What My Past Manuscripts Have Taught Me

Encore post first published March, 2019.

Shelving a story is a scary concept. You’ve put your heart and soul into this writing. Hours have been slaved over your keyboard, cups of coffee have gone cold, and yet you have nothing to show for it.

That’s where you are wrong. Every manuscript that collects dust on your laptop, that floats somewhere out in the ether, is not a waste of time. It has helped you grow as a writer, to hone your craft. But how do you know when it’s time to put that manuscript away. Is it when no agent or editor makes an offer, or is it before?

Nine manuscripts. No books yet. What do I have to show for it?

Since I’ve started this journey, I have completed nine manuscripts. That counts the manuscripts I wrote in high school and college, when I didn’t know anything about the publishing industry or how to properly edit my work. Out of those nine manuscripts, five will never see the light of day. I’m not sure if I even know where those five are stored. But they are important.

My first manuscript, which is actually a manuscript and another half, fostered a love of writing in me. I completed the epic fantasy quest and its sequel through my high school career. No research went into this, only the love for these four characters and inspirations from other works such as Harry Potter and books by Tamora Pierce. During this time, the only stories I would write would be about these four characters. I was stuck in their world and had their whole lives planned out in my mind. These manuscripts taught me how to let go of characters I’d held onto since I was young, and move on to the next.

My next two manuscripts were also related to each other. These were written in my early years at college, when I believed I was too old to enjoy Young Adult books. I instead focused on contemporary, adult stories. Again, I wrote stream of consciousness without any research beside the books I was reading. But as I wrote the first one, I learned more about my characters, and quickly discovered how important developing backstory is to learning your character’s motivations. That backstory is what led me to write the second of these two manuscripts, a prequel to the first–and just as bad as the Star Wars prequels. Only, writing the prequel wasn’t enough. My character’s backstory kept growing, until I thought about her life as a teenager. These two stories not only taught me about developing characters, but pushed me back toward Young Adult.

It wasn’t until after college that I began working on my fourth manuscript. This was a YA based on the characters from the adult manuscripts. While I had a plot idea, I didn’t know how to properly plot a book at this time. So, I wrote a very soft middle. Of course, I didn’t know that at the time, as I still didn’t know much about the writing process. But this was the book that changed that. After I finished, I sent feelers out to agents, and quickly got rejections back. That was when I began to research about the publishing industry and learned that writers shared their work. This manuscript led me to finding critique groups and editorial contests, such as Pitch Wars.

Two writers discussing their work at an outdoor table.
Oh! I need a WRITING GROUP to do this!

While I was waiting to receive feedback on that manuscript, I was given the advice to work on my next idea. Before, my next work had always been related to the previous work, but these authors suggested something completely new. Before I could do so, I realized, I needed to know more about the subject I wanted to write. This next manuscript came from both research and inspiration. There still wasn’t much of a plot, and I didn’t have anyone read the full manuscript before I started looking into querying. This manuscript fizzled out quickly, as I hadn’t realized the genre wasn’t something that was selling at the time. It taught me about research, both for the manuscript itself and into the publishing industry.

Twenty requests! But still no sale. . .

My next manuscript was the hardest manuscript for me to shelve. This YA Fantasy was by far the strongest I had written, receiving over 20 full requests. However, I was still new to world building, and relied on many tropes while writing it. This I didn’t see until I set it aside for months as I worked on new ideas. I went back to it after my next two manuscripts and reworked it before setting it aside again. I’m not sure if this manuscript will ever be fully shelved, because each time I take a step back, I see a new way to fix a problem I hadn’t realized was there.

After that almost-successful manuscript, I had a new idea for a character and a world. I dove into world building, using every resource I could find to create this world. What I failed to create was a plot. I had the semblance of an idea and where I wanted it to go, but that was it. This manuscript took me almost a full year to write, and I was never fully satisfied with the plot I came up with.  Two years later, I still love the world, and I think I have a completely new plot idea that I could use with these characters. This manuscript taught me how to world build and that I need to build a plot before I write.

My next manuscript was a contemporary manuscript. It had a solid plot line, but I found myself lost with too many POVs and trying to establish a contemporary voice.

Through each of these manuscripts, I’ve grown as a writer. I now spend a solid month or so prior to sitting down and writing my first draft, building the world, the characters, and outlining the major plot points. I then turn to critique partners and beta readers to help discover problems I didn’t catch on my own. When at first I would be defensive of critique, I am now open to it. I attend conferences to build my skills, and instead of jumping straight into querying when I finish a draft, I wait until I am confident I can’t write a better manuscript. Some of these manuscripts were just a stepping stone for me, but there are others I may turn back to in the future with fresh eyes.

What have your past manuscripts taught you?


  1. Dana, thanks so much for this inspiration. I, too, have manuscripts and characters who may never see the light of day, languishing in files. Good to be reminded that they have their roles in the background.


  2. It’s another variation on the apprentice rite of pass theme that sez you must at least try to coherently string together 100,000 words (or is it 1 million?) before you start writing anything anyone else would care to read.


  3. Dana, now I understand how you’re such a master world builder! I agree that everything we write and scrap along the way helps form us into better writers.

    Liked by 1 person

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