One of the questions that came up at our recent Q&A with literary agents Eve White and Ludo Cinelli was ‘How do you know when it’s time to give up on a novel?’ Ludo suggested that 25 agent submissions – the number made by the writer asking the question – wasn’t that many if she was working in a popular genre. Eve commented that it’s always a good idea to be working on a second book while submitting the first. You might find that by the time you’re deep into the new novel you don’t want to return to the old one – you’ve learnt and grown; your style has developed.
In this post we’ll look at how considering reader feedback, different avenues to publication and your personal life (or lack of it) can help you decide if it’s time to move on.
If you haven’t received feedback on your novel, you’re not in a position to decide that it’s ready for submitting – or that it’s time to give up on it! Of course, there’s a spectrum of validity when it comes to feedback. If you’ve had feedback from an editor, a published author, or an industry professional saying that you’ve got something special, that’s a good reason to keep going. The same feedback from your mum or a friend (who perhaps isn’t that well read in your genre) doesn’t mean as much.
“If you haven’t received feedback on your novel, you’re not in a position to decide that it’s ready for submitting – or that it’s time to give up on it!”
It’s important to be able to discern when a reader is genuinely passionate about the work and when they’re being polite. Hard truth: words like ‘promising’ and ‘potential’ aren’t enough. A form rejection from an agent will often read something like this: ‘There’s a lot to admire here but unfortunately I don’t feel I’m the right champion for your work.’ A message like this doesn’t necessarily mean they think another agent will want to take the book on. A response in which they mention the name of the protagonist or an aspect of your writing style, however, should be very encouraging, even if it includes constructive criticism. The fact that they’ve bothered to send a personalised response says a lot.
Of course, it’s rare for agents to give feedback and many writers can’t afford to pay a professional editor. If you’re struggling to get feedback on your work, consider joining (or even setting up) a writer’s workshop. If everyone is there hoping to get critique of their work, you can trust that the feedback will be honest.
“I got a rejection letter from an editor at HarperCollins, who included a report from his professional reader. This report shredded my first-born novel, laughed at my phrasing, twirled my lacy pretensions around and gobbed into the seething mosh pit of my stolen clichés. As I read the report, the world became very quiet and stopped rotating. What poisoned me was the fact that the report’s criticisms were all absolutely true. The sound of my landlady digging in the garden got the world moving again. I slipped the letter into the trash…knowing I’d remember every word.” – David Mitchell
Locating the problem:
There are many reasons a book might not be connecting with agents or publishers, and only a few of them are reasons to move on. When taking feedback, try to figure out what the main issue is:
- If it’s the prose itself, the story structure or perhaps a lack of forward momentum, consider taking a writing course and returning to the manuscript.
- If the characters aren’t connecting or they ‘just didn’t fall in love with it’, put the novel in a drawer for a few months and return with a fresh perspective.
- If the book doesn’t have a strong enough hook or agents aren’t sure where they would position it, consider submitting to indies … or working on a new novel with a clearer idea of the premise and market from the outset.
“I wrote a book. It sucked. I wrote nine more books. They sucked, too. Meanwhile, I read every single thing I could find on publishing and writing, went to conferences, joined professional organizations, hooked up with fellow writers in critique groups, and didn’t give up. Then I wrote one more book.” – Beth Revis
AVENUES TO PUBLICATION
Signing with a literary agent is the goal for most novelists, but if the only thing you’ve done to try to get published is make direct submissions to agents, it’s worth considering other approaches before you put the novel in a drawer.
“Signing with a literary agent is the goal for most novelists, but if the only thing you’ve done to try to get published is make direct submissions to agents, it’s worth considering other approaches before you put the novel in a drawer.”
- Enter competitions like the BPA First Novel Award or the Bridport Prize. Even a listing can help connect you with agents and publishers.
- Get your name out there. Submit short stories to journals or get involved with writer events. This stuff can help you to make a connection outside of the submissions inbox. It also makes your cover letter stand out when you do submit.
- Consider submitting directly to independent publishers, for example Galley Beggar Press or Fitzcarraldo Editions for literary fiction, Bookouture or Joffe for commercial.
- Consider whether self-publishing is an option for you.
If you’ve exhausted all these avenues, it might be time to work on something new.
“Dwell in possibility.” – Emily Dickinson
Sometimes you need to take a break, not because the book doesn’t have what it takes, but because it’s affecting your mental health or taking time from other things that give you life. Rejection is hard, even if you’re good at brushing it off. Throwing yourself into a new project or simply taking some time off can be incredibly refreshing and more beneficial for your writing career in the long run. To write well, you need to live, to pursue new experiences and meet different people.
“Each moment is a place you’ve never been.” – Mark Strand
Another thing Eve White said at the Q&A was that many of their clients don’t get a deal with the first book, but the second one does very well. Some clients have been offered a two-book deal to include the novel they ‘put in a drawer’ but have decided to leave it there and write something new.
No novel is made for the bin, but it might be written just for you, because you couldn’t have written the next book without the first one.