Writing Advice du jour: What To Do With The Novel Whose Genius Is Not Yet Recognized

Dear Jenna,

I have a manuscript that is 4+ years in the making, which I absolutely love and believe is ready to be published. Problem is, agents aren’t interested (100 rejections and counting). I feel like I’m done. I can’t work on it anymore, but I don’t want to abandon it. Has this ever happened to you? Do you have any advice?

Dear Writer,

Oy.  Well, the “oy is because this is such a hard thing to go through, and I know this because yes, it has happened to me. Three times. Once with the original drafts of THOSE WHO SAVE US. Once with the novel between THOSE WHO SAVE US and THE STORMCHASERS. And once with the original drafts of THE STORMCHASERS. With each novel, I submitted to agents, and for each novel, I received a hearty round of nice, encouraging…rejections. I couldn’t get anywhere with any of them. Finally I put them away and turned to other things: life, new writing. What happened with THOSE WHO SAVE US and ‘CHASERS was, years later, I returned to both novels with new insights and more skill at creating structure for their stories.  Those times, they sold!

The novel in between–that one did not sell.  It is sitting in a file in my Boston apartment. I just visited it and said hello to it. Was there a mourning period for it? Absolutely. I didn’t write again for about a year after my agent couldn’t place it.  (I made sure of this by quitting smoking during that year.)  But you know, when I picked it up recently and riffled through the pages, the characters in the novel were quite happy being where they are. They’re having a fine time living out their story lives on the pages. Whether they’re being read by a bunch of people doesn’t matter to them. It matters to me.  So the novel is fine where it is, and I left it alone.


Some novels you return to because time and enhanced experience can make them better. Some are complete in themselves, they’re never going to be any different, and you can let them go to happy novel-land.  I hope this is helpful!

xo & write on!,




12 Responses to Writing Advice du jour: What To Do With The Novel Whose Genius Is Not Yet Recognized

  1. Jenna,
    Thank you for sharing this with us… Writing is a tough business, usually with a long road. It always helps to hear authors’ stories, and gives hope. We press on, learning and writing, until the work is ready. Thank you!

    • Dear Jennifer,

      Absolutely! I was going to quote Gatsby’s “…and so we beat on, boats against the current, borne ceaselessly back into the past…” Just because I remember it verbatim (at least I hope that’s right; I don’t have my Gatsby on hand at the moment!), because I wanted to show off–and because writing often FEELS that way. We mine our pasts for inspiration and often, when we try to get what we’ve alchemized from our lives onto paper and out into the world, it feels as though we’re beating back a relentless tide. This happens to all of us. But sometimes, if you work hard enough, the tide carries you to shore and there are readers there. Keep going.


  2. I guess this story is the common one.

    It tells me we should write for writing and not because we think someone will want to read it or even that they *should* read it. Chances are they won’t. When you think about it, it’s extremely presumptuous of us to expect other people to want to spend their limited time in our imaginations. When they do we should consider ourselves very lucky and blessed, whatever the outcome.

    • Dear Lady:

      How right you are. I never, ever forget that readers have busy lives and that their time is their most invaluable commodity. When they choose to read something I’ve written, it’s an honor! When they write to me about it, as you are, it’s a double honor.

      My first responsibility is to my characters: to bring them down from the dimensions they live in and get them onto the page as honestly and accurately as I can. Once that’s done, my responsibility is to potential readers: I have to make the writing of my characters’ stories as good, smooth and compelling as it can be.

      Why should we expect that this will happen EVERY TIME? Does a ballplayer hit a home run every time? Do we consider him a failure if he doesn’t?

      We all try our best every time. Sometimes it doesn’t work. Sometimes it does…and then, when we get to share our characters and their lives with readers, we are really, really lucky.

      Thank ou for your thought-provoking comment!


  3. Thanks, Jenna.
    It’s always good to have a reminder that rejection is common to all of us. I divided my once ‘finished’ novel into segments and am reworking them bit by bit. Even after so long, I find a few errors (be careful when you search and replace!) and many opportunities to improve, improve, improve. And I wonder, too, how on earth did I write it that way?!
    The end result, I know, will be a far better ‘Emilee’s Song.’

    • Dear Ann,

      I’m so glad to hear you’re sticking to and revising a novel that truly wants to be revised! and we all admire your stick-to-itiveness. No novel ever gets written without that. Keep up the good work!

      xo & write on,

  4. I hear you, Jenna. Sometimes we need to hear these stories like yours to know we’re not crazy for believing in a novel and loving those characters. They have been given life. They’re having their adventures. I’ve also gotten many encouraging rejections — close, but no cigar. I leave the query process alone for periods of time. I visit the novel and have improved it with tinkering. But it’s done. I need to move on to another story. At one point in writing the book, I left my main character snorkeling in the Aegean for two years while I worked on other things and decided what would happen in that scene. And she didn’t drown during the hiatus — what amazing lung capacity! I love the characters in the novel so much, I miss them when I’m away for a while. But they’re fine without me.

