One of the things I see most often when I am teaching classes or giving workshops is the aspiring writer who has been working on the same manuscript forever—or nearly so. They rewrite, revise and edit based on every new thing they learn, or on whatever the current judge/editor/critique partner/agent/parent/spouse/(fill in the blank) of the moment has suggested. For some, this has been a multi-year endeavor, encompassing countless revisions. The writer’s relationship with his or her manuscript has become a troubled marriage of sorts, a truly Sisyphean effort. The manuscript will sell, these writers insist, if they can only fix that problematic plot element or characterization. I’ve learned so much from this workshop or that workshop, they say. Now I just need to go back and apply what I’ve learned to that manuscript. I’m sure that now I’ll be able to whip it into shape.
Does this sound familiar? And dare I offer just one, little, tiny bit of advice?
Don’t do it. Leave it alone. Let it rest in peace.
Why, you ask? Because every writer has one manuscript (or, in my case, as I think I’ve indicated before, many) which is unfixable. A learning manuscript. Perhaps it’s the first manuscript you ever finished, the one that told you it was possible to write a whole book, the one that made the dream of writing a novel a reality.
I understand the affection, believe me. I’ve felt it myself. That intense pride, the sense of ownership, that awe that you did something that not everyone can do—that even you weren’t sure you could do. I understand also the wish to make that manuscript work. Because what if you can’t do it again?
But you can. You did it once. It’s possible to do it over and over again. And it’s possible to do it BETTER each time. The problem with most first manuscripts—or any manuscript that you spend years revising and grappling with—is that there are problems that are unfixable, and it is very, very difficult to break free from what’s there. Things become permanent, even if you don’t mean for them to be. The real problems in it you may never see, because you’ll never be able to see that the protagonist you love so much should not be the protagonist, or that the plot you’ve spent hour upon hour fashioning is so unwieldy that trying to fix it just makes it more so, or that brilliant flashback/letters/journals/multi-point of view structure just simply will not work, no matter how often you twist and temper it, and no amount of workshopping or learning will enable you to break free of your own head when it comes to that manuscript. There’s too much baggage there already. It’s too hard to have a clear vision. And frankly, you may not yet have the skill to fix it well enough to make it work.
You’ve learned a great deal, it’s true. Now it’s time to apply those lessons to something new, something where you’re not so hampered or restricted by what’s already there. Try a new story, because the old one is keeping you back and holding you hostage. It’s hard to let it go, but you must if you want to improve, if you want to sell. And there’s something to be said for approaching something fresh and new—it will make the pain of saying goodbye less painful, and it will give you new hope, something else to focus on.
Trust me: It’s time to let go. A whole new world awaits.
Megan Chance is the critically acclaimed, award-winning author of several novels. The Best Reviews has said she writes “Fascinating historical fiction.” Her books have been chosen for the Borders Original Voices program and IndiBound’s Booksense. A former television news photographer with a BA from Western Washington University, Megan Chance lives in the Pacific Northwest with her husband and two daughters. Find her at: http://www.MeganChance.com.