43

The question pretty much sums it up. I'm a freelance author without much of a platform. It's not that I don't like the story - I spent a great deal of time on it - but after taking a cooling off period following the first manuscript, I realized nobody in particular would want to read it.

During the cooling off period, I've been working on two other books in varying stages of completion; one at least could be competitive for commercial publication (yeah, right).

So I see my options for Book That Stinks as

  1. A complete rewrite of Book That Stinks making it more concise, more interesting, and more marketable. This seems like a low probability of success option.

  2. Self-publish Book That Stinks after a less intensive revision process.

  3. Put Book That Stinks in a dark corner of my room and my mind, never to be viewed again.

  4. Wait until I'm wildly famous and simply present Book That Stinks to my agent who assures me my loyal readers will buy any drivel I produce.

  5. ? Am I missing something?

My selection of answer

I really liked JP's response. His basic message of you can always save it for later is the appropriate number five. Also, Eric's comment about the "sunk cost fallacy" is an excellent point. I actually did have a beta reader, one of the most positive people I know, who said, "It was OK." Bad sign.

But in the end I chose Jenny's response. It wasn't for the kind words (but they were nice). There are two excellent points she made. First, Don't be ashamed to set a book aside. It hurts, but it's the way it goes until you get to Option 4.

The winning point Jenny made was taking a "kernel" of Book That Stinks and keeping for later. There are a few characters from the book and some scenes which I think are worthy. They can be transplanted. This was an excellent outside-the-box answer.

  • 18
    Option 4 seems to be the safest bet – DSKekaha Jun 7 '17 at 21:45
  • 50
    If you're unfamiliar with the expression "sunk cost fallacy", today would be a great day to get familiar with it. It's sad but true: the amount of time you spent on something in the past is not any kind of reason to spend more time on it in the future, if there is something better you could be spending your time and effort on. – Eric Lippert Jun 7 '17 at 22:34
  • 18
    You might want to see if a close friend whom you trust would read a few chapters just to make sure your self assessment isn't miscalibrated. – Todd Wilcox Jun 8 '17 at 3:04
  • 12
    Option 5: literally release it as "A Book That Stinks"; ask hipsters to buy it ironically. :D – neminem Jun 8 '17 at 20:02
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    @EricLippert Don't overuse the sunk cost fallacy, though. It's only a fallacy if the cost is truly sunk; e.g., if it really would be easier to write a good book from scratch than salvage the existing one. – Erhannis Jun 9 '17 at 4:08

12 Answers 12

19

My first published book was the eighth one I had written. I don't know that the other seven were stinkers--they earned me literary representation, and four of them climbed quite high on the ladder at publishers before ultimately being turned down--but for sure, I learned a lot and improved between books one and eight.

I share this to say--not only is there no shame in setting a book aside, it's practically par for the course in this industry. Very few authors have their first book-length work published.

You may find you come back to a kernel or portion of this book one day, after writing or publishing others. Or it may stay in that cyber drawer forever. Either way, I promise it won't be wasted. It's all part of the journey that is going to lead someone wise enough to pose this question to ultimate success as a writer.

Good luck!

  • Interesting, I just read a column by an agent Jane Friedman who suggested through a guest columnist the same thing. – Stu W Jun 8 '17 at 15:40
  • She's a great agent, Stu. Glad to be of like minds, – JennyMilchman Jun 9 '17 at 17:19
62

Leave it there, you can always come back to it later. If it stinks that bad, you may not want your name associated with it. I personally have dozens of things kept in a folder that will likely never see the light of day again. Every so often, I re-open them and see what was in there. Sometimes I am greatly surprised and pleased with what I find. Other times, I run away shuddering. As I change and grow old, I gain different perspective on things and what sucks yesterday may not be so bad tomorrow.

Putting it in a trunk in your attic and forgotten is not a bad thing. You are now a more experienced writer. You can always revisit it later see if the story is still as bad or if you can get away with less work on it.

You never know.

