When Your Novel Isn't the One

Photo credit: davidking on Flickr
There comes a time in every writer’s journey, where you have to accept that the book you just wrote isn't ready—and may never be.

Sometimes you know right away, so it’s not quite as difficult to put it away, but sometimes the realization doesn’t come until months of writing and editing and rewriting and submissions. And it’s hard. It’s hard having to accept that maybe this book you’ve spent so much time on, this book with characters you love and a plot you thought could actually work is in fact not working.

It happens to everyone, guys. And it’s ok.

I know I’ve mentioned this before in my post about why gatekeepers aren't evil, but I want to talk about the writer side of it. I want to tell you that I know it’s not easy to shelf a novel, but it doesn’t make you a bad writer. It doesn’t mean you’ll never write the one.

It just means you need more practice.

Don’t be discouraged if the book you thought would be the one, isn’t the one after all. Don’t give up just because you’ve written two or three (or however many) novels and you had to shelf them all.

And please don’t self-publish just to avoid putting your book in the trunk. That is absolutely not the reason to self-publish and you’ll be glad you didn’t later. 

The fact of the matter is, at first anyway, your passion will not be equal to your skill. Your story might be great, your characters might even be fantastic, but your skill level won’t be there yet and that’s ok. These things take time and practice and practice and more practice.

And eventually, as long as you keep pushing, you will write the one. And it’ll be amazing—the best thing you’ve ever written—not perfect, but really good and you’ll feel it and you’ll know that the time is right. You’ve paid your dues.

The point isn’t how long it takes you to get there or how many books you write before the one is born—the point is that you keep going until you reach it. The point is that you accept every book you write brings you one book closer to the one.

Then, once your skill level is equal to your passion, you might find that you’re ready to go back and salvage the good from those stepping stone novels. You never know—with a little extra work, they might be the next one after all.

Have you ever had to shelf a novel? Are you glad you moved on? Tell me about it in the comments! 

29 comments:

christine fonseca said...

Love this post. I HAVE shelved a novel - and yes, my next one was so much better. I'll be honest though, having to do it multiple times may kill me. :D

Peggy Eddleman said...

I shelved three. The first two I wrote with the intention to shelf. I wrote them for specific people, not for people in general. The third, though, I just KNEW was going to be the book I'd get published. Until the end. At the beginning of the book, I was a novice. But through the course of the book, I learned SO MUCH. The end was a much better book than the beginning. It just felt so right to shelf it, it wasn't even a painful thing.

Ava Jae said...

It's the more unpleasant side of the writer's journey, that's for sure. I'm not going to say it's necessary for *every* writer to shelf more than one, but it's not an uncommon thing. If it has to be done, it has to be done.

Ava Jae said...

I think it's easier to shelf a novel when we can look at it and admit that it was good practice and we learned a lot from it...but it was just that--practice.

Susankayequinn said...

I'm hopping over from Laura P's shout-out, although you were already one of my fav new blog finds! :)

I've shelved one, but I'm pretty sure someday I'll rewrite and publish it - eventually. It's just not that novel's time yet. And I don't count the first one that I wrote, because that was just practice. But I heartily agree with your comments about moving on, it's okay, and REALLY don't self-publish that first one just because no one else scooped it up. Not just because it's probably not ready to see the light of day - but also because you probably love that story/characters. Wait until you can write the book that will do them justice. ;) 

Ava Jae said...

I always cringe when I hear about writers self-publishing their first novel after they couldn't get agent attention. It's certainly the dangerous side of publishing-made-easy and it's a trap that unfortunately many writers are falling into. You're right though, you should hold off not only because the book isn't ready, but because you will be able to one day do it justice if you give yourself enough time and practice to improve your craft.

Thanks for stopping by! ^_^

Krista said...

I haven't had to shelve a novel. I came close once. But I had never finished anything so I stuck with it. I am glad I did because it was a great learning experiance. It may still need to be shelved - but I am okay with that.

Hart Johnson said...

Man, so true!  My first novel that will be published was my 7th written. I still intend to get back to most of my early ones and clean them up, but I was on my 4th book before I could SEE what was wrong with my first.

Ava Jae said...

It definitely takes time to develop our skills enough to see what the problems were with earlier novels. One of the biggest misconceptions in the publishing world is that an author's debut novel is the first one they wrote--but that's rarely ever the case! 

Susan Sipal said...

One of my earlier books that I was SO passionate about, and hated to shelve, I was later able to recycle bits and pieces and ideas and characters into my new one. So, it's still working for me, just not in its original frame. And, of course, I learned a lot from writing it.

Ava Jae said...

I think that's one of the best things about having novels in the shelf--just because you put it away doesn't mean it's dead. You can always go back to it later and use the best parts or rewrite it completely once you've improved your skill.

I have many characters and ideas I might reuse (or rewrite) in the future. You never know. :)

Jon Arntson said...

