Book on shelf

How I Became a Better Writer…By Shelving My Manuscript

I think it’s time to redefine our relationship with the shelf.

You know the shelf I’m talking about? The one that fills you with dread anytime you think about the heaps of ideas and bundles of manuscripts you’ve sent there to gather dust, their pages growing brittle with age? For a long time, I thought of the shelf as a graveyard, the place where my old ideas went to die, but I’ve come to realize that’s not true at all.

The shelf isn’t a graveyard—it’s a foundation.

At the end of 2017, I shelved a manuscript that I had been working on for three years. Unfathomable amounts of blood, sweat, and tears (so, so many tears) went into that book. I rewrote it six or seven times from scratch. Every revision felt like a step in the right direction, a little closer to the story I wanted to tell, but there were still massive flaws woven deep into its fabric. Still, I didn’t want to let it go. Shelving something I spent three years of my life on and poured so much time into felt like a waste, a failure.

But let me tell you, shelving that manuscript was the best decision I’ve made in my writing journey. That one act has taught me more than I could ever imagine, but before I get to that, let’s talk about how you come to this decision at all. Choosing whether or not to shelve a manuscript is a deeply personal choice, one that no one can make for you. Still, here are a few questions that might help guide your decision-making process as you ponder whether or not to let your precious go (thanks Gollum):

1) How do you feel when you think about continuing to work on this story?

If your response is something like “I’d rather walk on a mile-long stretch of lego bricks than ever open that document again, thanks,” then I think you know the answer. Sometimes this is just story burn out, though. This is okay. It doesn’t mean you’re broken. Take some time away and refill your creative well. When you come back, you may find a new passion for this story, but if you don’t…well, then maybe it’s time for the manuscript to find its home on the shelf.

2) How do you feel when you think about this story being the next thing you put out into the world?

The more I rewrote my first manuscript, the more I realized that I didn’t want it to be my debut. Something felt off about it and, after some deep soul-searching (which may or may not have included drowning myself in chocolate), I realized I was writing in completely the wrong genre. Asking yourself this question will ensure that your manuscript fits with your writing and career goals. If it doesn’t, then the shelf might have a new occupant.

3) Have you simply exhausted all other options?

When you’ve sent your query out to every agent you can possibly think of, when you’ve rewritten your novel fifty times and you’re still not getting that coveted yes, then it’s time. Letting go of something you’ve spent so much time and effort on is a painful process, but you will take everything you learned with you to your next project. Just because this one might end up on the shelf, doesn’t mean pieces of it won’t worm their way into your next manuscript.

So, you’ve dusted off some space on the shelf and lovingly placed your manuscript in its new home…now what? Well, you open up a new document and you start again. It’s as maddeningly simple as that. You will probably curse at your keyboard, scream to your critique partners that you have forgotten how to write, and fall into the deep, dark pit of YouTube as you procrastinate, but eventually, things will click again. And as you start to craft a new world in the pages of your new manuscript, you’ll start to realize all the things your last story taught you. Here are a few of the things I learned by shelving my manuscript:

1) My authorial voice and style is strong enough to carry between projects.

2) With an attentive eye, a little elbow grease, and some fierce critique partners, the weaknesses in my previous manuscript will become strengths in my next story.

And most importantly…

3) One project does not define me.

The books on the shelf aren’t failures—far from it. They give you the skills to write your next manuscript. They help define your voice, deepen your scene-level tension, and teach your how to craft character arcs that will make your critique partners feel all the feels. My current novel would not exist without that shelved manuscript. I don’t think back on that book in shame or embarrassment—I think back in pride. That book got me where I am today, and I don’t regret a moment of it.

So, I think it’s time to redefine our relationship with the shelf…what do you think? Let us know below (or on social media) your experiences with the shelf!

Extra goodies for your consumption:

Recognizing When To Move On by Susan Dennard

When to Put the Baby (Your Book) to Bed by Stacey Lee

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