It’s Okay To Shelve Your Novel

by Gurpreet Sihat

At the start of January, I had three novels in various stages of completion. The first, a story of three friends manoeuvring their way through a difficult week, had a few chapters left to complete. Another was a product of childhood love and confusion that I couldn’t get to work no matter how much I tried – the characters were perfect, but the story just wasn’t fitting together well enough. The last was a Christmas romance novel (think Hallmark movie starring Rob Lowe and Meg Ryan) that I thought was ready to start querying after a final edit.

Now, three months later, the first is complete and making its way through beta readers and editors. The second came back from a manuscript critique session was completely flipped upside down – genre, plot, character personality, the works. And my Christmas romance novel? After spending the better part of two years going through beta readers and editors, I’ve finally decided to shelve it. It’s not that I’ve fallen out of love with the characters or that I no longer believe in the story, that’s all still there. It’s the fact that I’ve just gone through my sixth full manuscript edit, and my spirit is completely and utterly shattered. Somehow, it’s still not what I had hoped it to be by now.

I’m not the first, and I’m definitely not going to be the last, writer to shelve a piece of work. I know writers that shelved five, six, seven manuscripts before finding one they believe is ready for the world. I also know writers that have taken manuscripts off their shelf and rewritten them years later, publishing them not long after. While shelving my manuscript, I realised that there seemed to be three common reasons writers make that decision:

  1. You’ve lost interest.

There is no greater disservice you can do as a writer than continue writing a book you no longer love. That piece of you you leave on each page, that you share with your readers, is only ever there when it’s a labour of love. If you no longer love your work, it shows. In seconds, a manuscript that had so much potential could turn, instead, into a series of empty words on otherwise full pages.

  1. You’re too consumed by other ideas.

Every once in a while, a writer’s brain finds itself drowning in ideas. Unfortunately, not all writers have that incredible ability to develop, love and write more than one manuscript at a time. For some people, the only choice they have is to put down whatever they’re working on and develop the other ideas before the inspiration for them vanishes. Then they go back to whatever manuscript they had shelved before.

  1. You put in the work but it doesn’t seem to matter.

Sometimes it doesn’t matter how many beta readers give you feedback, or how many editors you have go through a manuscript, you still find that you’re not getting anywhere. With this particular manuscript of mine, I would fix one set of major problems, only to discover another five, ten, fifteen that needed my attention. I would fix those and accidentally set off a line of dominos that meant I had to start again. No matter how much work I put into it, it just wasn’t working. I realised that sometimes this is just part of the process. If you’re not happy with your novel, if you can’t make it work, don’t force it!

What you need to do is trust your instincts. You’re a writer for a reason. When you doubt yourself, when you think that perhaps it is time to move on, you’re probably right. Just remember: shelving your manuscript doesn’t have to be a negative thing. It doesn’t even have to be permanent! And it’s most certainly not a sign of giving up, either. What it is, is acknowledging that maybe this moment in time is just not the right one to be working on this particular work in progress. And you know what? That’s okay!

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