The case for putting a manuscript in the drawer

by | May 11, 2011 | The Writing Life | 85 comments

The best thing about self-publishing is that no one has to put a manuscript in the drawer because they couldn’t find a a publisher.

The worst thing about self-publishing is that no one has to put a manuscript in the drawer because they couldn’t find a publisher.

So… IN CASE YOU HAVEN’T HEARD, what with my relentless promotion and party planning, my first novel is coming out tomorrow!! Party in San Francisco on Friday!!

Only it’s not the first novel I’ve written.

Five years ago I started working on a different novel, an adult science-fiction novel. It had all the trademark qualities of a stereotypical first novel: It was way too ambitious, I bit off more than I could chew, I was wedded to all of the parts that weren’t working, and I was too stubborn to change them.

I sent out my queries and I received my share of rejections, along with a few manuscript requests. One agent in particular sent me some positive feedback and offered to take a look at a revision. But this agent’s advice finally drove home for me what I hadn’t wanted to admit up until that point:

The novel just wasn’t working.

I knew he was right about what needed to change, but I didn’t have any idea how to make the changes. I had been thinking about that manuscript too long and didn’t see how I’d to tackle the revision. I knew I could revise, but I just didn’t think it was going to work.

So I thought about just cutting my losses and experimenting with self-publishing. I could just put the manuscript out there and see what happens.

Only… around that same time, the germ of a new idea popped into my head: A kid trapped on a planet full of substitute teachers. I brainstormed around that, dashed off a few pages, and it felt like it was working. So I put the old manuscript in the drawer and ignored it and got to work on the new novel.

Six months later I was querying JACOB WONDERBAR AND THE COSMIC SPACE KAPOW. A few months after that I was deciding between publishers. And two years after that… well, that’s now. It’s coming out, with two more on the way.


Trust me when I say this: It’s hard putting a manuscript in the drawer. It’s a huge blow to the ego, it’s utterly painful to think back of all the time you spent writing that novel and dreaming about what would happen when you’re finished and admitting to yourself that you came up short.

But it’s not time wasted, and you didn’t come up short. The next novel you write is bound to be better. That time you spent writing that novel was an essential learning experience. I’m so glad that the first novel people will read with my name on it is JACOB WONDERBAR and not that other novel.

Now… not every novel belongs in the drawer, and I’m not trying to say here that everyone who can’t find a publisher should just give up and forego self-publishing. I really believe that self-publishing is awesome and am not trying to say that no publisher should = no book out there.

But especially when it’s a first novel, especially when you’re ready to get back on the horse and try again, especially when you have a new idea you’re excited about… there’s a lot to be said for just putting the first one in the drawer and trying again.

Now that plenty of time has passed, who knows, maybe someday I’ll try and tackle that novel again down the line.

I’m just glad I made that difficult decision and gave myself another first shot.

Order JACOB WONDERBAR today at:

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Art: Pedro de Camprobín – Escritorio con arquilla y frutero


  1. Heather Kelly

    I'm so glad to know that a seasoned veteran of the writing world struggles with the same things as starting out writers. I'm trying to decide whether novel #2 fits inside the drawer with novel #1. Happily novel #3 is going smashingly. 🙂

    Keep writing.

  2. Stephanie McGee

    It's such a hard choice to make, but sometimes those old projects are doing nothing but weighing you down. I have a couple that are like that. One I'd love to be able to revise, but like you and your first novel, I have no idea yet how to revise it to make it better. I think I need more time away from it, more books under my writing belt.

    Yay for book birthdays!

  3. James Scott Bell

    Many people say, I have a novel inside me, and that's usually a good place to keep it. But if they actually write it, it shows they may have what it takes. It's a great learning experience. Usually not publishable. But as you say, not wasted, either.

  4. traceybaptiste

    Putting something away for a while is always a good idea, even if it's your 50th book. You just can't see anything for what it is until you give it time to rest. And when you look back, you might be pleasantly surprised, or embarrassed, or a little of both, but you'll have a better understanding of what you should do with it. Leave it in the drawer? Chuck it? Or work on it some more and take it out into the world.

  5. The Book Phantom

    Wow, this was timely. I've been wrestling with the "put it in the drawer decision" for a while. Thanks – now I know letting go and moving on doesn't equal failure – I'm making room for that new and better idea lurking in the old brainfolds.

