Can a Writer Salvage Early Manuscripts?

Shoved in a deep dark closet, under layers of dust, are five completed novels—my first REAL attempts at putting pen to paper. Sure, I have plenty of spiral notebooks somewhere filled with adolescent aspirations. But the five novels—they’re the effort of sweaty hard work and dogged determination to tell a novel-length story.

There they sit, in the closet. Abandoned.

Would I ever pull them out and try to get them published?

Someone anonymously asked me this: “You've mentioned you wrote several novels before beginning the querying process. What about those first novels told you that they were just ‘practice?’ Any chance those early novels can be salvaged? I'm just trying to wrap my head around the idea of investing so much time and energy into something and then putting it aside.”

These are great questions. I’m going to break them down and answer each one separately:

“You've mentioned you wrote several novels before beginning the querying process.”

While this isn’t technically a question, it’s a loaded statement. Here’s my thought: We shouldn’t make the mistake of putting all our time and energy into ONE story, and spend years and years polishing it, rewriting it, and trying to make THE ONE even better.

First, writers should be storytellers. When I finish writing a book, I get excited to start brainstorming for my next. In fact when I’m between books, it’s almost like my brain needs another story to spin—my mind is constantly searching for new ideas. If we only have one story, then we need to start cultivating our creativity (see this post: How to Find Plot Ideas).

Second, if we don’t keep writing new books, and we stick with our first love, we run the risk of putting too much stock into it. Keep in mind, that even if we polish our baby until it’s practically perfect, there might not be a place for it in the market. A similar book could have recently been released. Maybe the market has grown cold for that particular genre. There could be any number of reasons why the book won’t make it to publication—at least temporarily. We’re wise to have more than one book to try to sell.

Have I made a good case for moving beyond one book? If not, here’s one more reason: Writers keep on writing. We don’t keep on editing and rewriting. We write.

“What about those first novels told you that they were just ‘practice’?”

Time, distance, growth, and the eyes of a complete stranger. Weeks, months, even years away from a novel can give us the OBJECTIVE view we NEED. I could brush off the dust and open any one of my early manuscripts and look at them with the eyes of a complete stranger. Since it’s been so long and because I’ve grown, I can easily spot all of my many mistakes now—the backstory dumps, lack of tension, plot holes, etc.

If we don’t have the luxury (or patience) for putting our completed manuscripts aside for a time, then we need to find the eyes of a real stranger—someone who can look at our manuscript with a fresh, trained perspective. (And, if our critique partners have read our manuscript too often, they won’t be a stranger to it anymore than we are.)

“Any chance those early novels can be salvaged?”

Any novel is salvageable. With the right amount of work and dedication. And perhaps major rewriting.

In my case, I’ve learned so much over the years about the craft of writing and what goes into making a good story, I’d have to start each of those five books over, completely from scratch, reworking goals, motivations, plots, character development etc. I personally don’t love any of those story ideas well enough to do that. As I said before, I’ve got other ideas demanding my attention.

“I'm just trying to wrap my head around the idea of investing so much time and energy into something and then putting it aside.”

Any time we’re learning a new skill we need to expect that our early attempts may just be for practice. Whether it’s drawing or cake decorating or whatever. We wouldn’t expect to sell the first sketch or the first few cakes we attempt. In fact, we’d likely take lots of time to perfect our skill before thinking we were ready to go into business for ourselves.

And writing for publication is no different. We’re going into business—we’re literally self-employed. We can’t expect a paycheck if the work isn’t saleable. And getting to the point where our writing is ready takes lots of practice, learning from our mistakes, and often setting those first attempts aside.

What about you? How do you determine when your novel is for practice? When do you decide to salvage a book? How do you know when it’s time to move on?


  1. Interesting post, Jody. I find it painful to consign a novel to my drawer as "practice" but I'm sure it will get easier as time goes on. For me, it depends on the strength of my feelings for the novel, and on how much time it's consuming to fix it, when I have so many more ideas waiting to be written.

  2. Good post! My unfinished novel is probably unsalvageable. The poor thing is a mashing of genres and no clear plotline. lol
    My historical may be junk but since I wrote it while I was learnng "rules" etc I can't give up on it yet. When every agent/editor has rejected it, then I'll put it in a drawer. :-) (and I still might try again in a few years, lol)
    So I might be foolish and stubborn, but you never know what could happen... ;-)

  3. As long as the love for the story is there it's worth sticking with it. If you are happy writing that particular story then why leave it? New ideas are exciting and should be kept in mind, but I do believe in sticking with a book till you know you're ready to move on.

