for posting this! With the gold rush atmosphere of "indie" epublishing right now, it seems like people believe they can throw anything out there and make money. And first novels are like first loves — really, really hard to let go. This is a great post to show why sometimes you need to.
As long as the novel is written, you can give yourself the necessary time to edit it (at least, that's how I see it). You can't edit a blank page
Zan Marie says
Oh, yes! Put it in the drawer! My first novel is a SF that is too ambitious and I've been wedded to the parts that don't work. Need I say more? ; )
Kevin Lynn Helmick says
My first novel is painful for me to read. So many things I've learned since and along the way could have made that a better book. Not that the story doesn't work, I think that it does and readers have given me some cool feedback.
I didn't spend a lot of time seeking a publisher before I self published it. I kinda felt that, (first novel, no credit's or plat form to speak of, no writing degrees) my odds were pretty slim, if not a waste of time.
I don't regret writing, publishinng it though, I could pull it and re-write it any time I want. That's one thing you can't do with a tradtional publihed book and there are plenty that shouldn't made it through the cracks in my opinion. But I won't, pull it and rewrite it, that is.
It's like my first born with all it's flaws and imperfections, I'm still really proud of it and the main character has deveolped small fan base, a bit of controversy. which has turned out to be good.
My second was lot better, and I revieved some glowing rejections and some great advice from two publisher and one editor. I went back an applied the advice (they were right) and resubmitted but I guess the ship had sailed. I self published that too.
I started one after that with a lot of things on the plate I wanted to say about current issues in America and it just wasn't working. I didn't have as much to say as I thought I did, or I didn't care enough. It had a skellton of something good and I didn't want to give it all up, so I condenced and re wrote it into a short story and submitted it to a contest. We'll see how it goes.
I have several partial novels sitting around. that will never see the light of day. it doesn't bother me to much. I can kinda feel if it's working or not, I get a little obsessive with the story and characters and it kind a marches on.
Suzan Harden says
Don't worry, Nathan. I may be self-publishing, but the first three novels are staying under the bed. Forever.
Daisy Whitney says
I have three novels in the drawer too. It's hard but it's all for the best that The Mockingbirds was my first pubbed novel. Can't wait to share Wonderbar with my son!
Will you return to that first book, Nathan? Rebuild or cannibalize or just think of it as a past workout on the road of goals?
My first book is also drawer-bound, but terrific agents were saying, "You had me until the part when…"
So I'm thinking of that book as a sort of ready reserve "mothballed fleet" type deal.
Thanks for another great post, and happy launch week!
Lise Saffran says
My first novel came out this spring and it is my THIRD completed novel manuscript. Both of the others were sent out by agents. While there were things I think worked about the previous books, I definitely see the difference between this one and the those attempts in terms of polish, plot and voice. I'm proud that Juno's Daughters is my first novel!
D.G. Hudson says
I have the seeds of 5 novels all germinated and waiting for rain and sunshine, and they are stored digitally.
There's a finished sci-fi, and an embryo of a mystery on the go. Time will reveal if either has to be in THAT drawer of no return.
Writers have to decide very carefully and not in knee-jerk fashion which course to take when our novels are rejected. Self-publishing shouldn't be taken lightly for several reasons (which have been discussed to death).
I think it's difficult for most writers to determine entirely on our own whether the manuscript deserves to be put away, since we vacillate between confidence and doubt in our abilities as a writer.
I don't know how you stand the waiting, Nathan, but it won't be long now. Best of luck with the sales and your party!
Rebecca Kiel says
After five years, I put my first manuscript in a box. It was a hard decision – those years should have amounted to something, right? But they did! I began my second novel, wrote like a bat out of hell, and finished my first draft in eight months. Those five years were well spent playing with dialogue, learning about myself as a writer, strengthening my writing muscles. I fantasize about picking it up one day and finishing it, but I know it would take a serious over-haul. I am not who I was back then!
Peter Dudley says
Several years ago I read in a Writer's Digest article that on average, first-time authors shelve three manuscripts before they sell one. This was before I wrote my first, and it was disheartening. I had to write FOUR novels before I'd sell one?
Three shelved manuscripts later, like you, I'm glad that first one wasn't my debut. I've learned so much through writing and revision and research and critique. My current WIP will be that one I sell, I am quite sure of it. And I'm very proud to have my name on it.
See you Friday (without my boys, unfortunately).
Tara Maya says
I have more than one manuscript under lock and key. Not too long ago, I looked over a few of them, thinking I could revise and save them.
One of them was clearly beyond repair.
The other…was also not worth revising. But the story was worth re-writing. From scratch.
You may also find that a germ of the old idea you had can still find itself into a new work, in the future.
The Unfinished Song: Initiate
Margo Lerwill says
I am really glad to see the self-published writers here saying their first few books are staying in the drawer. As someone who is probably dipping into that pool for the first time this month, I am eager to see more seasoned writers putting that 5th, 6th, 7th book out as their first self-published work.
I'll probably look at two previous books for far future rewrites, but the bulk of my drawer manuscripts will never see the light of day, about the first 600,000 words probably. Of course, it helps restrain me that I have a nasty habit of completely tossing manuscripts after a few years.
Word verification – spuberri? Really? Ewww.
Roger Floyd says
I don't disagree with what you say about putting a manuscript that isn't working in a drawer, but that philosophy isn't for everyone. I started as you did, with a sci-fi novel that was way to big, but I couldn't see stuffing it in a drawer. I took the time to work on it, and after 12 years I got it done. If a novel is too big, cut it down. If you bit off more than you can chew, cut it down. Stick with it. Make it work. Cut it down.