  6. Sherri

    Congrats on the release of your novel, Nathan. You deserve it.

    My first novel landed an agent, but didn't sell. It went in the drawer while I waffled on whether or not to try Smashwords. I figured it just wasn't good enough, so why embarrass myself? On to other things. However, that novel just won 3rd place in a contest, so now I'm looking at my options again.

    Definitely a hard decision, whether or not to give up on a novel.

  7. Beverly Diehl

    The first novel that I queried, that I was sure was wonderful looked very different after two years in the drawer. At that point, I was able to see countless flaws I'd missed.

    No writing is wasted, even if it never sees the light of day, any more than an athlete who lifts weights or runs sprints is "wasting" her time. It all helps build those writing chops.

  8. L.G.Smith

    It took me five years to complete my first novel. But after it got rejected all over agent land I had to put it away. It just wasn't very good. I started two more novels that fizzled, and then finally finished the fourth novel two years later. I'm querying that one now.

    My drawer is getting full, so I'm hoping this one gets to stay out. Otherwise, self-published word here I come. 🙂

  9. Barbara Kloss

    I'm so glad to see that even you do this. I have one of those drawers. I call it the hibernation "drawer" (ie a cryptically named folder on my desktop). And when it comes out, I see how fat and ugly it really is.

  10. Kelli

    Two years ago for NANOWRIMO I started a book. A book that had been in my head for a long time. It's on the shelf at the moment. I haven't finished it yet, but I will. Part of the way through I realized that I wasn't where I needed to be to write it. The book was deeper, more thoughtful. And in a strange way, I loved it too much. So I started another. This one is lighter and more fun. I'm in the place I need to be writing it. Hopefully when I finish this one, I can go back to the first one. I don't like to think of it as failure, rather a pause button.

  11. D. U. Okonkwo

    I wrote so many books years ago that went into draws. Most of them were YA books. You have to know what's not working and move on. It's hard to do but you do learn from them.

  12. Mr. D

    The more you do something the better you get. And I would bet that you could still save that first manuscript. You just don't quit on it. Fix it!

  13. minawitteman

    Thanks for sharing, Nathan. Awesome that JACOB WUNDERBAR comes out tomorrow!

    And yes, I agree about the novel in the drawer. One day you might be ready to tackle it again and it will come out just the it should.
    Meanwhile I look forward to Jacob and his adventures!

    Way to go, mr Bransford! 🙂

  14. kbrebes

    Thanks. I've got one I've been thinking about putting in the drawer. It's been on my mind for a couple of weeks now.

  15. Natalie Whipple

    Sometimes you have 1 novel in the drawer, or, like me, you have around 9 or so. And I'm still happy they're all tucked in there, and not running around embarrassing me. Not that the ideas were bad—but my execution certainly was. It just took me a really long time to learn.

  16. Hillsy

    Ahh….the sweet taste of reasonableness and common sense, how long I've thirsted for your subtle flavour amidst the rougher, potent liquours of stirring optimism and tubthumping…..=0)

    I cut out the middle man and just line my printer up so the paper falls straight into an open drawer. Saves having to hole-punch the damn things.

    WV – Ilist: An Apple Catalogue

  17. Liesl

    I had a very similar experience. I bit off more than I could chew with a YA fantasy. I worked on it for 2 years. I never queried it because I instinctively knew it was not ready, and finally I put it in a drawer and started on a middle-grade fantasy. I started querying agents six months later and just received an offer of rep from an agent.

    Maybe one day I'll return to that first book, but I am so glad I put it in a drawer!

  18. Mark Terry

    I am being very, very picky about what I choose to self-publish as an e-book, going with more recent manuscripts that I think were good enough to get published, but didn't, for a variety of reasons, find a home.

    First, a caveat – I am a traditionally published novelist as well and I make my living as a freelance writer. I've got the chops.

    That doesn't mean my early crap should see the light of day.

    Even one of my more recent manuscripts I had some doubts about, although I have since rewritten it (for about the 4th time) and will self-publish it in a couple months once I clear the mindspace around my June 7 launch of THE VALLEY OF SHADOWS, my next traditionally published novel.

    I think it's worth noting that what you put out there becomes part of your brand and you would prefer your brand be "well-written books" as much as whatever other values might be attached to them.