  4. Hmmm. An Irishwoman's Tale, my first attempt, was published, though Kregel editors put me through FOUR official edits.
    Yep. So it was kinda "salvaged!"

    Love this place.

  5. For me, I had to put aside my dream of writing for so many years (many many,like 30ish) that my first novel I wrote is the first novel that was published. I have scads of short stories, though, that are tucked away with dust on them - lots and lots! :-D Short stories were my first "loves" and I never thought I'd write a novel.

    My first novel started as a short story.

    It's not to say I haven't started other shorts that want to become novels and maybe are on their way, and those may never see publication - but I write them because I want to and love to...well, I was writing them, now I have deadlines and expectations from my publishers, so that changes things.

    I think if I'd have had an "earlier start" in my writing career, I'd have more ms's under the couch, bed, computer, wherever *laugh* -- so it's a little different for me!

  6. That's a tough question and its different for everyone. I probably won't go back because I have newer ideas I'm excited about. I'd have to get a complete re-vision for an older story and I'd be starting from scratch - new character, new plot.... In the end, I go with my gut.

  7. Jody: this is a timely post for me. I am actually going back to revisit my first two manuscripts after Nationals. I decided to rework the first 50 pages and the synopsis for the Golden Heart Contest. No major plot revisions, some character fixes for sure, and major craft issues fixed, but I figure why not add more tickets to the lottery? Other than that, I'm finished with them. I just want to use what I have learned to fix them up a bit.

    I've had an epiphany about my writing process with the the current ms. From this point forward I plan to get the story sketch and characters in place as well as lay down a decent full. But I am only super polishing the partial and the synopsis before querying again and entering contests. If I get requests for more, then I will work my tushie off to super polish the full.

  8. I've never thought of my earlier novels as practice but I guess that is exactly what they are. I have four gathering dust and have returned to them once and awhile but find it is impossible to edit because there are so many mistakes. But the yare stories I love with characters I adore. Someday they will be revisedand rewritten.

  9. Very well said. I think you have to play with stories (practice) and experiment with new ideas to find out what you're best at writing.

    But wht's even better: it's nice to know we can always go back to those characters whenever we want to. Time and more practice can help us see what we need to fix in the story, plus a little time may also re-open a market for that particular plot line too!!

  10. Jody: I can see you teaching at a writers conference, girl. God has given you immense wisdom for one so young!

    These principles apply to non-fiction writing as well. I cleaned out some old files last week, and groand at some of my earlier writing. Even a few pieces that someone took pity on me and published, now make me blush in embarassment.

    No time spent perfecting a craft is wasted.

  11. This is a fascinating post, Jody. I write PBs so it is a little different for me, but I know that novelists often have a half a dozen manuscripts that will never see the light of day. Beth Revis has written about this in detail too.

  12. My first book was actually a series of short vignettes meant to provide a humorous look at marriage. Do I think it is salvageable? Not at present. I'm not enough of a "well-known" personality to make the book work. However, one of the things I am doing is taking the best of the vignettes and trying to sell them to magazines. It's slow going, but it's a possibility.

  13. This is such a good post. I love the idea that in the end it doesn't matter whether you published those novels. The act of writing them, the journey and the things you learned, prepared you for the next novel, and the one after that. No writing is ever wasted even if it doesn't see the light of day.

    Hope you don't mind if we include this in our Friday round-up of best articles!

  14. I have seven picture books and four mid-grade novels under my belt. I've sold one of those novels. My agent has found potential in two other pieces. We'll see where that leads.

    If you'd told me years ago at that work was just practice, I don't think I could have continued. Now, I would be fine with those other ms. not making it any farther.

    They taught me so much. I am grateful for the years I spent working on them.

  15. This is an awesome post! So, so, so, so true! I'm 99.9% certain that my first two manuscripts will never see the light of day. Just like you, they were practice.

    I suppose I could salvage them. But I just don't have the energy. Sometimes, I think it's easier to scrap it and start over, than clean up such a mess. But that's just me. I'm like that in all areas of my life. (I'm the woman who occassionally throws away tupperware because the food inside is stuck to the plastic.....shhh...don't tell!)

