Letting Go: Why Is it Hard for Writers to Break Up with Old Works?

May 11, 2011

 My first manuscript, a 90,000-word contemporary romance with a baseball hero and a sheltered heroine, took ten years to write. Yes, ten years. In my defense, I was raising three kids and working as a non-fiction writer and then editor while my husband followed his dream. I wrote the manuscript in between deadlines and diaper changes. I wrote late at night and in the wee hours of the morning. And when I wasn’t writing, I was dreaming about my H&H. I loved them. In particular, I loved him.

When I finished the manuscript, I printed it out and gave it to a friend to read. She, of course, raved about it. I polished it to the best of my abilities, and I sent a query off to an agent, certain my road to prolific publication started then. The agent requested the partial. (I knew she would.) But she declined a full. (I was shocked, disappointed and finally wide awake.)

In the time that it took for me to get the first manuscript ready and submit to the agent of my choice, I’d written two 70,000-word manuscripts. In her rejection, the agent told me I needed to work on my “atmosphere.” I figured whatever that meant was probably lacking from the new manuscripts too.

I read books by my favorite authors. I took some classes. And eventually, I decided “atmosphere” referred to everything other than dialogue—from setting to characterization. (In places, my manuscript was like a warzone with rapid-fire discussions between characters and nothing to block the bullets.) I longed to write a fresh story, with the knowledge I’d obtained about “atmosphere,” so I put the other three manuscripts aside, and I wrote a new one, which is currently out on submission.

I fully intended to return to one of the previously written manuscripts. My intention was to infuse all I’d learned into those early works and then send them out into the publishing world for their shot at glory. The problem: I couldn’t read through the first manuscript without cringing at how much work needed to be done. Oh, I could do it. I could even see what needed to be done to fix and polish the story. But when it came down to it, I’d lost my enthusiasm—I’d fallen out of love with my characters.

It hurts when a romance ends. After spending so much time devoted to a person, the moment of clarity, of realizing just how much work needs to be done in order to get the relationship back on track, sucks. It should be easy to walk away, but it’s not. Memories of how much time went into the relationship plague me, and I hold on rather than regret time wasted.

Don’t quote me on this, but I read once that Allison Brennan wrote nine manuscripts before she sold. In that case, my three don’t seem so bad.

I want to move on. I want to feel good about the experience of writing those three manuscripts, but I want to let them go—no more midnight drunk dials, no more lingering hugs. I want a clean break. I want to be able to “run into them” once a year, when I see the file names or move the printed copies to dust, and smile, knowing it was good while it lasted, but I’ve learned and I’ve grown.

And I’ve moved on to better things.

4 Responses to “Letting Go: Why Is it Hard for Writers to Break Up with Old Works?”

  1. nicolehelm Says:

    I have the same feelings about my first three novels. Oh, I love them, but no matter how hard I’ve tried I can’t figure out how to make them un-cringe worthy. So, now I just write stories about their kids. 🙂

  2. Love this post. I have two finished novels and a freelanced biography that was never published due to the post 9/11 economy. So–three manuscripts. I’ve fallen out of love with the first two in a healthy, but slow manner, and I still love the most recent one. But my new manuscript has taken over my heart and I’m not doing anything about the finished one. I should be sending it out, or even doing one more rewrite, but instead it sits, languishing. Waiting for attention.

    • Thanks, Laura! It’s tough, isn’t it? It took awhile to get my last ms out on submission. I was writing a new one, and I didn’t want to stop writing. However, my CP needed something to read while I was writing, so I pulled the finished ms out and let her have at it. I ended up so excited by her edits and suggestions that I put the new ms I was writing on hold to return to the older one.

      Back and forth doesn’t cut for me, but I knew I needed to go back to the older ms before it was too late. (I always have new ideas, and they provide a rush the old ms can never compete with.)

      Heck, what can I say? I’m an adulterous writer. 🙂


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