  19. Chris Phillips

    I've been in a similar situation. I will eventually revamp my first MS, but I'm glad I moved on quickly enough.

  20. Melissa Sarno

    I'm so glad I read this post because I put a manuscript in a drawer about a month ago and it was a really difficult decision and I'm STILL upset about it. BUT, I'm 100X more excited about my 'second' novel (halfway through the 1st draft! yay!) So we'll see how it goes. Congrats on the release of Jacob Wonderbar! So exciting.

  21. MJG

    I have had a very similar experience. Worked on the same project for so so so long. I worked so long on it that I stopped reading books, all I did was focused 100% on this crappy MS. Finally one day I had an epiphany, I hated my book, so I just decided to stop working on it. I am very glad I did, I've learned to love writing again. And now I actually have spare time to read books again!

  22. Cathy Yardley

    Thanks for posting this! With the gold rush atmosphere of "indie" epublishing right now, it seems like people believe they can throw anything out there and make money. And first novels are like first loves — really, really hard to let go. This is a great post to show why sometimes you need to.

  23. Ben

    As long as the novel is written, you can give yourself the necessary time to edit it (at least, that's how I see it). You can't edit a blank page

  24. Zan Marie

    Oh, yes! Put it in the drawer! My first novel is a SF that is too ambitious and I've been wedded to the parts that don't work. Need I say more? ; )

  25. Kevin Lynn Helmick

    My first novel is painful for me to read. So many things I've learned since and along the way could have made that a better book. Not that the story doesn't work, I think that it does and readers have given me some cool feedback.
    I didn't spend a lot of time seeking a publisher before I self published it. I kinda felt that, (first novel, no credit's or plat form to speak of, no writing degrees) my odds were pretty slim, if not a waste of time.
    I don't regret writing, publishinng it though, I could pull it and re-write it any time I want. That's one thing you can't do with a tradtional publihed book and there are plenty that shouldn't made it through the cracks in my opinion. But I won't, pull it and rewrite it, that is.
    It's like my first born with all it's flaws and imperfections, I'm still really proud of it and the main character has deveolped small fan base, a bit of controversy. which has turned out to be good.
    My second was lot better, and I revieved some glowing rejections and some great advice from two publisher and one editor. I went back an applied the advice (they were right) and resubmitted but I guess the ship had sailed. I self published that too.
    I started one after that with a lot of things on the plate I wanted to say about current issues in America and it just wasn't working. I didn't have as much to say as I thought I did, or I didn't care enough. It had a skellton of something good and I didn't want to give it all up, so I condenced and re wrote it into a short story and submitted it to a contest. We'll see how it goes.
    I have several partial novels sitting around. that will never see the light of day. it doesn't bother me to much. I can kinda feel if it's working or not, I get a little obsessive with the story and characters and it kind a marches on.

  26. Suzan Harden

    Don't worry, Nathan. I may be self-publishing, but the first three novels are staying under the bed. Forever.

  27. Daisy Whitney

    I have three novels in the drawer too. It's hard but it's all for the best that The Mockingbirds was my first pubbed novel. Can't wait to share Wonderbar with my son!

  28. terryd

    Will you return to that first book, Nathan? Rebuild or cannibalize or just think of it as a past workout on the road of goals?

    My first book is also drawer-bound, but terrific agents were saying, "You had me until the part when…"

    So I'm thinking of that book as a sort of ready reserve "mothballed fleet" type deal.

    Thanks for another great post, and happy launch week!

  29. Lise Saffran

    My first novel came out this spring and it is my THIRD completed novel manuscript. Both of the others were sent out by agents. While there were things I think worked about the previous books, I definitely see the difference between this one and the those attempts in terms of polish, plot and voice. I'm proud that Juno's Daughters is my first novel!

  30. D.G. Hudson

    I have the seeds of 5 novels all germinated and waiting for rain and sunshine, and they are stored digitally.

    There's a finished sci-fi, and an embryo of a mystery on the go. Time will reveal if either has to be in THAT drawer of no return.

    Writers have to decide very carefully and not in knee-jerk fashion which course to take when our novels are rejected. Self-publishing shouldn't be taken lightly for several reasons (which have been discussed to death).

    I think it's difficult for most writers to determine entirely on our own whether the manuscript deserves to be put away, since we vacillate between confidence and doubt in our abilities as a writer.