    Thanks for sharing your own experiences. I know I’ll read that third book someday.

    • Dear Marci,

      Just reading your response to my post makes me want to read your stories! Thank you for reading and for responding. If I were a character whose novel didn’t get written, I imagine snorkeling in the Agean is not a bad place to be. (As long as you throw her some fried shrimp and a mojito or something once in a while. She may get hungry.)

      We can always revisit our characters, and who cows, they may surprise us down the line by stepping onto the page and announcing they have a new novel-length story (or a short story!). Who knows what they get up to behind our backs? But sometimes it’s all right to do your best by them and let them snorkel on.

      Happy writing,

  5. Jenna:

    Appreciate your insight, but perhaps you would agree that agents, being in an unbelievably competitive business, and facing at best a confusing future for publishing, have agendas. I’ve studied the marketplace, just as anyone writing must (not that you’ll compromise your art by writing strictly for the market), and it is sad, but true, there are popular genres you must write within or your chances of finding an agent and being published are infinitesimal.

    A brief anecdote will suffice. I attended a baptismal party a few years ago and there met one of the publishing industry’s most important people. We talked for a bit. I told him about the novel I was working on at the time. He politely nodded his interest, then agreed to have one of his editors look it over. She rejected it out of hand. I’m not complaining about her judgment. She did what she thought best for herself and her company. No one in their right mind is going to take a flyer on something they are convinced has no wings. It didn’t fit the contemporary paradigm.

    The publishing executive did me the kindness of calling me with the news, padding the disappointment with, “Look Peter, if you can write me something that appeals to girls from 12 to 18, I can tell you we’ll be interested.”

    Jenna, the old adage is, “write what you know,” and I live by that rule for one simple reason, it’s all I can write. I haven’t the first clue what a 12 to 18 year old girl wants to read. All I know is what I want to write, excuse me…need to write. I’ll do years of research on a particular subject for a novel, but I would not be able to write it from a teenage girl’s perspective. It would be dishonest to try. I know what it’s like to be a boy, don’t know how to be a girl. A limited imagination? Perhaps a deficiency in skills.

    My latest novel is about an eight year old boy, the middle child of six, who is restricted to an eight-block area by his rather cold, distant mother. It begins with his desire to be free of the restriction and ends in a developing involvement with a 20 year old Franciscan novitiate. How he gets from beginning to end is at times humorous and bittersweet.

    The genre for my work is to be found with a glance backwards I guess, a Huck Finn adventure in a contemporary urban atmosphere. The agents I’ve queried apparently think the same thing, that backwards isn’t forward enough.

    I keep thinking about all the truly magnificent literature out there, buried under rejection slips because a collection of agents living and working primarily in one city, with their distinctive agendas and points of view, couldn’t pigeonhole the concepts. How dull and unrewarding it has become for people who love to read that they are subjected to stories as formulaic in their construction as modern movies.

    This is in no way reflective of anyone’s work, especially yours. It’s an observation from someone who’s spent a lifetime writing and disappointing the characters he’s created because they didn’t quite fit in.

    • Dear Peter,

      I hear you. I hear your frustration and, having spent much of my writing life being rejected (including Novel 1.5, so publication is no guarantee of future publication!), I can utterly sympathize. In no way would I ever encourage you or anyone else to write to somebody else’s expectations. Of course you don’t want to write about 12-18 year-old girls if that’s not what your book is about! With all due respect to your friend trying to let you down gently, that’s not very helpful advice. I suspect what he was trying to say was, “This isn’t for us–we specialize in a very distinct demographic of readers, and that’s not whom you’re writing for.”

      You MUST continue to write what’s most important to you, and if you keep on keeping on, and you have a good story well told, I do believe you will find a home for it. Contrarily (for although I am usually a Polyanna I sometimes can be contrary, too) I DON’T believe that all agents and editors play only to their niches and markets. Good writing will always find a home. Sometimes, especially in panicked climates, it just takes longer. But I do believe good fiction, whether literary (which allows for more experimental prose and structure) or commercial or genre, will find its place eventually.

      The common denominator? You MUST have a good story well told. Strong story, strong writing. No matter what your metier. (I’m speaking of literary/ good commercial writing here, not, say, dictated celeb memoir! Oops, did I write that aloud?)

      Good luck, my friend. Write on.

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