What The Hell Was I Thinking?

So you typed the words, The End

Remember that first manuscript you finished? The one you thought was going to rocket to the top of the bestselling lists? Sure you do. I remember that day. Queries went out and I sat back waiting to watch the big 5 publishers fight over the rights to the book. The query hooked a few interested publishers, partial and full submissions followed – then the strangest thing happened. Nothing.


I shouldn’t say nothing. What actually happened was the dreaded R word. Rejection. My masterpiece was going nowhere. Could the literary world be so shallow as to not recognize the potential here? A few comments back from publishers along the lines of, “Needs more editing,” or the softer version, “Not what we’re looking for.” Editing? I made sure there were periods and comma and shit.

This Is Not Editing

This Is Not Editing

After a few months of trolling, I gave up and filed the manuscript away to write other stuff. Flash forward six years, along the way, I got published and most importantly kept writing.

Recently, I pulled that old manuscript out of the drawer and it felt like excavating a time capsule, or some buried Inca treasure from the jungle. Maybe it was time to “just go through and update the beast” and send it back out into the world.

I found the old Word file and felt like Indiana Jones preparing to gaze into a bejeweled treasure. Instead, I got something much more valuable.


It was less than stellar.

Okay, it sucked.

It sucked bad.


This couldn’t be the right version. I checked and this smelly pile of adverb gruel was the version I sent out. Holy crap. The shocking sense of dread that coursed though my spine was like I’d been caught peeing on an electric fence. I sent this out with my name on it. Gag.

It couldn’t be that bad, you say?  There, there…

I started a line by line edit and this will be a full rewrite, if I’m to make something from this sow’s ear. There was so much head hopping from character to character it made my head spin. There was a plot, several of them…so pick one, you idiot and stick with it. The pages were full of awkward word choices, stilted sentence construction and dialogue that would send an insomniac into a deep coma. Then, there were the characters – flat, unchanging and unbothered by any motivation to do anything. Who cares about them? By ten chapters in, I wanted them all to die horrible, horrible, ink splattering deaths.

What happened? This manuscript didn’t get worse sitting in the bottom of a drawer for six years. It stunk all along. I have the ability to see that now. What the hell was I thinking, back then?

If I can restructure, revise and revamp this manuscript remains to be seen. It may take more time and effort than writing an entirely new story, or more than it’s worth. I may have to accept that I needed to put that work in, early on, to get to the point where I’m more comfortable behind the key board and can smell the stinky stuff.

I’m so happy I didn’t press the self publish button…

Have you come to the point where a manuscript is beyond your attempts of life support?

Ready to flatline? Image by rosemary via flicker creative commons

Ready to flatline?
Image by rosemary via flicker creative commons


  1. Absolutely! I can so relate. I sent out my first manuscript to something like 60 agents — head-hopping all over the place, literally and figuratively. It was an awful mess. But I think those manuscripts are important. They were learning tools and as such they should be cherished but NEVER EVER read. That’s where you made your mistake — reading it! LOL I am also thankful I didn’t decide to self-publish. I’d be mortified! Thankfully, five novels later, I realize it was rubbish and can see it for what it really is — complete and utter garbage. I only wish I didn’t send a copy to my friends. Yup. I did that, too. It’s no wonder they politely say, “I haven’t finished reading the first one yet” (and it’s been years!) when I ask if they’d rather read something else. They’re probably scared of what I’ll send. LOL

    1. Thanks for making me feel like I’m not alone out here. And I did make the mistake and read it. OH MY GOD, it is so awfully awful. I’m sitting here thinking about what to do with it, but i think it would be putting lipstick on a pig. A few novels (and years) later and I can see it for what it really is – and I’m okay with that.

      I listened to Michael Connelly at a writers conference once, and he explained how he was 300 pages into a story when he realized it wasn’t working. I guess it took me a little longer to get there. It was a learning tool and something that I can either whip myself with, or take some bits and pieces from and move on. Moving on…

      1. Oh, yes, they’re great to use for that. I’ve stolen entire scenes and, with a little rewrite, they worked beautifully. Mine was too far gone to try and save. It’s easier to write a new novel. 🙂

  2. I have piles of abandoned manuscripts for exactly the same reason! There have been a couple of times I’ve been able to salvage a story but only after practically dismembering it and sewing it back together again. I haven’t tried to sell those Frankensteins yet!

    1. It’s Alive! Sorry I couldn’t resist. I might be able to salvage a scene, or a character from this mess. You’re completely right about a total dismemberment. If the manuscript appeared in Salem, they’d yell, “Burn it!”

  3. I’m not published but I can totally relate. Sometimes you just wonder if it’s even worth fixing. Looking at those old manuscripts can both be a wonderful and horrible experience, but I think we learn something about ourselves and writing in the process. So maybe we had to have those “This totally sucks! What was I thinking?” manuscripts to become better writers.

    1. I think you’re on track here with the whole learning process idea. It seems to me, in my demented little brain, that you have to put the work (time) in to develop some degree of competence as a writer. These early manuscripts are the exercise that we must suffer. They key is that we need to learn from our shortcomings and keep improving. Keep at it!

  4. stephanie710 · · Reply

    Dear god, you just described my first, um-three attempts at a manuscript. I pulled out my most recent attempt when I was doing my revision for my current ms. Horrible doesn’t even touch the surface of how incredibly awful it was. Thanks for posting this because I’m so happy to know that I don’t suck alone. Glad you made it through. *big round of applause and passes an adult beverage*

    1. I will happily accept the adult beverage! Thanks! I can’t believe that the manuscript I excavated was so incredibly shitty. I’m gonna have to make up a story about recovering from Scurvy or something to explain this. Or, just dig a deeper hole and toss the damn thing back in the dark.

  5. Ha! Just this weekend, I was cleaning out a cabinet and came across my first manuscript. Like you, I queried lots of agents and publishers, and got requests for fulls and partials. And, of course, all were rejected. At the time, I didn’t REALLY understand why–I mean, I knew it needed some work, but all books do, right? However, when I read a few pages of the MS this weekend, I couldn’t believe how bad it was. Awful! Plotless! Terrible writing! I didn’t toss it in the recycle bin, though, because some day, like you, I may try to salvage some parts of it. Or not.

    In any case, I’ve gotta say that those days of dreaming of the story becoming a bestseller and then a box office hit were some pretty fun days. Yes, I was living in a fantasy world, but it was a good fantasy!

    So glad you kept writing. It would be fun to someday publish an anthology of first manuscripts. Probably not the whole things–lord knows, nobody would want to read through all of that–but maybe just first chapters or something.

    1. I cannot adequately express the degree of suckatude I found in that MS. I’m sure I will salvage a bit or two from its bones. But oh my God…

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