    I don't know how you stand the waiting, Nathan, but it won't be long now. Best of luck with the sales and your party!

  31. Rebecca Kiel

    After five years, I put my first manuscript in a box. It was a hard decision – those years should have amounted to something, right? But they did! I began my second novel, wrote like a bat out of hell, and finished my first draft in eight months. Those five years were well spent playing with dialogue, learning about myself as a writer, strengthening my writing muscles. I fantasize about picking it up one day and finishing it, but I know it would take a serious over-haul. I am not who I was back then!

  32. Peter Dudley

    Several years ago I read in a Writer's Digest article that on average, first-time authors shelve three manuscripts before they sell one. This was before I wrote my first, and it was disheartening. I had to write FOUR novels before I'd sell one?

    Three shelved manuscripts later, like you, I'm glad that first one wasn't my debut. I've learned so much through writing and revision and research and critique. My current WIP will be that one I sell, I am quite sure of it. And I'm very proud to have my name on it.

    See you Friday (without my boys, unfortunately).

  33. Tara Maya

    I have more than one manuscript under lock and key. Not too long ago, I looked over a few of them, thinking I could revise and save them.

    One of them was clearly beyond repair.

    The other…was also not worth revising. But the story was worth re-writing. From scratch.

    You may also find that a germ of the old idea you had can still find itself into a new work, in the future.

    Tara Maya
    The Unfinished Song: Initiate

  34. Margo Lerwill

    I am really glad to see the self-published writers here saying their first few books are staying in the drawer. As someone who is probably dipping into that pool for the first time this month, I am eager to see more seasoned writers putting that 5th, 6th, 7th book out as their first self-published work.

    I'll probably look at two previous books for far future rewrites, but the bulk of my drawer manuscripts will never see the light of day, about the first 600,000 words probably. Of course, it helps restrain me that I have a nasty habit of completely tossing manuscripts after a few years.

    Word verification – spuberri? Really? Ewww.

  35. Roger Floyd

    I don't disagree with what you say about putting a manuscript that isn't working in a drawer, but that philosophy isn't for everyone. I started as you did, with a sci-fi novel that was way to big, but I couldn't see stuffing it in a drawer. I took the time to work on it, and after 12 years I got it done. If a novel is too big, cut it down. If you bit off more than you can chew, cut it down. Stick with it. Make it work. Cut it down.

  36. Chris Eboch

    People are often horrified when I mention I have 10 unpublished novels (in addition to 14 published books now). I decided to revise and self publish one of those books (The Eyes of Pharaoh) because I felt the story was strong but the genre (historical mystery) too hard to market to a publisher in the current climate. One or two of the other manuscripts might be worth revising as well, but most of them were "learning experiences."

    I probably put as much time and effort into writing those 10 novels as I did into getting a writing degree, and I probably learned more from writing the novels. College students don't expect a single class to make them qualified for a job, and writers shouldn't expect a single manuscript to make them ready for publication.

  37. Barbara Watson

    Honestly, this is hard to read. My WIP is my first WIP (but maybe not really because it's been remodeled the way Ty remodels homes on Extreme Home Makeover). But, when the WIP is finished, my critique group and I will see if it needs to be "drawered." I know it's possible. It's just hard to entertain the possibility right now.

  38. Kevin R. Bridges

    Too true. From the scale of sentences and paragraphs, to the scale of entire books/series, burning the stuff that doesn't work makes the rest of it shine that much more.

    It's also about as fun as spraying lemon juice in your eye.

  39. Lauren

    Argh. While I hate hearing this, there is so much obvious truth to it. I just have to keep reminding myself that writing, like anything worthwhile, is an incredibly humbling endeavor.

  40. Mira

    Great article, and very excited about tomorrow!!

    I checked and Kindle didn't decide to send it to me one day early! The business world is so heartless. But, on the other hand, the anticipation is very fun!

    Back to the post – I really like what you're saying here.

    Musicians practice for hours every day for years and years before they feel they are ready. There is something strange about writing that people (including me) sometimes forget it's a skill that can take time and practice to hone.

    I also agree that your first novel debut is very important,especially if you are self-publishing! You really want your name attached to high quality work. As tempting as it is, I think it's wise to hold off from the "cross your fingers and hope it is good enough to find an audience" approach. Wait to start with the right book, your very best.

