Any writer who's been in the game for a few years probably has a shelved manuscript. Or Two. Or maybe a dozen. It's almost a right of passage to pour your heart into a story and then let go of it and move on.
Shelved manuscripts happen for myriad reasons. The market isn't right. You stop feeling connected to the project. You realize you aren't at the craft level you need to write that book yet...and so on and so on. There is no one reason to shelve a manuscript and each person's journey to that point and feelings surrounding those stories will be different.
For me, each of my shelved manuscripts are pieces of my heart. I have three, one which I have no plans on ever reviving. But the other two, those are still very much on the table. When I was writing them, my world revolved around those characters and that world. I was confident in them and in writing them. I could see how much I'd grown as a writer not only from manuscript to manuscript, but also from draft to draft. I queried all three and got oh so very close with one (a failed R&R, you can read about that experience here!) I had to accept that each wasn't going to get me what I wanted and put them off to the side.
I'm unsure whether my current project will join them or not. I, of course, hope not, but once it's ready, it will be up to publishing to decide if it passes muster or not. I'm not here to talk about the woes of querying though. There are lots of places you can read about that, or, if you're lucky, experience it for yourself! Instead, I want to talk about the value of shelved manuscripts and whether it's worth revisiting them.
My opinion is an unequivocal YES to revisiting them. Why? Why would I poke at those tender places in my heart that will never truly heal? First off, because I'm masochistic in matters of the heart. There's a lot to unpack here psychologically, but having my heartbroken is familiar, it's safe, it's something I know. So revisiting projects that didn't perform the way I wanted is a strange comfort. (I know this sounds weird, but it truly is easier for me to be sad and heartbroken than it is to be happy. Happy is dangerous.)
Anywaaaaaaays... this past December I was in a bit of a funky spot in my head regarding writing. I was simultaneously very happy with the state of my zero draft and wondering if I would ever have the ability to be *enough* for traditional publishing. One thing led to another and I kept thinking about SAMM, my 2nd novel. I had exactly one request for SAMM which resulted in a pass. I revised it HEAVILY after that pass, taking out an entire POV and tightening the story with the full intention of querying it again. I ended up NOT requerying it and put it aside for my FoxWip, Then between querying FoxWip and letting my zero draft of Harpy Girls breath, I did another revision of SAMM.
Somewhere along the way, I realized several things. First, SAMM would fit better as an adult fantasy series of three to four books rather than in the YA market. Second, the plot and characters had so much potential and I wasn't at a place craft-wise where I could tackle the magnitude of what it needed and do it justice. And I'm still not. But I'm so much closer! I've been stewing over my next revision for it, tucking away ideas and realizations as they pop into my head at strange moments.
But, back to my funky writing mood. I started reading SAMM, and friends, I am not exaggerating when I say it instantly drew me back in. I had to actively force myself to stop reading and go to bed at a normal time. My head was filled with Finian and Rook and their delightful attempts to pretend they didn't care about each other. I read passages and lines that reminded me I am good at this. And I read some bits where I was like OMG I CAN'T BELIEVE I THOUGHT THAT WAS ANY VERSION OF GOOD. But for the most part, I was finding things I'd done rather well and seeing places where I could make them EVEN BETTER. The complexity of the story was clearer to me. I could see more of the big picture, but I'm still not at a place where I should tackle it.
Even though I'm not ready to revise it, I was so happy to reread it. Obviously I'm biased when it comes to SAMM, but in the end, I can see the difference between this shelved manuscript and the first story I wrote--which I also love, but I know it will never be viable and the thought of overhauling it is still too much for me to think about. There were pieces I loved, but omg was the rest just not good.
SAMM though, SAMM has a future. SAMM has potential. I'm going to keep letting it simmer and once I can figure out the BIG big picture and see how to make it a true epic fantasy I'll start tackling it. But for now I'm content to reread it and swoon over different bits of writing. Or laugh at the absolute most solid subplot I have ever written--Will Finian finally get new boots and have dry feet? I'm not kidding, I had that little bit in there EVERYWHERE. It's fantastic and to this day, if you talk to my beta readers or CPs who read SAMM, it was one of the most memorable bits.
Similarly, my FoxWip has a future and potential as well. This is a revision I feel ready to tackle and am currently working through. I've found a handful of agents to query and much like my current project I can just throw it into the ring and hope someone dives after it. I spent February getting it sorted--which meant adding in a handful of chapters, changing a few details and DELETING SO MANY WORDS. It was a literal joy to go in and apply two years worth of writerly growth to the prose. It was at 98k, now, even with adding several chapters, it's at 91k. By the time I'm finished with this read through I expect it to settle somewhere between 92-93k. And not that I didn't love how it ended before, but I LOVE LOVE the way it ends now. I have found so much joy in returning to this manuscript. I'm doing a final clean up edit on the new bits and making sure I stitched in the new bits cleanly, but it's ready to rumble
All this to say I think shelved manuscripts are a valuable commodity to have as a writer. No matter whether you're agented or still querying. Publishing wants you to think that if a book doesn't succeed while being queried that it will never get to see the light of day.
I disagree. (and obviously, I'm unagented so like, who am I say?!) Not every shelved manuscript will turn into a published book. But each one is a mark on your journey toward publication. Each one shows how you've developed your craft or experimented with new things. When I finally do find an agent to work with and promote my writing, we can revisit them and decide where and if they fit. Or draw out specific elements to put into something new.
Most of all, they're notches on my wall of how I've grown. When I look back at my past writing, yeah, I laugh at some awkward phrases and cringey snippets, but overall I'm always like OMG I MADE THIS. These people. This world. All of it. And it's a huge boost. So instead of looking them as failed, they're more like well-aged whiskeys and people will someday pay out big money just to get a taste of what I have to offer.
Do you have a favorite shelved manuscript? Do you reread your old work from time to time? Let me know in the comments!
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also, if this 👇meme👇 doesn't sum up writing and querying, then I don't know what does