  16. What is that saying?---if you love something, let it go . . .

  17. There comes a point in every writer's life when she needs to take an objective look at her writing and decide enough is enough. My first novel was considered my practice novel. I wrote the rough draft of three other novels, but something about that first novel kept gnawing at me. I took it out, dusted it off, and worked hard to revise it. It's not sitting on an editor's desk, waiting for an answer...hopefully yes.

    Putting the novel away for years showed me how far I've come as a Christian, and as a writer. I needed time to develop my skills. Now it's easier to go through earlier works and see areas that need vast improvement.

  18. I have an old novel that I would love to go back and rewrite. I've recently realized just how much work it would take to get it up to speed. I'm still debating on whether to move on or take another shot at it.

  19. I love the journey you've described, which sounds so much like my own. I sometimes think about my first few attempts, lamenting their spot on the shelf (or in the computer). Then I realized that you're right. Those early books of mine were instrumental in getting me to the point that I am. Even though some of what I wrote is good, it served to encourage me; proving that I have things mulling around in my brain that are touching and worth sharing. That alone was worth the time spent in creating it. Thanks for the insight!

  20. Yep, so far I've put my first three novels in the drawer, my forth has more potential I think. I learned so much from each of those previous trials that I'm still hopeful for # 4, but now that it's out in the query process I'm working on #5, taking what I've learned and applying it.

    I dragged my first book out yesterday because I still really love the idea, but I would have to completely tear it down and write it again from the start. Right now, I'd rather work on my new WIP. Someday, who knows.

  21. I began my first story knowing it would be a practice book. I love the story and having it final gives me hope that it may see the light of day at some point. But I know it needs MAJOR work. MAJOR. I'm moving on at this point...I've got several ideas bursting forth and I must let them out of my crazy brain.

  22. I don't think I would want to salvage my earlier attempts. When I was writing my second book, a writer friend told me that I showed signs of talent but hadn't found what I should or needed to be writing yet. I hated to hear that when I was in the process, because I had poured my heart into it. Now, I don't care so much, and I've realized he was right.

    Here's to hoping I'm not deluded about my current books and that they are the right stuff for me. I have a feeling about the book I'm currently sending out.

  23. This is a great and DIFFICULT question because I've written so many stories and I ask myself often if I should go back and salvage them.

    The problem with this is, like you mentioned, I usually end up with another idea right as I'm finishing up with a WIP. I used to tell myself to try not to indulge it because I should go back and work on one of my old stories--or even go back and work on one of my old ideas. But now I let myself get wrapped up in that new idea because I'm more conscious of craft, market and what I'm good at writing. This is far more conducive to writing a book that might be successful in the market today as well as something I'd enjoy writing with what I've learned about craft, than snatching at an old manuscript simply because I enjoyed writing it or loved the story idea at the time.

    It's still hard, though. I would definitely salvage some of what I've written but I'd have to force myself to set aside some personal feelings about it and ask myself the main questions. Is this a unique story? Is the plot strong enough? Would agents/editors/readers be looking for a story like this? And also, how much work would it take? If it's a phenomenal amount, then the book probably still has some problems that are too big to make it a successful story.

  24. Great post! I am able to set aside some of my short story ideas and poems for "just practice." However, my lengthier novel attempts are set aside with more care. I have a tendency to think that I might come back to them. Of course, I might not, but I'm not sure I'm willing to give them up entirely.
    However, I know that when I'm into a particular story, I have to set the others aside, and focus on what I'm working on right now.

  25. There are some of my practice novels that won't see the light of day, but just last month I turned in a novel that was once a practice novel, my second attempt at historical romance.

    I had to break the story down and rewrite it, and then, after critiques, had to rewrite a lot of the middle over again.

    Thankfully, I have understanding and patient critique partners. :)

  26. This is one of those lessons that you can only learn in hindsight. We'd never finish that first or second novel if we knew it wouldn't be publishable. But, if we are always writing forward, then good things will happen along the path.

    Huge and important lesson. But again, one I was not ready to hear or understand all those years ago. I am glad I took that 'write forward' advice and kept going. #3 was the charm, for me.

  27. "We shouldn’t make the mistake of putting all our time and energy into ONE story, and spend years and years polishing it, rewriting it, and trying to make THE ONE even better."

    I completely agree with this. Too many people focus only on that one. Think about it -- even if it is published, the chances of it being a bestseller are slim.