  • 19
    This. Everyone writes a fair measure of stinky stuff. It's part of the learning process. I have folders of old stories. Consider it a learning exercise. – superluminary Jun 7 '17 at 20:08
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    A good example of this is Banks' "Use of Weapons". Apparently he wrote a version of it in 1974, realised it didn't work and shelved it. 16 years later he rewrote it into the published version, and it became a fan-favourite and (in my opinion, at least) one of the best scifi books ever written. Shelving your bad projects and returning to them can work wonders. – BiscuitBaker Jun 8 '17 at 12:46
  • 4
    Yes! It's not just "come back to it later"--it's "come back to it when you are a better writer." – MissMonicaE Jun 10 '17 at 17:56
17

I've no idea how experienced you are or what your writing ideology is. I can tell my method and my view of my own work.

Rather than read books on how other people do things - I simply wrote. The idea was that I needed to discover what type of writer I was, what I was good at etc.

My stories are not my babies. There are many half-written novels which will never see the light of day. But from each of these discarded novels I take characters I have created, techniques I have developed etc.

I created a wonderfully sarcastic villain with a mean streak to die for. I will definitely cast him in a future production.

And rather than ask how something has been achieved I'll always try to think of my own solutions to exposition issues. I'll discard a story but characters and techniques I'll carry forward. Stories are two-a-penny. I can easily come-up 5-10 new plots per day. The value in an unsuccessful story is what you learn whilst writing it.

10

The same thing has happened to me. I wrote my first book in 2007. It turned out okay, but it wasn't something I was going to release to the world as it was. Since then I've moved onto other things.

In the end I decided it was the experience of writing that I took away from that situation, not the book itself. Maybe it wasn't the book that was the point, maybe it proving to yourself you could write a book.

Also, the person (Eric Lippert) who mentioned the "sunk cost fallacy" is spot on.

8

Agreed - put it in a dark corner and forget it for a while. Go work on something else (Or nothing else, taking a break is great for the soul). Cleanse your mind of it. When you're ready, or if you get an urge to, revisit it and see what happens. You may find you have a new idea for it, or you may need more time. Don't pressure yourself into an immediate rewrite.

5
  1. Put it aside, work on your other books and (maybe) get back to it later.

P.S. Meanwhile, work on a new book titled "The Book That Stinks" about an author struggling with the fact that the book that he wrote stinks.

  • 1
    please don't write about authors – Andrey Mar 23 '18 at 21:15
4

Stephen King thought his first book, "Carrie", stunk and that no one would want to read it. He threw it in the trash.

His wife retrieved it from the trash, read it, and sent off to a publisher. The rest is history.

What one man thinks is trash, another thinks is gold. Don't let yourself fail before you even try to succeed.

3

Many of us writers had the same experience. A first book is often also more of a learning experience than material which can be published, at least in its original form.

Mine is still there. I review it from time to time, and I'm always thinking about reviewing it again, or maybe wait until I'm a well-known writer, can quit my daytime job, and maybe focus on it, and give it the rewrite it probably needs.

Anyway, if you take it, as I said, as a learning experience, it's good that you wrote it, and you don't have to regret discarding it. If you're happy with your current writings, focus on them. The first book of mine is still (and will be for a long time) unpublished, but I got four other novels published, so I guess I'm not doing it that bad, and don't really consider that first book a failure.

3

Others have suggested that you take it as a learning experience. I would like to expand on that.

The most important part of a learning experience is that you actually learn from it!

If you just stuff it in a dark drawer, what is stopping you from making the same mistakes in your next story?

So, before putting it to rest, you should find out exactly what makes it stink.

You say "I realized nobody in particular would want to read it."

You should be aware that you are not the best judge of that. You could just be too familiar with it to see how brilliant it is! Do you know anybody who is a) willing to read it and b) will not just praise it to please you? If so, give them a call...

Assuming you actually have a stinker on your hand:

Make a list of the problems with the book, and how they can be solved. If you have a test reader, listen to their input.

Given the list, you can choose between fixing and scrapping. But if you choose to scrap, don't forget the lessons learned. In your next novel, try to avoid these problems from the start.

Be aware that it is easy to overcompensate. You can go from too much description to too little, from too complex plots to inane plots. Try to find a middle ground.

Also, if you have a test reader, their word is not gospel. It is just the opinion of one single person who has probably not used all that much time forming it. By all means, listen to them, but in the end you must decide what is right for you.