Chris Eboch says
People are often horrified when I mention I have 10 unpublished novels (in addition to 14 published books now). I decided to revise and self publish one of those books (The Eyes of Pharaoh) because I felt the story was strong but the genre (historical mystery) too hard to market to a publisher in the current climate. One or two of the other manuscripts might be worth revising as well, but most of them were "learning experiences."
I probably put as much time and effort into writing those 10 novels as I did into getting a writing degree, and I probably learned more from writing the novels. College students don't expect a single class to make them qualified for a job, and writers shouldn't expect a single manuscript to make them ready for publication.
Barbara Watson says
Honestly, this is hard to read. My WIP is my first WIP (but maybe not really because it's been remodeled the way Ty remodels homes on Extreme Home Makeover). But, when the WIP is finished, my critique group and I will see if it needs to be "drawered." I know it's possible. It's just hard to entertain the possibility right now.
Kevin R. Bridges says
Too true. From the scale of sentences and paragraphs, to the scale of entire books/series, burning the stuff that doesn't work makes the rest of it shine that much more.
It's also about as fun as spraying lemon juice in your eye.
Argh. While I hate hearing this, there is so much obvious truth to it. I just have to keep reminding myself that writing, like anything worthwhile, is an incredibly humbling endeavor.
Great article, and very excited about tomorrow!!
I checked and Kindle didn't decide to send it to me one day early! The business world is so heartless. But, on the other hand, the anticipation is very fun!
Back to the post – I really like what you're saying here.
Musicians practice for hours every day for years and years before they feel they are ready. There is something strange about writing that people (including me) sometimes forget it's a skill that can take time and practice to hone.
I also agree that your first novel debut is very important,especially if you are self-publishing! You really want your name attached to high quality work. As tempting as it is, I think it's wise to hold off from the "cross your fingers and hope it is good enough to find an audience" approach. Wait to start with the right book, your very best.
Otherwise, you risk losing potential readers for future books. Hold off and move carefully, I think is the best way.
For me, I put almost everything in the drawer and take it out again at various times. I haven't yet left a piece forever, but I had one piece I worked on for about 10 years before it was finished. Which is cool. I don't mind if it takes time – sometimes I think I'm growing into what I want to say.
I may need to mature not only as a writer but as a person in order to truly bring a particular piece to fruition.
Great topic, Nathan – thanks. Can't wait for tomorrow!
Megg Jensen says
Great post!!! Self-pubbers should take heed. I wrote three full novels before querying. When I kept hearing how great my work was, but it would be hard to market (I write traditional YA fantasy, not paranormal), I took the leap into e-pubbing. But not with my 1st, 2nd, or even 3rd manuscript.
Anathema is doing amazingly well and I couldn't be more happy with it.
Here's what a lot of writers don't consider:
Writing is driven by emotion, but publishing should always be a shrewd business decision.
Can I add one quick thing?
I think an unfortunate side effect of moving too quickly is people can get discouraged pre-maturely. Sometimes people get really discouraged and even give up, when what they really need is just to work on their writing skill more.
And a really good editor. A good editor is so essential.
Mark Williams says
"And two years after that… It's coming out."
But surely this is precisely WHY many writers just aren't bothering with the old route.
How many ebooks might you have sold in those two years it's been sitting with the publisher waiting for this moment?
Surely the lesson here actually is to pay for an editor's services, listen to them and get the script right, and self-publish.
You can still chase an agent / legacy publisher at the same time.
We did. We've sold fifty thousand ebooks while we've been waiting for a response from our prospective agent, let alone a publishing contract.
Yes, you might not sell. Big deal. get on with the next one. But you might just have the next Harry Potter in your drawer.
There's only one absolute certainty in this business:
If it ain't out there, no-one can buy it.
Nobody expects to be able to build a computer the first time they pick up a circuitboard. In the same way, your first manuscript may not be professional quality writing.
Jenny Maloney says
It's especially hard when you realize that it could work, but the skill level isn't there yet– I've had that experience. That "This'll be great, you just do This and This!" But the "This and This" that I think I've done isn't actually in there and it requires something else: A That.
And, of course, you can't figure out the difference between This-and-That without writing it. The only thing to do is learn and write something else.
In my opinion, if a writer has the energy and the heart, she can go back to the Drawer Book. But I think you should only go back to something if you're passionately passionate about it–otherwise you might be wasting momentum for another project that can be strengthened from the lessons of the Drawer Book.
And then there's Twilight, which arguably isn't the best written, but clearly touched a nerve.
(And I offer this up as a lit fiction writer–just saying that you never know).
Bryan Russell (Ink) says
I have far more trunked novels than that, and each and everyone was a hugely important and vital experience. I needed each and every one. A million words might go forever unread, but not a single one was wasted.
Mercy Loomis says
I trunked one novel, but then was convinced to dig it back out and now I'm going to be workshopping it next month. But in the meantime I started another one, so I'm looking forward to getting back to the new one, hehe, once the workshop is over. I'm leaning toward self-pubbing the workshopped novel (once I feel it's up to par) in part to get it off my plate, and in part because I want to compare self-pubbing with traditional publishing when I get that far. The workshopped novel will have had a lot of professional eyes on it, so it's a good candidate for self-pubbing without embarassing myself. Or at least that's what I tell myself.
Deeba Salim Irfan says
WOW… it was a great read and inspirational… since I am in the process of querying – i can understand frm your point of view….
Anne R. Allen says
I spent nearly 10 years writing and rewriting a novel that will never work. The day I realized it, I had a bonfire of about 10 reams of paper, all different versions of the poor thing. I still miss those characters, but the plot? Impossible. I had a whole TV series in there.