    Everyone grows as they write. I agree, sometimes it's just too much work to put into an old manuscript to make it better. Sometimes new ideas eat up my brain. But I hate to put something aside forever, so at most, I'll tell myself it's only temporary, and I'll get back to it later. It has to be something that makes me sick of looking at it in order for me to drop it forever. Although some of the things I've set "temporarily" aside won't necessarily be rewritten. Like you said, there are too many ideas going on in this mind of mine!

  28. I think you may have pinpointed the difference between successful novelists and wannabees. Motivation.

    Some writers have a desire to tell stories; others have a desire to tell *a* story. When there is some personal attachment to a particular story we may have too much emotional investment in it to see it with unbiased eyes. If there is satisfaction gained in the endless polishing then I suppose that serves a purpose in itself. However, if there is a desire for its publication we may be in for disappointment.

    "Time, distance, growth, and the eyes of a complete stranger." There's a lot of wisdom there, Jody!

    (Blogger is rejecting my attempts to post this with Name/URL today so here's hoping the Open ID will work.)

  29. This is such a great post and blog!! I have two novels that are sitting on dusty files in my laptop. I'm not sure if they'll ever come out.

    I am so excited to be a new follower!

  30. It's just possible that I may complete somethign that will end up covered with dust in my closet...I'll consider that a victory and move on.

  31. Practice certainly does grow us, Jody! It's clear that you have learned much over the years and have put it into practice.

    Being a person who loves closure, it's sometimes difficult to let something go and begin writing something else. But you're absolutely right, that "We can’t expect a paycheck if the work isn’t saleable." Much practice is needed and the key is to keep writing!! God bless!

  32. I think you can salvage the premise(original idea) for an earlier manuscript. The writing not so much. I know there is a world of difference from my first book and my now third WIP.

    Do I think it's worth the effort to go back and redo? Absolutely. I loved the plot in my first attempt. The writer I am now can easily see where the writing needs an overhaul.

    I can also see someone getting disenchanted with an earlier book too. (Hugs)Indigo

  33. While I don't write novels, I do like to always have several writing projects flowing at once. Different days (or seasons) bring out different parts of my writing personality and I like to be able to push forward with whatever I have in that moment. I find I get my best work that way. I'm sure that's harder to do when keeping a fiction plot flowing, but in my little nonfiction world, that's how I do it.

  34. My first two books were practise. I had little clue when I was young. I'm currently working on a new novel, but I cheated a little. I've set it 1000years later in the same world as my first 2 books. If that one sells then I'll have the option to rework the first two -- or not. Right now it doesn't matter. I'm having fun with story and I have to admit there are other stories starting to call my attention as well.

  35. I agree, any novel can be salvaged, but it's gonna take some serious work! I'm in the middle of rewriting my first, and there are ways in which salvage is harder than writing a new novel from scratch.

  36. Seeing a project through from plotting to the first draft to revising and a final polish makes us grow so much. I have a pile of unpublished books too, and I needed to write them. Needed to learn the basics so with each book I could get closer to putting it all together.

    When I was an engineer, I often worked for weeks, even months, on projects that never saw the light of day. I don't mind spending tons of time on something I might never make money at, because I know how much skill I'm accumulating.

  37. It took me the querying process to realize my first novel was practice. Looking back, I doubt it's even salvageable. My second one was a completely different experience. And now I've just completed my third. I still have hope for the second--still waiting on an answer on a full with Harlequin. And I'm hoping this one I just finished does well too. BUt I know regardless, I'm learning a tremendous amount with each one.

  38. I came close to finding representation with my first novel, didn't query my second and found representation with my third. Whether we go back rework old stories or not, it's important to keep moving forward. I loved the premise of my first novel so I started with that and rewrote the book. It has turned into a totally different and much better book b/c of writing novels 2,3,and 4 before going back to number 1.

  39. Hi Jody! Interesting. The idea of writing an entire book and setting it aside seems insane to me... so much work! BUT, I agree with you that the art of writing improves with time and practice. Thanks for your great blog! It's so interesting!

  40. I've got three or four of my own that will never see the light of day, but just recently, I started thinking I might use the characters from one of them and tell a completly different story. I was always fond of the characters and I know them inside and out, they just didn't have the right story to tell.

    Maybe now is the time for a new plot? Could be worth a shot.

    Excellent food for thought, Jody. Thank you.

    - Liz

  41. Jody, thanks for this perspective. I've only written one novel, and I can't believe all that I learned from that one experience. As I begin my second, I'm already handling things differently.