  • 1
    That balance between listening to your test reader(s) and not taking it as gospel can be a tough one to strike, but it's so important. One way to approach it is: their experience is genuine, but it's up to you to determine whether their experience(s) is/are likely to be usual for your readers-to-be, and to determine whether their interpretation or recommendations from that experience are correct. It's still not an easy call, and requires the ability to look at their comments and criticisms (as well as your own counterarguments to them) somewhat more objectively. – Bemisawa Jun 9 '17 at 19:56
2

One additional thought about getting people to read it and listening to their comments: ignore what they say.

But listen to WHY they are saying it.

Maybe they didn't like your main character and suggest you cut out a scene where he's being a real bastard. That scene is probably not your real problem. I mean, there are plenty of anti-heroes out there. Your true problem is far more likely to be that your reader doesn't empathize with him because they don't understand the internal demons that are driving this behavior.

So listen to the problem they are identifying, but then toss their comments and try to figure out WHY they are feeling that way, which is more than likely not what your readers may suggest.

In a real-world example, I have a novel that I'm wrapping up a rewrite on and the narrator tends to go off on wild, internal (and hopefully funny) tangents, commenting on the world around her.

My early readers said they were great but there were just too many of them.

What I realized when digging into it further was that it wasn't that there were too many of them per se, it was their placement in the story. They worked when we were transitioning from one scene to the next, or when they really gave us a deeper insight into the character's pysche in her alone time.

Where they didn't work was when they interrupted the flow of a scene that the reader was becoming invested in, when our narrator was actively engaging with other characters. So I went through and edited it from that perspective, cutting some of these tangents, but more importantly always making sure they were in the right place.

It made all the difference for the readers of the second draft.

2

Your first option only seems unlikely because you haven't given yourself enough time to grow as a person and improve as a writer.

Wait until you can describe in detail everything that stinks about it. Then you'll know exactly what to fix and will likely have good ideas on how to fix it.

So I'm suggesting a hybrid approach: option #3 for the most part, but pull it out once in while to see if option #1 feels viable. If you even feel like it, that is. Maybe once you move on, you'll find you have enough new ideas that you're not even interested in revisiting old material.

1

Get a good editor. A really good editor. It can be someone hired or someone you know who will trust you when you tell them to be honest. This isn't copyediting (although it is that, too). This is the whole shebang. Give them your manuscript or sections at a time and have them just start marking everything--every single thought they notice having that breaks immersion. They should mark sentences that don't sound quite right, details they wish they knew more about, conversations that get off-track and they can't quite remember who's talking about what, and anywhere they find their mind wandering. What I find is that, very often, when a book gets uninteresting, it can actually be pinpointed to some sloppy writing in the lead-up.

They should do multiple run-throughs of the manuscript. They can give you back sections marked up and you can make changes and hand them right back; it doesn't have to be linear. They don't need to worry about whether the story makes an impact upon first reading, because once it's tightened up, it will. They don't need to make comments only if they know what it should be; they can just circle a sentence or paragraph and say, "I just don't like this." Encourage them to mark also where your individual writing style is too noticeable, where you've indulged yourself just a little too much. They should also mark anything that someone does out-of-character or even if it's just unbelievable. Oh, and if you have anything technical (not just modern technical but anything for which there exist experts and you are not one of them), make sure you do your homework so the details make sense, and then make sure you write about it as much in plain language as you can. It doesn't have to be "Up-Goer Five" level, but getting into the weeds and using jargon or words from foreign languages to add "ambience" tends to be isolating and disruptive for readers.

If, after all that, you still think it's just not great, or if partway through the process, you realize you're not interested in fixing it any more than you have, mothball it. But I bet you'll be very surprised. You may actually end up with a very different story in the end, or very different characters--try not to cling to plot elements or bits of dialogue that aren't working. However, if there is a part you really like and can't make work, copy it into a different document. There's no reason you can't hang onto it, but maybe it just doesn't belong in that book. Or maybe, once some other problems are fixed, you'll find that a perfect spot opens up for it that fits perfectly.

  • What you suggest would cost thousands of dollars with little chance of return. – Stu W Jun 9 '17 at 19:39
  • Unless you're in touch with any of the numerous hobbyist writers' communities who do this kind of stuff for each other all the time. Tl;dr: editing makes writing better. If you don't want to get the editing, don't do it, particularly since you seem to think that editing won't get you anywhere. – kmc Jun 26 '17 at 21:10

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