    Otherwise, you risk losing potential readers for future books. Hold off and move carefully, I think is the best way.

    For me, I put almost everything in the drawer and take it out again at various times. I haven't yet left a piece forever, but I had one piece I worked on for about 10 years before it was finished. Which is cool. I don't mind if it takes time – sometimes I think I'm growing into what I want to say.

    I may need to mature not only as a writer but as a person in order to truly bring a particular piece to fruition.

    Great topic, Nathan – thanks. Can't wait for tomorrow!

  41. Megg Jensen

    Great post!!! Self-pubbers should take heed. I wrote three full novels before querying. When I kept hearing how great my work was, but it would be hard to market (I write traditional YA fantasy, not paranormal), I took the leap into e-pubbing. But not with my 1st, 2nd, or even 3rd manuscript.

    Anathema is doing amazingly well and I couldn't be more happy with it.

    Here's what a lot of writers don't consider:

    Writing is driven by emotion, but publishing should always be a shrewd business decision.


  42. Mira

    Can I add one quick thing?

    I think an unfortunate side effect of moving too quickly is people can get discouraged pre-maturely. Sometimes people get really discouraged and even give up, when what they really need is just to work on their writing skill more.

    And a really good editor. A good editor is so essential.

  43. Mark Williams

    "And two years after that… It's coming out."

    But surely this is precisely WHY many writers just aren't bothering with the old route.

    How many ebooks might you have sold in those two years it's been sitting with the publisher waiting for this moment?

    Surely the lesson here actually is to pay for an editor's services, listen to them and get the script right, and self-publish.

    You can still chase an agent / legacy publisher at the same time.

    We did. We've sold fifty thousand ebooks while we've been waiting for a response from our prospective agent, let alone a publishing contract.

    Yes, you might not sell. Big deal. get on with the next one. But you might just have the next Harry Potter in your drawer.

    There's only one absolute certainty in this business:

    If it ain't out there, no-one can buy it.

  44. Livia

    Nobody expects to be able to build a computer the first time they pick up a circuitboard. In the same way, your first manuscript may not be professional quality writing.

  45. Jenny Maloney

    It's especially hard when you realize that it could work, but the skill level isn't there yet– I've had that experience. That "This'll be great, you just do This and This!" But the "This and This" that I think I've done isn't actually in there and it requires something else: A That.

    You know?

    And, of course, you can't figure out the difference between This-and-That without writing it. The only thing to do is learn and write something else.

    In my opinion, if a writer has the energy and the heart, she can go back to the Drawer Book. But I think you should only go back to something if you're passionately passionate about it–otherwise you might be wasting momentum for another project that can be strengthened from the lessons of the Drawer Book.

  46. Anonymous

    And then there's Twilight, which arguably isn't the best written, but clearly touched a nerve.

    (And I offer this up as a lit fiction writer–just saying that you never know).

  47. Bryan Russell (Ink)

    I have far more trunked novels than that, and each and everyone was a hugely important and vital experience. I needed each and every one. A million words might go forever unread, but not a single one was wasted.

  48. Mercy Loomis

    I trunked one novel, but then was convinced to dig it back out and now I'm going to be workshopping it next month. But in the meantime I started another one, so I'm looking forward to getting back to the new one, hehe, once the workshop is over. I'm leaning toward self-pubbing the workshopped novel (once I feel it's up to par) in part to get it off my plate, and in part because I want to compare self-pubbing with traditional publishing when I get that far. The workshopped novel will have had a lot of professional eyes on it, so it's a good candidate for self-pubbing without embarassing myself. Or at least that's what I tell myself.

  49. Deeba Salim Irfan

    WOW… it was a great read and inspirational… since I am in the process of querying – i can understand frm your point of view….

  50. Anne R. Allen

    I spent nearly 10 years writing and rewriting a novel that will never work. The day I realized it, I had a bonfire of about 10 reams of paper, all different versions of the poor thing. I still miss those characters, but the plot? Impossible. I had a whole TV series in there.

  51. Meg

    I likewise bit off more than I could chew with my first attempt at a novel. Then I refused to abandon the project, spending about 7 or 8 years playing with it.

    I finally decided, painful as it was, it needed to be put away. At least for now. I've played with three different NaNoWriMo attempts at a story over the years and now I think I've finally got to where I've got a good enough story and am a good enough writer that this story might have a chance at being published.

