What to do With Your First Novel After You Realize Its Shortcomings.

To Shred or Not to Shred

On my last post I compared crafting my novel to creating a king-size quilt. Here are things to do if that novel’s rough draft turns out not to be all it could be.

1.  Obviously the first thing we all think of is just tossing it. Maybe even shredding it, getting it totally out of your mind before you start something new.

2.  Have a writing group weigh in on what is the best path to follow. Of course there are pitfalls with this as you must have total trust that your group members’ opinions are the result of experience and knowledge. (Luckily for me, mine have these qualities in abundance.)

3.  Have a professional editor give it a read-through. This will cost some money but might save you a lot of time in the long run.

4.  Start a new project and let this one sit while you learn and write new things.

5.  Put it in a file that some day down the road (after you’re dead) your reading public will rhapsodize over as a long-lost manuscript. Those readers who have become great followers of all your subsequent body of work will drool and suddenly that less-than-perfect ms will be wanted. Floating around as a bit of omniscient matter in the universe, though, you might just hear some readers say, “Certainly not her best work. She should have dumped it!”

6.  Go back at the thing and decide how best to rewrite it. If you need to start from scratch, do it. If you need to figure out the strengths and weaknesses of the piece before rewriting, do it. If you need help, ask for it.

7.  Whatever path you decide to follow, remember you are the driver here. You are in charge. Deciding what is best for you will help in working out the project’s final form. Have the courage to make the decisions, do the work, and let the critics’ comments fall where they may.

As a high school teacher who often dealt with students and their challenges, I must remind myself now what I used to tell them. In high school I, a good student, actually failed Geometry in Grade 11. (They were always shocked!) Though I was devastated I learned that I was totally able to pick up the pieces from that failure, take the course again, pass it, and get on with my life. My failure was one of my best life teachers.

Have you ever had similar experiences in your writing? Your life? Consider leaving a comment about life’s lessons learned, or anything else that this post elicits.


25 thoughts on “What to do With Your First Novel After You Realize Its Shortcomings.

  1. I shelved my first novel for 10 years, and then did a major rewrite. I’d learned a lot about writing in the intervening years. The hardest thing was getting back into head space of each character.


    • Kristina, I heard Joan Barfoot at the London Public Library author’s night when she had just finished publishing her first novel. I’m glad your course with her went well. I feel the same with my Barbara Kyle workshops.


    • For sure, I’m not a shredder, Brian, although I did make that king-size quilt. You are right in that I haven’t continued with that craft to make a dozen more. A couple of small projects and that huge one and I was ready to move on. Once I get something right I always want to move on to the next challenge. That’s one reason I’ve started book two of the trilogy even though book one is not on the shelves yet.


  2. After 15 rejections I have currently shelved my first novel to finish my second, which I think is a better book. But I will definitely go back to the first which needs some TLC. Next time I’ll get a prof. to look at the 1st 3 chapters at least before sending it out. You live & learn. Thanks for the post – a good issue to raise.


    • Isn’t it interesting that we learn so much on the first book? I’ve heard of many writers shelving that first book and never releasing it. When I was a kid in 4H, our motto was ‘Learn to do by Doing”. Isn’t that the truth!!


  3. The input from members of my critique group which meets twice a month has been invaluable. I also depend on a couple readers who are also writers to go through the complete manuscript at once. This helps uncover those snags in the story line that reading section by section don’t catch sometimes.


    • Good for you. And how lucky you are to have these avenues for review. Just now I’m sifting through excellent commentary on my project from Author Salon critiquers and a good historical fiction author friend. Ultimately, though, I have to make the final decisions.


  4. I pick someone I trust to be the first Alpha Reader. I this case it was my daughter. I told her where I wasn’t satisfied, and that I had “reservations” on the novel, but didn’t know how to fix it. She did a blunt critique on it, which I needed, and from those notes I got a fresh wind.

    I’m fortunate because she’s a writer in her own right so I trust her professionally as well as personally. If you can find someone you trust, a writing partner is always a great thing to have. They listen to you gripe, share your joys and triumphs, and kick your butt when you need it. I’m also part of a FB writer’s group that keeps each other motivated and encouraged even when we’re struggling to put words to page.

    So if the book seems viable to you, keep it; maybe put it away for a few months and then take it out again. Work on another project and let this one sit; like a good wine it just needs some age.

    And don’t be afraid of the re-writes.


    • Sage advice, Deb. You are so lucky to have someone close on whom you can rely. My family are excellent support but don’t give me the hard but necessary critique. I’m sure my husband deserves sainthood after smiling through all my trials and tribulations as I’ve learned over the last 5 years.


  5. Timely post, Elaine. I just decided to shelve my first novel, at least until I finish the one I’m working on.
    It was a hard desicion. The concept is sound, the execution is flawed. It feels like seeing a tangled fishing reel and not knowing where to start in order to save the line without cutting it to pieces.


    • Love your analogy, Dale. And is that the novel you brought to the Algonkian last fall? Interesting that we’re both in the same position, isn’t it? Never mind, though. I just had a great morning getting over a major stopping point and got up from my desk with a renewed sense of satisfaction such as I haven’t felt in months. We will get there, won’t we?


  6. I believe many writers write quite a few manuscripts before they gain the skills needed to sell a book. I have lost track of the number of times I rewrote mine. First drafts make me cringe, but now I know they will get better. One of the best pieces of advice I got was from Brain Henry, never make your sentences pretty until the final draft. Scenes will be too hard to cut otherwise.
    My critique groups gets some rough writing at times, but I’m more interested in knowing if the scene conveys what I intended and if it’s important enough to keep.

    Thanks for the interlude, Elaine, now back to work!


  7. I can’t leave the first ms alone. In fact, I’m re-editing it now. Not re-writing. Why? Because this is the 3rd time I’ve gotten into it and it finally doesn’t need the total re-write. Should you abandon the baby under the bed? I don’t think so. But I also don’t think you should waste precious writing time going over it again and again. It’s a case of do what I say, not as I do. And I’m looking forward to “Floating around as a bit of omniscient matter in the universe,” and hearing the comments. What fun!


    • Glad you liked my reference, Jessica. Of course there could be a downside to hearing what is said, don’t you think? Just as my mother once said “The Lord made clothes for a reason”, hearing and seeing all could be enough to make us never write another word. A great piece of advice I just read was this: not everyone will love your book, no matter how good it is. Isn’t that a freeing concept?


  8. Even if it was horrible, so could not shred something if had spent that much time writing it. Some things I’ve written, which I don’t consider worthy to be sent out to find a home for, I just stash away and chalk it up to at least more time learning how to write.


  9. After writing (and publishing) a few books for Middle Grade, I wrote my first adult novel. I’m on to my third now, but the first is still sitting in my drawer. Now I look at it more objectively, it was all about mothers and daughters, and was something that I just needed to get off my chest. Those words had to come out of my mind and heart and onto the page. Now I”m writing something completely different–historical fiction, etc. I’m glad I wrote the first book–as therapy if nothing else–even if it never gets rewritten or sees the light of day.


    • Historical fiction? Great. Me, too! And once you’ve spent years researching and learning no way are you going to chuck it all. I think you’re in great company as a lot of authors have books in a drawer so they say. Thanks for commenting, Avigail.


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