You’ve Been Writing That Novel for How Long?

How long?

I expect that some of you will be pissed off at me by the end of this post. I am okay with that. Not because I want you to be pissed off at me, but because I want you to be the best writer you can be. I thought this topic important enough to interrupt our current series on The Anatomy of a Scene. I expect to get back to regularly scheduled programming next week.

Why the interruption?

Last week I had breakfast with the spectacular Susan Span. Susan is a literary attorney (read her #Publaw), and author of the very well-received Shinobi Mystery Series. Over coffee we chatted about various topics, as we always do. We talked about old manuscripts that may or may not be in a box under Susan’s bed, never to see the light of day. And we talked about how long an author should work on any given manuscript.

Here’s why.

I know a good handful of authors who have been working on the same manuscript for five years, ten years, thirty years. Yes. Thirty years. Thirty. 3-0.

The thirty-year author loves the story idea and wants to see it through. They wrote their manuscript a long, long time ago, and since that time, they’ve been reworking it, workshopping it, editing it, revising it, fixing the little problems that come up. Some of the fixing causes problems elsewhere so they end up fixing the new problem which causes newer problems. It’s a mean cycle. This has been going on for thirty years. Thirty. 3-0. For some of you it has been going on for twenty years, or fifteen years, of ten years, or five years.

Yeah. I’m talking to you.

Let’s be clear. Writing is hard work, and to continue writing something after a few years takes grit and determination. To continue writing it for five years, ten years, thirty years, is indescribable.

But here’s the problem. When this author first started writing their story, they were a novice author. They knew very little if anything about craft. They didn’t know much of anything about plot and structure, or genre tropes, or goal and motivation, or tension and conflict, or tone, or any of the other deeply important craft elements that writers of fiction absolutely should learn to become successful authors.

Learning the craft of writing fiction takes time and work. It’s just like learning any other craft and skill. If you want to be good, you practice, your try things by trial and error, you make mistakes, you read how-to books, you take classes, and you study, study, study. You do whatever you can to get better at your craft. You wouldn’t expect to paint like Velazquez your first time out, would you? No. You would paint a very badly rendered tea cup, or tree, and practice your techniques to become the best painter you could be. And it would take years of work.

As the years pass, the author has learned much about craft. They know what should go into a scene, and where the climax should come in the story. They are not the same author they were all those years ago when they started that manuscript. They are better. Significantly better.

But their manuscript is not. Their manuscript is based on their writing skills when they first wrote that story down, and fixing it is nearly impossible. Ultimately, they are wasting their time working on something that will never be publishable.

So, what am I saying? I am saying a few of things.

First off, you are a better author than you were ten years ago. You are a better author than you were five years ago. It doesn’t matter if you are published or pre-published. If you’ve been working to learn your craft, you are a better author. Are you listening?

Secondly, sometimes a story is not meant to be published. Sometimes a story serves the purpose of making you a better author because it teaches you some craft element that you didn’t know before. Sometimes a story should be put in a box and hidden under the bed, never to see the light of day because you are done with it, or maybe it is done with you. Either way. This does not mean that you are a failure as a writer. It just means that you have learned all you can about whatever you needed to learn from that manuscript. Take your new skills and move on.

Thirdly, if you really want to tell the story you’ve been working on for thirty years, or ten years, or five years, and you can’t possibly put it down, then don’t. But try something, okay? Take that five-year old manuscript, or thirty-year old manuscript, and put it in a box under the bed. Save it to a flash drive and put it in a drawer. Do whatever works with your personal writing style. But don’t pick it up again. Then, when it is tucked away safe, start writing that story again. From scratch. Make a new outline. Write new scenes. Create new character sketches. Write your story as if you were writing it for the first time.


Because you are a better writer now than you were five years ago, and if you start your story off as if you haven’t written it yet, chances are you will not make the same novice writing mistakes that you made five years ago. You are a better author now. Are you listening?

Or maybe you just need to work on something else. Come up with a new story idea, and write that other story first, before you go back and write your last story from scratch. I guarantee that the new story will be better than the other one sitting in a box, hiding under the bed. You are a better writer now.

Yeah. It’s a lot of work. Yeah, it sucks that you haven’t managed to fix that manuscript after a dozen years, or two dozen years. Yeah, that means you have to admit that what you’ve written to date has problems and your manuscript is not publishable.

Yeah. But it’s time.

Do it.

Trust me on this.

Next week we continue with Anatomy of a Scene: Beginnings.


4 thoughts on “You’ve Been Writing That Novel for How Long?

  1. I have a couple of those manuscripts under my bed that will never be reworked, but I have one that’s finally going to be published in 2017. As you said in your post, sometimes reworking too many times messes up the story. I only got the contract after going back to Version 3 out of 6 and editing it instead of revising it. We really can write the life out of a story and characters if we mess with it too long.

  2. I am no better, I started a story back in 2002, and as yet not finished. I continually re-write each chapter over and over until it feels right, and I believe when I eventually finish it, I hope to see it published. I set one month of each year to research new ideas and rework chapters often bringing in new elements into it, looking to improve it. My biggest problem, I am a perfectionist, and if I am not satisfied, I dump whole section and start again. I hope to finish it before I reach 100, got many years to go yet!

  3. That’s tough, and it will be difficult to finish IMHO. You might try NOT rewriting each chapter over and over. Write the whole thing and revise that version as a whole. When you need to add material, add it to the whole work. And…It’s OKAY to write the crappy draft. Really. Give yourself permission to suck!

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