    Now if I could finish editing the darn thing faster!

  52. AderuMoro

    I'm afraid I don't have much to contribute to the conversation, but I just wanna say wow. What you've said, Nathan, and what everybody else has added, makes me feel that I'm on the right track after all. Thanks so much for this post!

  53. The Pen and Ink Blog

    Congratulations, Nathan. I can't wait to read the book.
    Dumping those manuscripts in a drawer is a hard decision. I have a few there.
    A long time ago (1967) when I was working at The Theatre Guild in New York, I was clearing an old file cabinet and way stuck in the back I found a stuck typewritten manuscript. I pulled it out and my eyes wanted to pop out of my head. The manuscript was "Stairs to the Roof" by Tennessee Williams. No one had ever heard of it. I asked permission to take it home and read it. It sounded nothing like else I'd ever read of his. It had God A and God B "laughing in the wings"
    It was interesting to read, but I can see why it was never published. The Theatre Guild was planning to give it to their Yale Library collection. I guess they did cause I saw the manuscript at Wikipedia. Sometimes the drawer is the right decision.

  54. Ermo

    Nathan –

    I just wanted to say congrats – what a terrific achievement. I can't wait to read it.


  55. K.L. Brady

    I wrote my first novel two years ago. I entered it into a contest. It lost. Twice. I queried it to literary agents (including our gracious blog host-no hard feelings!). Reject. Reject. Reject. I hired former editor from a major house to give me a manuscript review. While she enjoyed it, she told me to put it in a drawer and start my next book.

    I understood. But didn't listen because I LOVED the story. And I believed in the story.

    I self published.

    Four months later I got an email from an executive editor at a publishing house saying she wanted to acquire my novel. A month later I had a literary agent. Six weeks later I had a two-book deal (with an option for a third) with a major publisher.

    The book is now published and has changed little from the first version. Just got a pub date for the sequel.

    Moral of the story. Sometimes, when you really really believe in your story, the only thing you need to stick in a drawer is negative thinking. Sometimes.

  56. Amy Kinzer

    You said it perfectly "I gave myself another first shot". It's something we all have to think of. Is this the book I want to debut that will potentially guide where the rest of my career goes? I ask myself this when I query and I have a book in a drawer for this exact reason.

    It's something we all have to think about. If it's not the best novel to represent the debut then perhaps it's best to wait.

    Good luck with your book, I look forward to reading it.

  57. Kristin Laughtin

    I put my second novel in the drawer even though I plan to query with my first one someday (after some minor revisions, I'm sure, and a check to make sure I like it as much as I remember, now that I've got a bit more experience under my belt). It was really hard at first, but I'm glad I did it, because it was weak and would have weighed me down professionally as well if I'd tried to sell it. But I learned a lot writing it, so I don't regard it as a waste. If someday I take it out and do an extensive rewrite of it, so much the better, but I won't regret it if I give it a permanent home in that drawer (OK, folder on my hard drive) because of the experience I gained. Books that don't work out can still help you level up.

  58. G

    It's definitely a valuable and painful lesson to learn about first novels.

    They need to be put away into a deep dark dank corner until you feel comfortable enough and grounded enough with your writing that you can take it out again to see if its worth salvaging.

    Same theory can be applied (in my case) to book #2, and book #3, until book #4 becomes the #1 that you should see to the very end, no matter what that end may be.

  59. S.B. Stewart-Laing

    I put lots of time and energy into my first novel (granted, I wrote it quite young). In the end, I'm very glad I wrote it, because I learned a tremendous amount about the writing (and critiquing) process. However, I'm equally happy that I shelved it and completely switched genres to a project which "works" sooooo much better. But it definitely took me having a swing at literary fiction to realize that it's *not* my genre, and to find my true genre home.

  60. Dale

    Congratulations on your book coming out.
    Sometimes too that one ms put back in the drawer,then taken out years later and revised with all you've learned in the meantime is published too as happened with my novel Streets on a Map.

  61. emilystrempler

    My first attempt at a novel was a fantasy epic that had a beginning and end, but no way to get from point A to point B. Fortunately, I managed to put it in the drawer before I permanently damaged myself trying to make it work. Good advice.