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  43. I think the concept of investing so much time and energy on anything 'just for practice' is difficult for most people. Though I agree. We must practice. And many early attempts are not worthy of seeing the light of day. For a memoirist, the idea of completely shelving the book is very very hard. I hope I never have to face that reality.

  44. Jody..this post is close to my heart. I have one unpublished manuscript lying in my cupboard. Sometimes I am tempted to rewrite it, but have never dared to do it. I consider it my practice book and have moved on.

  45. I've grown and learned a lot since my first attempts. Someday I may decide to rework one, but for now I'm content working on new,fresh stories.
    One of my author friends when she finally got her first book published the publishers were anxious for another one right away. She got out that old MS from under her bed, dusted it off, did a little editing and waalaa the publishers snapped it up for publishing:)

  46. I dunno. I am still holding out hope for my vampire-chicklit-sci-fi-western-fantasy-romance-memoir. I think there is a market for it...EVERYONE.

    Yeah, my first novel was being used in Guantanamo Bay to break terrorists. "Waterboard me please! Just not another chapter of that BOOOOK!" Now that Gitmo is closing, I am getting offers from Turkish prisons and a couple gulags in Russia. Here's hoping *crosses fingers*.

    Great blog as always.

  47. Jody-

    I lost almost my entire study in Hurricane Ike. Fifteen years' worth of manuscripts, story ideas, notes, books, name it.

    But one thing it freed me to do is re-invent a story I loved. It was an early MS that will never sell. But now I just have the basic ideas of it. No hardcopy or electronic copy files.

    I've decided to go back and revisit the basic theme (and title...because I always plot from my titles. I'm crazy like that) for my next MS after I wrap up the one I'm working on.

    I'm looking forward to seeing my old friend again in a whole new way.

  48. Ive often wondered about this. Makes sense to just start over especially after you have learned so much about the craft. Yes, we just keep writing and writing.

  49. Ha. My friend and I were just talking about this.

    I know these first novels are practice.

    I'm sort of okay with that right now.

    Maybe one day.

    If I can revise chunck after chunck of my current WIP after the first draft, surely I can do that to day.

  50. Hi Jody -

    I've had a lot of false starts over the years. Most of those ended up in the trash.

    My first real manuscript is complete with some editing needed. I also wrote Book 2 of the series and am working on Book 3. I cut my "writing teeth" on Book 1 and spent a lot of time on it, but I don't regret it for a minute.

    I'll work on other projects, but I'll keep trying to find a home for this series.

    Susan :)

  51. I have four completed novels, none of which I really have any desire to put the effort into salvaging. One has a couple of characters I love and a world I find fun to write about, but the plot focused on the wrong character, and thus the entire thing would need to be 100% rewritten without said character.

    I'm not sad that they'll never really see the light of day. They were mostly written to show myself that, yes, I could really complete a novel, and to help me develop my voice. Now that I've done those things, and have slowly been working on my craft, I feel like the next novel I complete will finally be worthy of shopping around to agents.

    Thank you for this post. I'm glad to know that I'm not the only one who feels this way and gets these questions.

  52. You know, I've been asking myself this same question over and over again for the last two years. In 2008, I wrote my second novel. (I wrote my first novel back when I was 13.) And I put it aside and haven't gone back to work on it. I know that it's totally flawed and a complete mess. I know that, as you mentioned, it will need a complete rewrite in order to be salvageable. But I think that if you can't get an idea out of your head; if an old character from an old novel still won't shut up and leave you alone, then maybe, just maybe, the novel is worth salvaging. That's kinda where I'm at right now. I tried setting it aside for good and starting something new a few months ago, but my character has been telling me no and almost forcing me to pay attention to her. In that regard, I know I won't be able to move on to another novel until I finish what I started in 2008.

  53. I'm querying mine (it's actually my third) AND using it for practice; revising while waiting for replies hasn't changed its fundamental story. After twenty-five queries, though, I'm going to stop and do the next one. I'm already working on it.

    I hate to give it up because I really LIKE this story, and one of the main characters wants to be in a series. There's potential with him. We'll see what happens.

    The first book I wrote was HORRIBLE. The second was like this one, but unpublishable because I used characters that weren't mine (fanfiction). But I learned something from each of those attempts. A teacher said to me that any time spent writing wasn't a waste. I think that should be on a t-shirt!


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