Hi Ava. I am here from Laura Pauling's blog, where she featured you!

First of all, the design aesthetic of your blog is amazing! It's right up my ally. The colors, layout, and fonts are all favorites of mine.

Secondly, in answer to your question, I would not say that I have shelved a novel because I do not believe I have gotten far enough into one WiP for my ditching to count as shelving. I have many novels started, and I would like to finish most of them someday. I know the majority of my unfinished novels will remain unfinished, but I love that they helped me to become a better writer!

Donna K. Weaver said...

Wandered over here from Laura's for the Bloghop. All writing helps us grow even if it's not a good enough tale (now) to be published. It may be something years from now you can take and make good on.

Ava Jae said...

First off, thanks, Jon! I designed it myself, so that's quite a compliment. ^__^

Secondly, I see what you mean. I'm not entirely sure what to call it when you don't finish at least a first draft (I've done it too and you're right...I don't really think about those when I count the ones I've shelved). Nevertheless, finished or not you still definitely learn a lot from everything you write. When you *do* finish a novel (and I hope that you do), I think you'll find you learn quite a bit from the experience of going through an entire plot and finishing up. There's something to learn from every stage. :)

Thanks for stopping by!

Ava Jae said...

Exactly--we learn from every bit of writing we put to paper and whatever we write can always be used later.

Thanks for stopping by!

Rik Davnall said...

I've shelved 2 novels, my first because I didn't think it had a natural audience that I could find on my own and my second because it just came out bad. I'm definitely intending to go back to the first because it's a project I'm passionate about, but if I publish it it'll probably be as a sort of 'curiosity option', not heavily promoted but there if people are interested. It's very different to my published work. I don't know whether I'll go back to the second; there's some good stuff in there, but it needs a lot of work and I'm not sure there's enough to the fundamental idea.

Ava Jae said...

The "curiosity option" is an interesting idea and certainly one of the benefits of self-publishing--you can find a market yourself for something with a smaller audience.
I know what you mean about a WIP having some good elements but needing huge amounts of work that it might be too weak to handle--in those cases I'd consider taking the good and doing something different with it. I haven't tried it yet myself, but I think it's certainly something worth trying in those situations.

LydiaKang said...

Yep, I know this feeling. But it's a good one to have because you know you can do better.
Nice to meet you, I found you from Laura's blog!

Ava Jae said...

It can be discouraging or motivating, depending on how you look at it. I prefer the latter.

Nice to meet you, too! I'm so glad you stopped by. ^_^

Shannon O'Donnell said...

Hi, Ava! I hopped over from Laura Pauling's blog. New follower *waves and smiles* 

Ava Jae said...

Welcome! It's wonderful to meet you. I look forward to getting to know you! ^_^

BiculturalMama said...

I'm in the process of pitching a children's picture book so haven't shelved it yet. It's my first time pitching, I'm waiting for responses that may never come, but don't know that for sure. So I'll see what happens...I hope I won't have to shelve it, but to your point it's okay if that happens.

Ava Jae said...

I wish you the best! There's no real way of knowing what will happen, but if you do decide to shelf it, don't let it be a discouragement. You can only improve. :)

wayward_scribe said...

This is so true. I've shelved 4 novels. They were the best I could write at the time, but they're not books I would want out there now. I like to think of them as my writing education. I learned something new from each one of them and I used the experience to hone my craft.  If I hadn't gone through the process of writing them, I wouldn't be the writer I am now. :)

Ava Jae said...

Writing education--that's exactly right. I look at every book (or every piece of writing, really) to be a stepping stone. Every bit of writing we work on helps us develop our craft and makes us stronger writers, which is why writing is *never* a waste.

Elanor Lawrence said...

I used to think the process of shelving a novel was terrible, akin to telling a friend 'I like you, but you're just not good enough. I think it's time to stop spending time together.' After all, if your characters feel real, then it's just nasty to shove them aside and forget about them. 
The thing is, it's not like that. I've shelved three novels, and all the characters are still in my head. They're still my stories and I still love them, but I realize they're not for the publishing world. I think that, as writers, we have to realize that shelving a novel isn't some sort of nasty abandonment. Just b/c a novel isn't sell-able doesn't mean it isn't valuable to you. 

Ava Jae said...

That's so true--every novel you write, regardless of whether or not it gets published, is special. Shelving a novel doesn't reflect on it's value at all.

Steven Belanger said...

I had to shelf a novel and it was the hardest thing.  Ever.  It took years to get over.  Finally I sold a short story, and I've realized that I can maybe take it off the shelf and tell it in a radically different way.  Even shelves have to come down, sometimes.

Ava Jae said...

Shelving a novel is never an easy thing, but you're right--it doesn't necessarily have to be a permanent thing. It can always come down again once you've learned enough to be able to retell your story more effectively. :)

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