  62. Margaret Reyes Dempsey

    How about waiting 20 years before putting the manuscript into the drawer? That's how long it took me. That thing was like some over-coddled child. I kept working on it over the years and the latest version bears no resemblance to the first. They could have been two separate, but equally bad, books. Finally, I said enough is enough and started a new one, which I finished. That one didn't get accepted for publication, but the next one, The Benefactor, did. I have no regrets. I learned a lot from that first experience.

    Good luck with the book. My copy is on the way. Can't wait to read it with my son.


    Great post. You let us see your wounds. Very cool!

  64. Ruth A Casie

    I know exactly how you feel. I wrote my first novel and had no idea what to do with it when I finished it. I was naive enough to query without understanding or really knowing the edit/rewrite process. Ok, please stop laughing.

    After a year of studying craft and making those edits I said it was time to put it under the bed, I write romance, under the bed is more appropriate than in a drawer).

    A week later I got 'the call' from Angela James. Carina Press wanted to publish my historical time travel. My debut book comes out November 14.

    I know the agony of rejection, the hard work of editing and rewriting, and also the wonderful feeling when you know deep down to your toes you got it right. And now I know the excitement and anticipation of being able to say I'm a published author.

    Nathan, good wishes on Friday. May it be everything you hoped and dreamed it would be.

  65. Linda Godfrey

    Most people don't expect to play in the Masters in their first game of golf. They know there is a learning curve. Yet writers will beat themselves up or quit writing altogether when their very first attempt at a novel doesn't make the big time.

    I have two novels and a couple of bad screenplays in the drawer, a third novel being line-edited by my – squee – agent and a fourth novel coming up on the first draft finish line. I treasure my drawer. Everything in it was merely the start of my continuing education in fiction.

    And I will admit that after one game of golf I never played again. If you suck AND it isn't fun, there are zillions of other things to do. I play Whack-a-Mole instead.

  66. Holly

    Nathan, congratulations! Here's my toast from afar. I can't wait to read your book.

  67. Jenni Wiltz

    It's comforting to know so many others have had the same experience! I was sure my first novel was going to sell, but after several agents passed, I edited the crap out of it and then realized what I really needed to do was move on. Letting that first book go was one of the hardest things I've ever done!

  68. Natalie Aguirre

    Congrats on your debut day. Enjoy it!

    That's so interesting to learn this wasn't your first book. It's hard to know when the book goes in the drawer. I know I need to get mine done and start querying and put it away if necessary.

  69. Anonymous

    Some of us, even after we're published more than once, have several mss in the drawer 🙂

  70. Anonymous

    May you sell as many books and experience as much overall success as Amanda Hocking. May your writing be as good as the 99-cent self-published books by famous authors. If all that comes true, I think you'll be very happy. 🙂

  71. wry wryter

    I loved my first novel so much I crawled in the drawer with it and did not write for a long time.

    Thankfully the drawer opened from the inside and I got out, got up and got writing.

    Congrats to you Nathan. Life is very sweet for you now.May it be…always.

  72. Bron

    I suppose the trick is telling whether you should self-publish or stick your MS in the drawer if it fails to sell. My plan, should querying fail, is to leave my MS for a few months and come back it with fresh eyes and make a final decision then. Some of the self-publishing stories above are very heartening, and people can always self-publish under a pen name if they are worried about the effect on future works.

  73. Anonymous

    Hmm..thanks Nathan , this is exactly where I'm at at the moment so..yeah..
    Wishing you every success for Jacob Wonderbar , whilst
    meanwhile , somewhere in Outer Space , the Planets are aligning . Did you plan that Nathan ?

  74. Shannon

    I spent 14 years off an on working on a novel that now sits in the proverbial drawer. Time well spent. I learned so much and now that I'm finally starting to understand how to put a story together I find that the writing part is much easier and things are falling together. I think the manuscript-in-a-drawer is kind of like the writer's badge of honor. Congrats on your big day tomorrow!

  75. Matthew MacNish

    But what if you're only going to ever have one idea worthy of a novel/series of novels?

    I probably sound like I'm joking, and I do love a good sarcastic blog comment, but I'm actually serious here.

    My own position is that I will keep working on this one story idea, until it's worthy, because I'm not sure I'll ever have any others.

    I'm probably just being paranoid.

  76. Michele Shaw

    Nathan, this post came at the right time for me. It's almost eerie, because I'm wrestling with the idea of putting my novel in a drawer. It's more painful than I could have ever imagined. I'm still not sure. It's confusing because I've gotten close with it and some great feedback, yet I feel as though I'm running in place. I'm glad you moved on and hit your stride with Jacob. Congratulations!

  77. TraciB

    Thanks for sharing this, Nathan. I have one novel in a projected four-book series written and awaiting revision, and the second book stuck in limbo in my computer because I lost momentum with it. I also have a light fantasy/comedy/romance NaNo concoction I haven't looked at since I wrote the last word. All of these babies need my attention, but they've been languishing in the virtual drawers of my writing world. It's good to know that's not always a bad decision. Perhaps that time away from each other was what they and my brain needed.

  78. Terin Tashi Miller

    Nathan: I absolutely agree.

    What I have done since roughly 1978 is write about a novel a year. Of those novels, I've resorted to self-publishing two. The two strongest, or the two that agents and editors most liked but felt wouldn't sell enough to be worth their while.

    My most recent one in fact is a revision of a novel that a publisher liked but suggested I revise. I revised per his suggestions, resulting in the book now out. He, meanwhile, grew big and had other priorities and writers who were making him big and bringing in money.

    Both books got far enough in the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award contest to merit my publishing them at no cost to me. Meaning any sales are profit. I'm not getting rich off them by any means. But that never, really, was my intention.

    My intention was to have my best work read, and hopefully enjoyed, or gleaned from, by others.

    That drawer, like time and memory, is a great editor. And the Amazon contest is a great opportunity to join the "slush pile," but be read, and maybe published by a traditional publisher, or at least critiqued by reviewers and agents and writers and publishers. I recomend it for anyone who has a novel in the drawer they think does work, but haven't found anyone who agrees with them.

    Again, to me there is a distinction to be made between, say, great or even good writing, and writing that strikes a chord or puts dollar signs in the eyes of publishers and agents. Which isn't to suggest great writing won't sell. Only that writing that sells is the first priority of traditional publishing.

    Looking forward to the Space Kapow.


  79. Terin Tashi Miller

    Oh. And of those novels, the first few were written for and because of my first agent; the last few were written for my second agent–the book I have out now having, in an earlier version, attracted that agent.

    I'm working on what's turned into a third book in the same vein, with the same main narrator/character, completing what I never set out to be a trilogy set in India.

    I'm torn between putting this latest one in a drawer and working on other things; looking for an agent again and trying to publish it traditionally, and wanting to get it out soon so as to make the trilogy complete.

    Such are the dilemmas of the writer or wannabe.

    Especially when the agent I decided I wanted to read it quit the business and has a novel of his own coming out…:)


  80. Matthew MacNish

    Congrats on breaking the internet, Jake. Impressive.

  81. Nancy Lauzon

    My first completed manuscript is still in the drawer and shall remain there forever, along with the second in the series (completed), and third in the series (partial). They are very early examples of my writing before I knew what I was doing, so I cringe when I read them now. But I cut my teeth on those novels, and although I would never publish them, I consider them dues paid.

    Number four manscript ended up being my first published novel, whoo hoo. Then I went off the rails a bit. Number five was completed but written for the market – it was a medical romance, and I was a nurse. The publisher was looking for medicals, so I figured I could toss one out, but I hated every minute of writing the novel, and it showed in the work. Lesson learned? Never write to the market. Write what's in your heart.

    Number six and seven were written from the heart, and were also published.

    I've often toyed with the idea of dusting a few off and revising, but I think they're better off where no one can read them. 🙂

  82. Cynthia Leitich Smith

    I've written multiple drafts of four novels that I decided not to shop.

    The first because it simply wasn't good enough and never would be. I wasn't ready, and the story would never be worth the fight.

    The second because the idea wasn't special enough.

    The third because the concept was remarkable, but, though I'd grown, I still wasn't yet ready as a writer to tell that one. In the next couple of years–over a decade later–I'll get back to it.

    The fourth because the market had shifted, and I wanted my career to go in a new direction.

  83. josephinewade

    Great post, very timely. Have a great celebration for your new book!



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Hi, I’m Nathan. I’m the author of How to Write a Novel and the Jacob Wonderbar series, which was published by Penguin. I used to be a literary agent at Curtis Brown Ltd. and I’m dedicated to helping authors chase their dreams. Let me help you with your book!

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